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Small College and Science

Chad Orzel writes in Forbes:

Today is the first of several Accepted Students Days at Union College, where I’m a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy (and, for my sins, the current department chair…). As such, I’m thinking a bit about how to sell the school to students, which is something I’ve written about before on my original blog, but not yet here.

At first glance, a small liberal arts college may seem like an odd place for a professional scientist. And, in fact, when I took this job, I occasionally had to explain to colleagues that no, I wasn’t just settling for a small college, I had actively sought this out. There’s a strong perception in academia that only second-raters accept jobs at anything less than a major Research I university.

By “perception,” Orzel means “truth.” Take all the people getting a physics Ph.D. in the US this year. Have a committee rank them on their research quality. The vast majority of folks in the top X% (who take jobs in academia) will be taking them at “major Research I university.” Orzel might cover his blushes by noting the saving word “only,” but there is no doubt that, given a choice between Union/Williams and a major research university, the vast, vast majority of new science graduates will pick the latter.

But contrary to that impression, small colleges are a great training ground for future scientists.

True, but highly misleading. Does Williams do a wonderful job in science? Of course! The physics majors I talk to love the physics department. But that isn’t right way to phrase the question, especially if you are a high school senior choosing between Union/Williams and a research university. The right question is: How will this decision affect my chances in graduate school admissions and future professional success?

As always, you should think like a statistician. Take 100 high school seniors interested in getting a science Ph.D. Randomly select 50 to attend places like Union/Williams and 50 to attend research universities. Which group will do better in graduate school admissions? Probably (contrary opinions welcome!) the ones who attend research universities, because (among other reasons) the professors who write their recommendation letters will be more well-known to graduate admissions committees. Also, they will have the chance to take graduate level courses as undergraduates.

Of course, you should still choose Williams over Harvard! First, you probably shouldn’t get a science Ph.D. in the first place and, second, there is a lot more to college than its effect on your graduate school admissions.

The country’s liberal arts colleges serve only a tiny fraction of the total college-age population, but are probably over-represented in science grad schools

D’uh! This is because lots of geniuses attend places like Williams, not because Williams does a better job than Harvard of training future physicists. Orzel weakens his overall pro-LAC position — with which I agree — by peppering his argument with such howlers.

On the other hand, the largest intro courses we teach in physics at Union are capped at 18 students per section (we teach a lot of sections…), and the largest in any of the other sciences are 30-ish. That allows for a lot more interaction, which in turn lets faculty pick out students with potential who might otherwise disappear into a mass with similar grades. We can encourage students who aren’t working up to their potential, and deliver the occasional kick in the ass as needed– as I can personally testify, having had my academic career turned around by one of my physics professors junior year.

Good stuff! First, Williams should copy Union and decrease the maximum size of all classes. Second, how about a shout out to the Williams physics professor who helped Orzel? Let us praise his name!

Read the whole thing. Orzel makes many interesting points and the good things he reports about Union or also true at Williams.


Faculty Governance Seminar: Chad Orzel’s ’93 Detachment

This is the eighth installment in our (now) two week seminar on President Adam Falk’s letter about the “alignment of senior administrative responsibilities.”

So far, I have been somewhat skeptical of Falk’s plan because it clearly results in less faculty influence/control/governance at Williams, continuing the trend of the last 100 years. Being a fan of the faculty, I want more faculty influence/control/governance, not less. But perhaps I should revisit that assumption, and Chad Orzel ’93 is here to help me.

Orzel displays a typical insider’s snobbery in this comment about my idea for a Wiki for academic questions.

I’ve been watching this series with the sort of amused detachment appropriate to anything where people spout off about the operations of businesses they don’t understand, but I have to say, this Wikipedia idea is by far the silliest suggestion to date.

If this comment is directed at me, then its main effect is to demonstrate Orzel’s cluelessness rather than his “detachment.” He thinks that he knows more about the “operations” of Williams than I do. Hah! Has he read the financial statements, talked with current (and former) Williams presidents, deans of the faculty and the college, provosts, committee chairs and senior faculty? Has he taught at Williams, closely studied the Record over the last decade, read the senior theses which focus on Williams, learned about the history of the College and of Williamstown? Has he talked (as I have) with hundreds of Williams students and alumni over the last 7 years? I doubt it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Orzel is a bad guy. I am sure that he is a good guy! And he certainly knows much more about Union (where he teaches) then I do. But, like many academics, he suffers from the delusion that only he and his fellow members of the faculty priesthood are qualified to opine on the “operations” of Williams.

To the extent his comments are not directed at me, they are even worse. Consider the views of other Williams alums about my “Wikipedia idea”:

kthomas: “David’s suggestion seems to me not to eliminate advising, but to strengthen it by setting a framework for it, and providing good answers to common questions”

rory: “. . . this wiki page sounds nice and would help with many questions . . .”

bfleming: “I think it sounds like a fantastic idea.”

hwc: “I think David’s wiki idea (or a similar approach using an advising FAQ) is not only a good idea, but so commonsense that it’s hard to imagine anyone being against it.”

Are these four Ephs guilty of “spout[ing] off about the operations of businesses they don’t understand?” In Orzel’s mind, Yes. (And note how his comment makes it fairly clear that he did not bother to read the discussion thread.) Orzel’s position is a perfect example of technocratic elitism: If you are not an insider on topic X, then you “don’t understand” enough about topic X to do anything other than “spout off.” Parallel examples of technocratic elitism would be Marines who think that no one without military experience is qualified to offer an opinion about military policy or bankers who argue that no one outside the industry has anything useful to say about financial regulation.

Why, in the context of a seminar on faculty governance, do I bother to so thoroughly fisk Orzel’s comment when it, obviously, has no merit? Because Orzel’s attitude and world view illustrate why schools like Williams (and Union) may be better off with less “faculty governance.” Instead of having people like Orzel run Williams, perhaps we are better off with people like Stephen Klass doing so. That is not something that I want to believe, but Adam Falk is a smart guy, smart enough to know that Orzel (whatever his strengths as a physicist and teacher) might be completely incapable of considering and learning from the opinions of other people, especially outsiders like kthomas, rory, bfleming and hwc.

Perhaps the less influence that Orzel has at Union (and the less influence faculty like Orzel have at Williams), the more successful these institutions will be in the future. I don’t want to believe that but, if Adam Falk does, then maybe I am wrong.


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