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Historical Tuition Letters

EphBlog’s favorite NPR reporter, Fred Thys ’80, writes:

I’m trying to gather annual letters from Williams to parents and students explaining why tuition is going up and by how much. I’d like to gather letters from 1977 on.

The letters are not available at the Williams Archives, because they are part of the Presidential files, and thus, sealed for 100 years.

Any ideas?

1) A quick search through EphBlog’s archives doesn’t provide much. Here are the e-mails for 2006, 2009, 2015 and 2016. I am embarrassed that we don’t have more to offer to Fred, but perhaps these will be helpful.

2) Please help Fred! Just copy and paste the annual tuition announcement that you received into the comments for this thread.

3) “[S]ealed for 100 years?!” How pathetic is that? The Colleges paranoid secrecy manifests itself in many ways, and this is perhaps the most ludicrous.

a) No one objects to sensitive documents — tenure reviews, private correspondence with individuals, trustee meeting notes, et cetera — being kept private for decades. But 100 years! Give me a break! Aren’t US government documents largely declassified after just 50 years?

b) But the documents that Fred is looking for are not secret! They were each sent to around 1,500 students and about three thousand parents. The College ought to maintain an archive of every e-mail that was sent to general mailing lists like all-campus or all-students. That record should be public, maintained by Katie Nash, Williams most excellent new archivist.


WBUR on Williams X

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story, at least, painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 10.

But are the best-paid professors necessarily the best teachers?

Answer: No. Not even close.

Not Thys fault (?) but asking this question — and then failing to answer it! — pushed a variety of EphBlog buttons.

First, the College knows the answer! Why didn’t Thys ask Falk et al, and, if they declined to answer, report that fact? Williams collects a variety of information about teacher performance at the end of each semester, the famous Student Course Survey (SCS) forms (pdf):

Student opinion and peer review are both important in the evaluation of teaching. On the student side, the College mandates use of the Student Course Survey (SCS) for every course. It consists of a page of questions to which students give numerical ratings and a page inviting descriptive commentary (“blue sheets”). Some departments substitute their own list of questions for the generic blue sheets, and individual faculty members can choose to substitute for or supplement the blue sheets with their own more specific questions. Each faculty member receives the blue sheets as well as an analysis of his or her own quantitative results after their course grades have been submitted.

The College knows the exact SCS average score for every professor last year. It could easily calculate (and probably does calculate) those measures by level (lecturer, assistant, associate, full) or by pay-grade or by any other factor. What does the data tell us? (The College might not want to tell Thys that data by salary group, but it has no excuse not to release it by faculty rank, which is highly correlated with salary anyway)

Second, the College probably already knows the truth: after the first few years, there is no correlation between teaching quality (at least measured by SCS scores) and teacher experience/salary. The “best-paid professors” are not “necessarily the best teachers.” Highlights (based on conversations over the years — corrections/pointers welcome):

a) SCS scores have consistent course/major/division biases. It is much easier to score higher in, say, Division I than in Division III.

b) There is improvement over the first few years at Williams. It takes a while to get into the swing of a Williams classroom.

c) There is no further improvement (or decline) after year 4. Your student evaluations at 32 are the same as they are at 65.

Third, some might reasonably complain that “best teachers” does not equal “highest SCS scores.” Agreed! Then why doesn’t the College collect better data? Why doesn’t it hand out prizes for the best teachers? The College could collect better data, could try to identify the professors that do a particular good job at, say, supervising a senior thesis or supporting/mentoring students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Why doesn’t the College do these things? The major trend in faculty recruitment/appointment/retention/promotion at Williams over the last 30 years has been to decrease the weight placed on excellent teaching and increase the weight placed on research.

I don’t like this trend, but it does help to explain why, if you want to talk about excellent teaching, the SCS is all the data you are going to have to use.


WBUR on Williams IX

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 9.

Leach questions whether what Williams values is what its students value. To him, so much of what he thinks he’s getting out of Williams are intangibles that have nothing to do with the professors or the classes or the degree. He says that much of what he’s getting out of Williams is meeting new people and being in a place where he’s forging his own identity, figuring out what matters to him and learning how to use his time.

“When most of what I’m learning is really about how to live and how to be myself, is it really worth all that money?” Leach asked.

Leach wonders whether he could be learning the same lessons striking out anywhere away from home.

This is the worst part of the article.

First, why is Thys spending valuable time on a not-overly-insightful undergraduate? His story is, allegedly, about ever-increasing costs at places like Williams. That is a very different topic then whether or not attending Williams makes sense for Leach.

Second, of course “what Williams values is what its students value.” This is why the College devotes endless resources to surrounding Leach with high intelligent peers from a variety of backgrounds. Leach will rarely/never have such a diversity of interactions after Williams. Leach probably met more people with, say, above 1500 SAT scores (M + V) in his first year at Williams than he will in his first decade after graduation, if not in the rest of his life. Of course, there is more to people (and to life) than high intelligence. But if Leach does not value such interactions, both inside and outside the classroom, he may have made a mistake in selecting a place like Williams.

Third, “forging his own identity, figuring out what matters to him and learning how to use his time” is straight out of a Williams admissions brochure or a speech to a first year class meeting. Williams spends as much (more?) money and effort on this as it does on academic instruction. The $80 million Stetson/Sawyer reservation is explicitly designed to provide Leach with a pleasing backdrop for forging/figuring/learning.

Fourth, “is it really worth all that money?” Is not an unreasonable question, but I wonder if Leach (and Thys?) are thinking about the problem in a serious fashion. Williams is a luxury good. Sensible people don’t ask if, say, a Rolex is “worth all that money.” After all, a Timex will tell you the time just as well. Luxury, fundamentally, is not about price. It is about desire.

Leach (and his parents!) wanted a Williams education in the same way that rich people want Lamborghinis and Gucci handbags. Maybe they should have wanted something else. But that is a topic for another day.


WBUR on Williams VIII

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 8.

What Williams wants to deliver is tenure-track professors teaching small classes.

Agreed! But just how much the people who run Williams really “want” this is a matter of some dispute.

First, note the continued existence of large lecture classes like PSYC 101 and Introduction to the Novel. A school that really wanted small classes would stop all large classes. We have more than enough professors to cap all classes at 19 students. Why don’t we do this? Because professors don’t really “want” to.

Consider an all-too-typical class of 38 students in ECON 110 and 120. If the College really wanted to make that class small, it could. It could require that the class be split into two sections, each with 19 students. The cost to the professor would be fairly minimal, just another 3 hours of class sessions each week. There would be no extra class preparation work, no increase in the number of papers or exams to grade. But the College does not really want to do this, and so small introductory classes in the Economics Department are largely the stuff of legend.

Second, note again the ever-growing administrative state, taking excellent faculty away from the classroom. As a concrete example, consider

Karen Swann
Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity, Morris Professor of Rhetoric
Williams College
VP for Strategic Planning & Institutional Diversity Office
English Departme

Professor Swann is, I am sure, an excellent teacher, precisely the sort of faculty member who ought to be leading at least two of the “small classes” that Williams (allegedly) wants this semester. Instead, she is teaching no classes and spending her time doing whatever it is that Associate Deans for Institutional Diversity do all day.

And note that Swann’s position did not exist a decade ago. No professor was pulled away from the classroom. How much can Williams truly “want” small classes taught by tenured professors if it is constantly increasing the number of tenured faculty who are teaching no classes in a given semester?

Third, recall our dispute yesterday with Chad Orzel ’93 about whether or not the panoply of Visitor This and Lecturer That at Williams should be termed adjunct or not. Yet for purposes of seeing the absurdity of the WBUR quote, it does not matter if Chad or I am right. We both agree that the visitor/lecturers/whatevers that teach more than 20% of Williams classes are not tenured. If Williams really wanted “tenure-track professors teaching small classes” it would not have dramatically increased the role/importance of non-tenure-track faculty over the last 25 years.

I might claim that I “want” to be thin. But if you saw me eating honey buns for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you would (rightly!) question my commitment. The same applies to Williams when it claims to want “tenure-track professors teaching small classes.” If Williams really wanted that, it would act very differently than it does.


WBUR on Williams VII

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 7.

Williams hires no adjunct faculty, and like other top liberal arts colleges, it has a low student-faculty ratio. Amherst College has eight students per professor, Wellesley seven. Williams has one faculty member for every seven students.

How many misleading claims can Thuys stuff into one paragraph? First, Williams has dozens of “adjunct faculty.” Let’s list some!



And so on. The exact standing of these professors varies. Most are some flavor of lecturer or visitor. But none have tenure at Williams or on the tenure track. At every other college, they would be referred to as “adjunct faculty.” That Thuys lets Falk get away with such a lie is embarrassing.

Second, more than 20% of the classes at Williams last year were taught by non-tenured or tenure-track faculty. (This factoid is from a conversation with a faculty member.)


WBUR on Williams VI

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 6.

Nathan Leach, a sophomore from Boston, doesn’t think so. He also questions the value of small class sizes. One of his favorite classes last year was “Introduction to the Novel,” a class with no discussion because 100 students take it. Leach says class size matters less than the accessibility of professors.

“And so the fact that I can meet with my professors several times a week if I want to, and I can go to his office talk about these ideas, I think is really worthwhile,” Leach said.

It is embarrassing that Williams (and the English Department) think that a 100 person lecture is worthwhile. It isn’t, for all the reasons we discussed last week.


WBUR on Williams V

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 5.

At Williams, salary is only two-thirds of the compensation. There are health insurance and child care, and all Williams employees with children in college are entitled to $24,000 a year toward each child’s education.

First, this strikes me as somewhat confused. Total compensation is a technical tax term. Health care benefits are included. But is child care? Free coffee in the faculty lounge? I don’t think so. Corrections welcome. (Joe Thorndike ’88, please help!)

Second, a cynic will often times think of the faculty/staff of Williams as a parasite, feeding off the College, sucking as much blood from the host as possible. Recall our discussions about trimming costs 6 years ago:

I have already highlighted two faculty boondoggles (the Sabbatical Grant Program and the Professional Development Fund) that should be ended, but I don’t get the sense that there are big dollar savings here.

I think that the College provides substantial subsidies to faculty housing. I have no idea what the magnitude of these benefits are, but there is no reason for the College to be in the housing business for faculty/staff, any more than for it to grow apples or design clothing. Yet, by being in the housing business, the College can transfer some/lots of resources to the faculty.

The same applies to the Children’s Center. Why should the College be in the business of supplying day care? Why not also start an apple orchard? After all, it would make excellent faculty more likely to come to Williams if they knew that they could get great apples at below-market rates.

Rule #1 about successful non-profits is that the insiders think that they do a great job and should be rewarded more generously. But it can be tough just to raise salaries since it is so easy to compare salaries against outside benchmarks. So, to avoid scrutiny, insiders sometimes steer resources toward themselves and their friends via non-salary mechanisms.

Want to really piss off the faculty? Cut (or, at least, trim) the tuition benefit for employee children. Normal professionals (like you and I, dear reader) save their own money over time to send their children to college. Not Williams faculty! Williams will pay half the cost of tuition for a faculty child to attend anywhere.

[Slightly edited.]

And the above only scratches the surface of the various faculty boondoggles that are not counted in total compensation. My favorites were the extra money that faculty received (and still receive?) for creating tutorials. We needed (still need?) to pay them faculty extra to do their jobs!

Third, the point here is not that Williams faculty and staff aren’t, as a group, wonderful. They are! The point is that WBUR should try to provide better context in a discussion of costs at Williams. The College spends much more money on faculty and staff than 90% of its peers, not because it has to, but because Williams is absurdly wealthy and because faculty/staff run the institution.

If the College announced, tomorrow, that it was cutting out the tuition benefit (either for all employees or just for new employees), there would be essentially zero effect on our ability to recruit and retain great faculty/staff. The fact that the College won’t do so — won’t even discuss doing so! — is an indication that Falk has little interest in controlling costs. WBUR should explain this reality to its listeners.


WBUR on Williams IV

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 4.

Two years ago, the average salary for a full professor at Williams was $137,000 a year, which puts it among the best-paying 3 percent of all colleges. And it’s a 47 percent increase over 12 years.

This is highly misleading because salary is not the same thing as total compensation. If I pay you a $90,000 salary and provide $90,000 in retirement benefits (401k, et cetera) then you, correctly, figure that this job is much better paid than one with a $100,000 salary and no other benefits. Here (pdf) is the latest compensation data for Williams.

Full professors at Williams earn an average total compensation of $183,800.

It is hard to have an honest discussion about the costs of running Williams if WBUR won’t even report accurate compensation numbers.

Kudos, however, to Thys for noting how incredibly well-paid Williams professors are in comparison with their peer group. Williams spends lavishly, so much so that, were every Williams professor to retire tomorrow, we could restaff the College almost instantly with a faculty that was every bit as good as the one we have now.

Of course, the fact that the College has such a strong bargaining position does not mean that it should abuse our current, much beloved, faculty. And tenure makes abuse hard. But we need to understand the actual supply/demand realities of the academic job market in order to fairly evaluate the costs of running Williams.


WBUR on Williams III

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 3.

Falk says the faculty is like a string quartet.

“And asking them to do it faster or asking them do it to three times as many students at a time are things we can ask them to do, but they will directly degrade the quality of what we want to deliver,” he said. “And so the entire framework of productivity when it is applied to higher education is one that has to be thought of very carefully and can’t be thought of in the same way that we apply the notion of productivity to the manufacturing sector.”

First, this is worse than wrong. It is Orwellian. It is precisely Falk’s predecessors who have created a Williams in which professors teach “three times as many students at a time” as they used to.

The math is unavoidable. Williams has about 2,000 students taking 4 classes a semester. That is 8,000 student/class combinations that will happen, regardless of how many faculty members we have and how many classes they each teach. Currently (ignoring the complexities of leave patterns and visitors) we have 250 professors each teaching two classes. Split up those 8,000 student/class combinations, we have about 16 students per class. So far, so good!

Now imagine a world with those same 250 professors each teaching 4 classes. In that world, the average Williams class is 8 students, small enough for every class to be a tutorial. If Williams went to a 4-4 requirement, professors would be teaching only 50% “as many students at a time” as they do today.

Recall the slogan from 9 years ago: No More Lectures!

First, lectures are inefficient for students. Anything that a professor says in a lecture, as opposed to a discussion, could just as easily be typed beforehand and read by students at their own convenience. Reading is much quicker than listening and, more importantly, allows different students to focus on the parts that they don’t understand and to skim the parts that they do.

Administrators sometimes believe that large classes save money (one professor teaches 100 students!) but the savings come in the form of less learning per student.

Second, the arguments in favor of lectures in economics at Williams are identical to the arguments for lectures at Harvard. According to Schapiro (and many Williams faculty members), there is a minimal amount of knowledge that a student must have in order to be able to even discuss a topic like microeconomics. That may be true, but it is no less true for the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the philosophy of David Hume. At Harvard, they are at least consistent on this topic, lecturing to students on microeconomics and poetry and philosophy. If you believe that students, having done the assigned reading, learn best by discussing poetry and philosophy on the first day of class, then why wouldn’t the same be true of economics and chemistry?

Third, the smaller the class, the more learning occurs. Consider Diana Davis’s ’07 description of her high school experience:

“I went to a high school where every single class — English, biology, history, math, economics, Greek — was a discussion class with 13 students or fewer. I have not taken a single class at Williams where I have learned as much, learned as deeply, or remembered as much a year later as I did in my classes in high school.”

Now, most of us did not have the good fortune of going to a high school like Diana’s. Yet no one makes the opposite claim; no one argues that students learn more in lecture than they do in discussion.

Fourth, there would be no better way for Williams to demonstrate to potential applicants that it is a different place, with different values, than by drawing a line at 15 students or so per class. If Williams had no lectures, then there would be less doubt about its educational superiority. The tutorial program already provides Williams with a leadership position in undergraduate education. Abolishing lectures would do even more.

Fifth, claims about the excessive expense involved in having small sections are overblown. A professor currently responsible for the education of 45 students in ECON 110 should organize the class in whatever way is best for her students, not most convenient for her. Better to have three sections of 15 students each, than one large lecture. This will take up more of the professor’s time, but, since so much of the work — planning the class, creating the exams, grading the papers — is a fixed cost (regardless of the number of class meetings), the marginal cost to the professor of having three sections instead of one is small. The very best professors, like Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97 in history, already split up their large classes. Everyone else should do the same.

Second, to be fair to Falk, the target of his criticism are those who praise the possibilities of MOOCs: massive open online courses. We all agree that a Williams tutorial — in physics or English or statistics — is better than any MOOC. But Thuys does his listeners no favors when he allows Falk to frame the debate as Williams-verus-MOOC when the relevant debate, at least in the context of elite US institutions, is Williams-with-4-4-teaching-loads versus Williams-with-2-2-teaching-loads. That is debate that we ought to be having.

(Of course, the populist cut-all-costs position would argue for a 125 person faculty teaching 4-4: same (?) quality as today but much less expensive. I disagree with this view, as does every Eph I know, so no need to bother with it here.)


WBUR on Williams II

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 2.

In the 1960s, economists William Baumol and William Bowen pointed out that it takes the same number of musicians to play a string quartet today as it did in Beethoven’s day. So the productivity has not increased in 200 years. That explains why the cost of going to a live classical musical performance has gone up more than the cost of a drinking glass. You can manufacture the drinking glass more productively now than you could 200 years ago.

To appreciate labor costs, Falk compares the faculty to another group of highly trained workers: a string quartet. He says you could make it more productive by removing one of the instruments.

“I mean, after all, there are two violins, and really, do you need two violins?” Falk asked. “Couldn’t you play it with one violin? You could reduce the cost by 25 percent.”

What utter bollocks! Why won’t Thys challenge Falk, and every other College president who trots out this gibberish?

First, the College has spent the last 50 years reducing the amount of violin playing time that it requires of its faculty. Fifty years ago, the College required faculty to teach “4-4” — meaning four classes each semester. This was the amount of violin playing required. Since then, the ratchet has gone in only one direction: downward. From 4-4 to 4-3 to 3-3 to 3-2. The last step occurred 15 years ago when President Morty Schapiro reduced the teaching load from 3-2 to 2-2. (I am ignoring Winter Study.) (Here is an overview about similar changes at the University of Vermont. Any pointers to relevant history at Williams?)

Now, Falk might argue that the change from 4-4 to 2-2 was a good thing, that it freed up Williams professors to spend more time on their oh-so-important research. Or he might argue that the competitive market for professors made the change necessary, lest every Williams professor move to Princeton. Or he might claim that the quality of teaching has increased since professors now have more time to devote per class.

But, you can’t use the string quartet analogy to justify ever increasing costs if you are, simultaneously, cutting by 50% the amount of time you require your violinists to play.

Moreover, there is little if any evidence in favor of the other possible arguments.

Second, Falk ignores (or is unaware of?) the argument made by informed critics. We don’t think that Falk should fire half his violinists. By all means, keep the academic faculty headcount at 250. Instead, we think that Williams ought to move from 2-2 back to 4-4, or at least to 3-3. But that is a rant for tomorrow.

Third, Falk ignores, and Thys lets him get away with ignoring, the dramatic decreasing in courses taught because of the ever-increasing administrative bloat of Williams. Consider just the office of the Dean of the Faculty. Fifty years ago, Williams did not even have a Dean of the Faculty. The office now includes three Ph.D.’s (Buell, Park, Gerry), excellent teachers all, none of whom are teaching a single (?) Williams student this academic year. (Yes, I am simplifying things here since Gerry is not, in truth, a member of the faculty, but the point about moving resources from teaching to administration is the same.)

Falk should not use the string quartet analogy if he is not actually going to have his well-paid violinists actually, you know, play their instruments


WBUR on Williams I

Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR on the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 1.

This year, it costs about $60,000 in tuition, fees and room and board to attend one of the nation’s most selective liberal arts colleges. With financial aid, the average student pays about half of that. One example: Williams College, in western Massachusetts.

The cost there is 10 times higher than it was 40 years ago, even though the consumer price index during that period rose only fourfold. As Williams President Adam Falk sees it, the No. 1 reason for the cost of college is the people.

“We spend about two-thirds of the college’s budget on compensation and benefits for our faculty and staff,” Falk said.


1) Always good to see Williams mentioned in the elite media, even (especially!?) in the context of high costs. The more people who know about Williams, the better. Kudos to Thys for using Williams as the focus for this series. I wish more media Ephs did the same.

2) Falk pretends, and Thys lets him (just so far?) get away with pretending, that faculty/staff costs are beyond his control, that there is nothing he could do to lesson them. Untrue! The reason that costs are so high is not because they have to be but because presidents like Falk (and Schapiro and Payne and . . .) want them to be. Consider just one fact:

There are (at least!) six people at Williams making more than $200,000 per year whose jobs did not exist a decade ago. Source: The 2013 Form 990 (pdf).

Collette Chilton, Chief Investment Officer: $1,181,744
Bradford Wakeman, Director of Investment Operations: $558,142
Stephen Klass, VP of Campus Life: $339,395
Fred Puddester, VP of Finance: $366,249
Mike Reed, VP of Strategic Planning: $282,165
Julia T. Crosby and Lou Sousa, Managing Directors, Investment Office: $200,000+

Now, you might fairly quibble with this list. Mike Reed has decamped for Dickinson, but his replacement will certainly be paid more than $200,000. Crosby and Sousa, because they are new arrivals, are not listed in the Form 990, but their predecessors Hok Joeng and Shawn Donovan (pdf) were paid more than $350,000. Helen Ouellette had a position not dissimilar from Puddester’s (and was paid less than 1/2 as much).

But, big picture, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of highly paid administrators at Williams over the last decade, all in jobs that did not exist before they arrived.

Falk pretends that faculty/staff compensation is something that he has no control over, that it is like the weather, an inexorable force that the College could not possibly resist.

And that is absurd. The College was wildly successful back in 2005 without all these positions. It would be just as successful today without them. Administrative bloat is a choice that Adam Falk (and his predecessors) make every day. Why won’t Thys ask him some hard questions?

Entire article below the break, in case it vanishes some day.
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