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Absolutely No Information

Want more evidence that the Bolin Fellowships should be first on the chopping block during an era of belt-tightening? An anonymous faculty member writes:

Ephblog readers may not be aware that Fellows are not selected in anything like the way that visiting faculty, let alone tenure track faculty, are selected. The primary difference is that there is no rich pool of applicants in the same field against whom the Fellow competes for the job. Instead, the Dean’s office, when it finds an applicant that appears promising, asks a department whether it would be acceptable for that grad student to be around for a year. Many of us — even those who are supporters of the abstract values that the Bolin program is supposed to serve — think that that is an incredibly poor way to find excellent contributors to the academic community. We have absolutely no information on whether they can teach, little information about the ultimate quality of their research (since they haven’t written their dissertations yet), and no grounds for determining whether they are standout scholars in their cohort.

In our previous discussion, Professor Sam Crane reported that:

The Bolin program is great. Fellows bring an infusion of new ideas, they are immersed in what is going on in graduate programs right now. They add to the intellectual life of the college in many ways. I learn from them and that learning enlivens me and, thus, benefits my students, who do not want a brain-dead teacher.

Parent ’12 wrote

Based only on this press release, I think they [the Bolin Fellows] have the potential to enrich the Williams community.

I am happy to believe that both Sam and Parent ’12 are correct, that Bolin Fellows do “enrich” the community and that Professors like Sam “learn from them.” But are those very real benefits worth $300,000 per year? No.

Imagine that the College sent Sam on an around the world cruise every summer. I have no doubt that this would enliven him and, thereby, benefit his students. But advantages need to be balanced against costs.

Imagine that instead of a Bolin Fellowship, the College had a Parish Fellowship, devoted to bringing former military officers and current Ph.D. candidates to Williams for two years. Would they “enrich” the community? Would they “bring an infusion of new ideas?” Of course! But those real benefits would not be worth the cost.

If you accept, as I do, that the fundamental mission of William is to be the best college in the world, a place centered on undergraduate education, then the only plausible purpose for the Bolin/Parish Fellowship is the direct impact that the fellows have on undergraduate education. If the fellows are not chosen for their teaching abilities then they are most likely to be average teachers, almost by definition. Spending $300,000 per year for six average classes is a waste of money.

Moreover, I predict that the classes are likely to be worse than average since the fellows are inexperienced teachers. Even a fan like JG couldn’t generate much enthusiasm for their teaching abilities.

(UPDATE: JG objects to my characterization of her views. Readers should consider JG’s opinions carefully and not rely on my summary of her views. Apologies to JG if she thinks that phrasing is inaccurate, but, relative to her praise of several tenured/tenure-track Williams professors, I do not see much enthusiasm in her description of the teaching abilities of Bolin Fellows.)

From what I have heard, Laura is not the only Williams student with this experience.

I had a completely terrible class with a Bolin Fellow. It too was quite popular and over-enrolled, and I was really looking forward to it based on the course description. It was a complete disaster and a waste of tuition dollars (she cancelled 5 classes and we spent 2 others at the dance studio learning cultural dances). The classes that we did have were often interrupted by her 10 minute smoking breaks. She often didn’t respond to emails, wouldn’t give feedback on papers, and never learned the names of half of our 25 person class. It was so bad that I typed up several pages of blue sheet comments for her and expressed my concern to the Dean (or someone appropriate, I can’t remember who).

As always, this is an empirical question. There have been 30 or so Bolin Fellows at Williams over the last decade. The College knows what their average students ratings have been. That no one at the College (including Sam Crane) will tell us is how they compare to tenure-track/tenured faculty tells me all I need to know.

Finally, it is a sign of the intellectual life of the College that the above quoted faculty member feels the need to remain anonymous.

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Cost Cutting

Unless financial markets recover substantially, Williams will need to cut costs. The Record reports:

This changing fundraising climate and declining economic conditions will play an impact on the College’s spending and use of the endowment next year. “It’s hard to imagine that we won’t have to alter spending for the coming year. But it’s too soon to know how much alteration and what kind,” said Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs.

What would readers suggest be cut? I would start with the Bolin Fellows.

Williams College has appointed three graduate students as Gaius Charles Bolin Fellows for 2008-09. Established in 1985 in honor of the college’s first black graduate, the Gaius Charles Bolin Dissertation Fellowships are awarded to members of under-represented groups in the final stages of finishing their Ph.D. requirements.

Bolin Fellows join the college’s academic community as faculty members but, in addition to teaching one course each year, devote the bulk of their time to the completion of their dissertation work. The program was enhanced this year so that fellows are now appointed to two-year residencies rather than one.

Ridiculous! Why is the College spending my alumni donations on something with, at best, a tangential relationship to undergraduate education? Now, of course, I have some political issues with the Bolin, but my basic complaint would apply to any sort of boondoggle for Ph.D. students. That is, even if these fellowships went to Algebraic Topologists or Applied Statisticians, I would still end the program.

“The Bolin program has always provided advanced graduate students with a valuable introduction to a faculty career,” said Associate Dean of the Faculty John Gerry. “But even with the time allowed for dissertation writing, many former fellows have felt the pressure of searching for a tenure-track faculty job at the same time. Now that the Bolin Fellows can stay for two full years, we expect that they will more easily complete their degrees in the first year, leaving the second year more open for career development. And given that we aim to appoint three fellows each year, the size of the Bolin cohort on campus will increase to six starting in 2009-10.

Gerry is a smart guy, so he doesn’t even try to pretend that this program is focussed on directly improving the education of Williams undergraduates. Instead, it is all about the Fellows, what helps them, what improves their “career development.” Who cares about the careers of people who (overwhelmingly) did not graduate from Williams and will not stay here? Not me.

Spend that money on something that directly affects student life.

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Underrepresented

Although my politics makes it likely that I will disagree with Mike Reed ’75, the College’s new Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Strategic Planning, allow me to first praise the transparency with which he conducts College business. Here are copies (recruiting letter, Bolin ad and listing of faculty positions) of the recent material sent out by Mike to, I think, all alumni of color. (At the least, my wife received a copy while I did not.)

Thanks to Mike for allowing us to post these and to Maggie Driscoll for providing electronic versions. Comments:

1) Process matters. The single thing that I most want out of College administrators is an open and transparent process. I may disagree with much of the substance of these efforts, but as long as the College is forthright in its dealings with me and other stakeholders, I should not complain too loudly. Kudos to Mike for making this material public.

2) Once Mike has a chance to settle in, I hope that he will post this and other material on the College’s website.

3) It would also be nice to post the report from the Diversity Initiatives. Although some criticism is justified, the report as a whole is a solid piece of reporting and analysis. The College should be proud of this work and make it easy for everyone to read it.

4) I have one substantive comment. The Bolin Ad reports, “At least two graduate students from underrepresented groups are appointed each year.” Hmmm. Just which groups qualify under this standard?

I believe that the Bolin was originally restricted to African-Americans. True? At the very least, recall the change from 3 years ago.

Since 1985, Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., has annually awarded the Bolin Fellowships for Minority Graduate Students, named after the school’s first black alumnus. This year, Williams changed the scholarship’s name to the Bolin Dissertation Fellowships, and for the first time applicants of all races will be considered as long as they belong to an “underrepresented group.” That could include academic rarities such as female physicists of any ethnicity or Caucasian researchers in Asian Studies, according to acting dean of faculty William Lenhart.

“The college thought it was a reasonable change” in light of the Supreme Court’s decisions, Mr. Lenhart says.

Here are the fellows for this year and last. See any “Caucasian researchers in Asian Studies”? See any Caucasians? I didn’t think so.

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