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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard

Here is the College’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard.

1) Full points for transparency! The more transparency at Williams, the better.

2) How accurate are these tests, both in terms of false positive and false negatives?

3) Kudos, also, for transparency with regard to campus e-mails, at least about CV-19. Future historians will thank you!


Endowments Deserve Scrutiny

Danny Schwartz ’13 writes for NBC News:

In June, Amherst College participated in a match campaign that raised $183,000 for charities like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and my alma mater Williams College made a suite of promises that included a pledge to donate at least $500,000 to racial justice causes over five years. Around this same time, at the height of the George Floyd protests, Williams — whose endowment nearly doubled from around $1.5 billion to $2.9 billion in the last decade — actively solicited alumni donations, providing the option to give to the school or the pandemic- and racial equity-related causes. Williams President Maud Mandel argued in a statement that “the most effective and long-lasting manner in which Williams can work toward this goal [of fighting inequality and injustice] is by providing students with ways to hone their analytical and argumentative skills, which they can channel toward such ends.” These overtures suggest that the school would rather offload social justice accountability onto students and alumni than let its own wealth do the work.

1) Well, yeah. Williams has enough trouble just trying to be a good college. It should no more work directly on social justice in the wider world than Google should raise cows. Organizations should focus on their core missions and comparative advantages.

2) I like Maud’s rhetoric in this. In fact, this is the same line she used at 2019 reunions, and probably on many other occasions. If you — rich alum with checkbook in hand — care about X (whether X is global warming, inequality, police brutality, malaria or . . .), then the best thing to do is to give money to Williams because we train the people who will change the world by fighting these battles. Of course, this is self-serving — Williams wants your money — but it is coherent, plausible and, perhaps, even true, or at least tru-ish.

How would you like to see Maud address these issues?


Banish the Blasphemers

From iBerkshires:

Williams College has removed two students from campus for violating the school’s quarantine order for returning students.

President Maud Mandel made the announcement in an email to the college community on Thursday.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve regretfully had to convert two on-campus students to remote study status after they violated the college’s quarantine,” Mandel wrote in a letter co-signed by Dean Marlene Sandstrom. “Judging from the campus reaction, some people may not understand the reasons for our policies, or may feel we’re enforcing them too strictly.”

Mandel did not specify the nature of the violation.

We need to see that e-mail! Could someone post it in the comments?

Word of the students’ removal comes on a day of otherwise positive news for the college on the COVID-19 front.

The first day of Williams College’s testing of returning students yielded no positive results for COVID-19, according to the college’s public “dashboard” of testing results.

On Wednesday, the college was reporting having conducted just shy of 1,000 tests.

On Thursday, three days after the college started welcoming underclassmen back to campus, the number was 1,331 tests.

A college spokesperson Thursday morning confirmed that the 1,331 number includes Monday’s tests, which include “students, staff and faculty.”

Since the college’s testing program began on Aug. 17, it is yet to have turned up a positive test for COVID-19, according to the dashboard.

Isn’t that somewhat weird? All tests are subject to false positives. Out of 1,000+ tests, shouldn’t at least one indicated that the person had COVID even if they did not?

Note that the College would very much prefer a test with zero false positives. The only way to guarantee that would be for the test to always report uninfected. And that is just the sort of result which Maud wants . . .

The college is employing a phased approach to the return of students, accepting and testing a couple of hundred students per day through Sept. 7.

All students have been ordered to quarantine in their residence until they have received a second negative test for the novel coronavirus. Students have been told to expect their initial quarantine to last “a minimum of five to seven days,” according to an Aug. 6 letter from Sandstrom.

Mandel and Sandstrom’s sternly worded Thursday letter to the community called for continued vigilance and adherance to the school’s COVID-19 regulations.

“If quarantine isn’t fully honored, this system fails,” they wrote. “If a family member enters your dorm to help you move in; if you take a walk around campus before going into quarantine; if you travel out of Williamstown without permission, you’re incrementally increasing risk to everyone. Despite our desire to be forgiving, a ‘no harm, no foul’ philosophy simply isn’t possible given the rate at which COVID-19 is spreading on college campuses.”

Mandel’s letter links to a Wednesday New York Times article reporting that 26,000 cases and 64 deaths attributable to COVID-19 have been linked to colleges and universities since the pandemic began.

“[We] want to take this opportunity to reaffirm that each of you who’s living on campus or off-campus in Williamstown is required to sign and abide by the community health commitment and scrupulously follow our rules,” the Thursday letter reads.

That community health commitment outlines the college’s rules on testing, social distancing and face coverings and concludes, in bold print, “any failure to comply may be subject to sanction or discipline in accordance with college policies.”

There is some data to indicate that Sandstrom’s Aug. 6 letter, which announced more restrictions for returning students during the fall semester, including an initial ban on off-campus travel at least through September, may have deterred some students from returning for in-person classes.

On July 15, college officials at a virtual town hall told the Williamstown community that Williams was anticipating 1,600 students who had decided to return to town for classes.

On Thursday afternoon, college spokesperson Gregory Shook said the school’s current numbers are 1,364 students in college-owned housing with another 81 planning to live locally off-campus with on-campus priviliges; that makes a total of 1,445 students, down 9.6 percent from the figure cited in mid-July.

Hmmm. Has there been a corresponding increase in the numbers enrolled but studying remotely? Or did more students just decide to take a gap semester/year?


COVID Restricted Semester

From iBerkshires:

Williams College on Monday began the phased return of its student population for the fall semester with a mandatory test and quarantine period. Students will be restricted to their dorm rooms for five to seven days, until they have received their second negative test for COVID-19.

The students are coming back to campus on a staggered schedule with several hundred returning each day.

All testing by the college is being reported out on a dashboard on Williams’ website.

As of Monday morning, Williams had administered 925 tests of faculty and staff in the first seven days of testing with zero positive results for the virus.

That tracks with the local numbers reported by the state and the non-profit group, which Monday reported that Berkshire County had 0.7 new daily cases per 100,000 people.

After Williams students receive a second negative test, they will be allowed to use the campus freely but will be restricted to an irregularly shaped area bounded roughly by Cole Field to the north, the Taconic Golf Club to the south, Water Street (Route 43) to the west and the Clark Art Institute campus to the east.

The college does not plan to issue the students who have received a second negative test result a card or other documentation to that effect for “logistical reasons,” school officials said on Monday.

“In addition to robust Covid testing, a key part of Williams’ plan is our Community Health Commitment, which was implemented to create an environment that keeps everyone in the community healthy,” Williams spokesperson Gregory Shook said. “It’s our intention for all members of the Williams community to hold themselves and each other accountable to these guidelines, and you’ll see in the health commitment that corrective action will be taken for those who violate the guidelines.

That restriction is scheduled to continue at least through September.

“Students will have access to Spring Street, Taconic Golf Club, and any space within the area defined by the map, and they’ll be able to exercise or hike outdoors in the surrounding area (via walking or biking), with appropriate masking and social distancing,” Shook said. “However, going to Stop & Shop, Walmart and other off-campus destinations are prohibited during this time.”

Meanwhile, non-students and non-staff will not be allowed access to Williams College buildings, including the main library, or athletic facilities, including the tennis courts.

Students will be required to be tested regularly for the novel coronavirus — initially twice per week — according to an email to the student population from Dean of the College Marelene Sandstrom earlier this month.

“Any student who misses more than one test will not be able to remain on campus,” Sandstrom wrote. “Their enrollment status will immediately be changed from in-person to remote, and they will no longer have access to any campus buildings or resources.

“We recognize that this policy is strict and does not provide flexibility; this is the only way to ensure that our testing and contact tracing can work effectively. Thus it will be students’ responsibility to make sure they are tested as scheduled.”

Predictions on what the next few weeks will bring?


Reopening, 2

Two years ago we were sure that the most important aspect of Maud’s presidency — the topic which historians would focus on 50 years from now — was her efforts to bring free speech (back) to Williams. How wrong we were! Maud’s decisions during the CV-19 pandemic will define her place in the history books. Let’s spend a week or two discussing her latest message.

The second biggest mistake is the decision to allow students to attend Williams remotely.

Our plan includes extraordinary public health measures for everyone’s protection, options for people who are unable to come to campus because of medical or other concerns, and a full curriculum of hybrid and remote courses.

The result of prioritizing health and safety is that the semester will be substantially different in many ways, which may feel restrictive to some. If you feel uncomfortable with the changes to the campus and academic program outlined in this letter, or prefer to wait for something more like a traditional semester—and there are many reasons why a person might want to do so—then you do have the option to take time off or remain off-campus and take your courses remotely.

Thanks to their work, however, students who opt to study remotely will still have full access to our courses, although not necessarily all sections. Indeed, a significant percentage of courses will be entirely remote even for students on campus, so that we can manage class sizes, ensure social distancing and meet the needs of faculty and staff who must remain off-campus for their own safety. It’s possible that a student living on campus could even have all of their courses be remote, depending on their choices.

Williams is a residential college. We have, for 200+ years, required students to be in residence to earn a degree. There is no good reason to change that now.

1) Just how many students would want to study remotely? My guess — contrary opinions welcome — is that the number is small. You don’t pay $75,000 $50,000 for Zoom. You pay to be on campus, with your friends, doing fun things and learning from one end of the proverbial Log. I feel bad for students who, for whatever reason, can’t come to campus. They should be allowed, obviously, to take a semester or two off, just as they would have been required to last year, if they or their family had been struck by some sort of tragedy. But the pandemic, whatever its other effects, is not enough to justify this change.

2) Even worse, however, then allowing students to attend remotely is the demand that faculty adjust (all?!!?) courses to make that possible. We discussed this last week.

“My strong preference all along has been to teach in-person,” Associate Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe ’03 said. “But the insistence on hybridity for all courses has me resigned to teaching remotely.” He explained, “To have the College compound the extra health risk of in-person teaching with extra workload — and the hybridity requirements are a substantial amount of extra work for anyone who chooses to teach in person — is disappointing.”

“On an institutional level, I know there are lots of moving parts and conflicting interests, but it seems odd, given the dissatisfaction most students experienced with remote instruction, that we’d bring students back to campus and yet disincentivize faculty from teaching them in person.”

Exactly right. (And, once again, kudos to the Record for excellent reporting.)

Question: Is the College requiring that all classes be arranged so that a student who wants to can take them remotely? Or is it simply planning to arrange for enough remote classes to provide some choice to such students? These are very different policies!

It is impossible to turn a Williams seminar class into a remote-accessible class without putting it on Zoom. Commentary on this claim is welcome.

A well-run Williams seminar involves students speaking at least 50% of the time. (I aim for more like 90% in my seminar classes, but I am an extremist in all things.) There is no way to transmit those comments to someone in Hong Kong without putting a mike on every student and, less importantly, having a camera which would move from student-to-student just as you look at your classmates in a seminar. Williams is not set up to make that possible. With a lecture course, where the professor does 95% of the talking this works, because only the professor talks (and repeats any questions asked). In a seminar, it is impossible, unless you are on Zoom.

Surely, I am not the only one who sees this, right? Possible outcomes:

1) Most Williams seminars will just meet in person as usual, with no effort made to include remote students.

2) Williams seminars with no remote students will meet in person. Those with one or more remote students will be forced to meet on Zoom.

3) Williams has enough tech to set up all seminars with remote students so that they can meet in person and with remote participation. (Who remembers Mark Taylor and his Finnish experiments of a generation ago?)

Dark Thought: Maybe the Administration really wants to force faculty — for safety and infection control reasons — to offer essentially all classes via Zoom, but without making that goal explicit. By requiring all classes be remote-accessible, they achieve that goal without making such an unpopular policy an official requirement.


Reopening in September?, 5

Many readers thought we were crazy to give 50/50 odds, back on March 17, that Williams would still be closed for the fall semester. How do you like those odds now? President Mandel’s decision to re-open (or not) in September is the most important made by a Williams leader in at least 50 years. So, let’s spend a week discussing it!

What will America/Massachusetts/Williamstown do?

The third reason — after likely student and peer college behavior —- for bringing students back to campus in September is that the government is unlikely to forbid it, or even to be against it. Trump, obviously, wants the economy to restart as soon as possible. Williamstown will do whatever the College wants. Governor Baker is a bit of a wild-card. Certain state restrictions about large gatherings might be in force even in September. But, even there, I am sure that Baker wants to allow colleges to re-open.

Contrary opinions?

Again, what do you think Maud will do? Place your bets!

What do you think she should do?

Could some of our active commentators please provide answers to these questions?

I think Williams should open. I predict Williams will open.


Reopening in September?, 4

Many readers thought we were crazy to give 50/50 odds, back on March 17, that Williams would still be closed for the fall semester. How do you like those odds now? President Mandel’s decision to re-open (or not) in September is the most important made by a Williams leader in at least 50 years. So, let’s spend a week discussing it!

What is the causal effect on mortality of reopening Williams in September?

There are two possible states of the world in the fall: Williams reopens the campus or not. With reopening, some people will die. With continued closure, some (mostly) different people will die. Under which scenario would deaths be higher? Hard to know!

1) Death, especially among young people, is very random. There is, tragically, probably an Eph who might be killed by a car near her home in October who would have lived if the campus were to open. And, conversely, an Eph who wil die if Williams re-opens but who would have been safe at home if we stayed closed.

2) Deaths from CV-19 among Williams students are very unlikely, regardless of whether or not the College reopens. Are they a bit more likely if we do reopen? Perhaps. But I would view that difference in expected deaths as too small matter. Banning students from having cars would probably, in expectation, save even more lives, and we are not going to do that.

3) Deaths among non-students in Williamstown, both College employees and local residents, would probably be higher. How could they not be? And not only deaths caused by CV-19! Although I don’t know of a case in which a student has directly caused a death of a resident via a car crash or some other tragedy, in expectation, those are real risks. And similar risks, presumably higher, are associated with a student infecting a resident with CV-19. But, at the same time, student-caused risks go where the students are. So, when Maud brings student X to Williams, increasing the risk of death in Williamstown, she decreases (by the same amount?) the expected deaths in the place where student X used to be.

Informed commentary is still welcome! Just how much would reopening increase the risk of illness/death for our 300+ faculty members? I am not sure. But the amount, I suspect, is small enough that Williams will reopen, perhaps fairly strict rules about mask-wearing and social distancing on campus.


Reopening in September?, 3

Many readers thought we were crazy to give 50/50 odds, back on March 17, that Williams would still be closed for the fall semester. How do you like those odds now? President Mandel’s decision to re-open (or not) in September is the most important made by a Williams leader in at least 50 years. So, let’s spend a week discussing it!

Will other colleges reopen?

Yes, many (most?) will.

It was easy for elite colleges to close in March. All of them were doing it, so there was no (immediate) penalty for doing so, and a real risk associated with not doing it. But September will be different because the recession (depression?) will start to bite. Even fancy NESCAC schools like Bates and Connecticut College are not that wealthy, with a per-student endowment only about 1/8th of ours. They need tuition dollars or things get ugly fast. The same is even more true for the hundreds of liberal arts colleges in the tier below NESCAC. If there is a good chance that too many students would take a gap year if confronted with a virtual-only experience, they have no choice but to open their campuses, subject to local laws and regulation.

And this is all the more so for isolated colleges in rural locations. They can institute and enforce much more serious social distancing and other rules than their city counterparts. Will those policies be successful? Who knows? But the assumption/possibility that such policies will work allows institutional leadership to do what needs doing anyway.

Contrary opinions?

This is the second reason why Williams should open: most other rural liberal arts colleges will.


Reopening in September?, 2

Many readers thought we were crazy to give 50/50 odds, back on March 17, that Williams would still be closed for the fall semester. How do you like those odds now? President Mandel’s decision to re-open (or not) in September is the most important made by a Williams leader in at least 50 years. So, let’s spend a week discussing it!

What will students do?

If Williams is open, students will come. They know that they are safe, or at least about as safe as they would be wherever they are. And, as much as they love their parents, 6 months at home will have been enough.

If Williams is still virtual, then things get weird/ugly very fast, as we discussed last month. I doubt that Williams has the stomach to play hardball with admitted first years, as we advised. I don’t see the College having any power at all over upperclassmen. Would 50 students take a gap year? 500 hundred? Informed speculation welcome. But, the key issue from today’s perspective is that Williams needs to make a decision before it knows those details. And, if we just open, we won’t ever know how bad things would have been if we had closed. In that way, it is like pandemic fighting! Successful prudent behavior will, after the fact, seem like needless panic.

We might wait till July — as a smaller college we can be more nimble than big universities — and find out what, say, Brown’s initial experience is if they announce a virtual-only plan in May. We might use anonymous surveys. We might have staff simply call up hundreds of students.

This is one reason why I am in favor of opening. Students will come if we do. If we don’t, there is the potential for real disaster.


Reopening in September?, 1

Many readers thought we were crazy to give 50/50 odds, back on March 17, that Williams would still be closed for the fall semester. How do you like those odds now? President Mandel’s decision to re-open (or not) in September is the most important made by a Williams leader in at least 50 years. So, let’s spend a week discussing it!

Whether you think that our political leaders — people like President Trump, Governor Baker. Senator Warren, Congressman Richard Neal and Williamstown Select Board Chair Jeffrey Thomas — are fools or heroes, they are what they are. There is no evidence that they have the ability to get CV-19 under control. If even highly organized countries like Japan and Singapore are failing, we have no chance. (Would any EphBlog reader disagree with that forecast?)

So, today and in June and in September, there will still be hundreds (thousands? tens of thousands?) of people in the US (and in the world and in Massachusetts) newly infected, and highly contagious. That is inevitable. There may be better treatments. The hospitals may not be overflowing. Yet death will still stalk the land.

Before we dive into the details over the next week, I want both your forecasts and your advice. What do you think Maud will do? What do you think she should do?

Again, I don’t know what Maud will do. But, the more that I ponder where we will be, the more that I think the best choice is to re-open Williams.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kohout ’81.


CARES Act Funding for Williams

From Inside Higher Ed (paywall):

The Education Department is beginning to disperse the $14 billion set aside for higher education in the stimulus package passed by Congress two weeks ago, beginning with $6 billion in funds for institutions to give students through emergency grants.

It’s unclear how colleges will be allowed to use their funding, although it sounds like Betsy DeVos is giving schools a lot of discretion in this regard.

So how much is Williams getting?  Inside Higher Ed has a nifty look-up tool (paywall).  I’ve copied Williams’ award below:

I suspect Williams will be just fine, but it’s worth noting that the general consensus in higher ed is that the $14 billion set aside in the CARES act will not be nearly enough.  Higher ed associations “had asked for $50 billion and said in a letter to congressional leaders Thursday that they need an additional $47 billion.”

I have mixed feelings about money of this nature going to a school like Williams.  What are your thoughts about federal rescue money being used to support public or private universities (and their students) more generally?  It’s worth noting that the $14 billion that’s been allocated so far is a small fraction of the amount allocated to support for-profit business.


Bare-Bones Obligation

From the Wall Street Journal:

Two Separate Questions

There’s an important distinction between what universities are obligated to provide their students and what students paid for when we enrolled. The cost of college consists of room and board, tuition and other fees. Handling room and board is straightforward because universities’ obligations and students’ expectations are aligned. When we eat the school’s meals and use its dorms, we’re getting what we paid for. If we’ve been sent home, then we’re not, and we’re entitled to a partial refund.

Tuition is more challenging. “Payment for instruction,” its definition, only captures a university’s bare-bones obligation. Students and schools alike recognize that the true value of college extends far beyond formal teaching in classrooms. Flip through any college brochure, and you’ll find an extensive guide to the opportunities that make families willing to stomach the eye-popping cost.

The life lessons we learn through sports, clubs and other campus groups; the social bonds we form with our peers; the education we receive from classmates who come from different backgrounds and expose us to new perspectives. Tuition payments don’t require colleges to provide these opportunities, but the schools promise them and students expect them as part of the package.

Remote learning lets universities fulfill their basic obligations to students. They’re still providing the best instruction possible given the circumstances, and therefore don’t owe students a refund for tuition. But make no mistake—students are not getting what we paid for.

—Mark Bissell, Williams College, economics and computer science


A View from the Front Lines: How are we doing?

Colleen Farrell (’10), now a resident physician at NYU, had an op-ed (paywall) in the Washington Post this past week:

Normally, the intensive-care-unit floor of my hospital is divided into different types of ICUs: There is a cardiac ICU for patients with heart attacks, a neurosurgical ICU for patients with bleeding in their brains, a trauma ICU for patients who have been hit by buses and a medical ICU for patients with breathing problems.

Now there is only the covid-19 ICU. It takes up the entire floor, and soon it will overflow. I work there, as a resident physician training in critical care. And it is a chilling place.

It’s a nice piece and worth a read.  Of course, none of this was inevitable, although our preparation failures of January and February are pretty baked in at this point.

That said, there is still time to avert a worse catastrophe.  If you’re under a stay-at-home order or advisory, stay at home.  The worst thing that we can do now is to cripple our economy without also reaping all of the accompanying public health benefits, which is exactly what happens when businesses are closed but folks still visit friends and family.

It’s also worth noting that this crisis is going to continue for a lot longer unless we get our collective testing and tracking gear in game quickly.  The best case scenario at this point is probably tamping down the rate of infection enough by mid-to-late-summer that we can start cautiously re-opening parts of the economy — but that requires an effective and quick-acting testing/tracking program.  I’m astonished by how unprepared we were in February or even March for a problem that was clearly months in the making, and all sorts of state and federal officials must be held accountable.  But at this point, it is most important to look forward to the late summer, to make sure that we’re ready to re-open things as soon as possible.  Right now, we are not — and it won’t just be the victims of covid-19 and the accompanying recession who will suffer, but also the front-line workers like Colleen.


Close the Borders, 3

Professor Darel Paul commands our attention again.

Have you been paying attention to EphBlog on this topic? You should have been. Recall where we were on February 25th:

Long-time readers will not be surprised to know that the EphBlog bunker is well-prepped for pandemic mayhem. Have you replenished your supplies recently?

The two previous pieces in this area have been as prescient. Read them. Where are we now?

Any geographic area — any village, town, city, county, or country — can allow either open migration from the outside or freedom of internal movement. You can’t have both, or you will, unavoidably, be on the way to widespread infection. Only walls of some sort can stop the descent to herd immunity, and a million or more American deaths.

Paul understands that, of course. What he fails to see, however, is that limiting internal movement enough to matter in the US is impossible.

First, our governing class is incompetent. Second, our country is too wide open. How could the governor of Pennsylvania, even if he wanted to, close all the border crossings with New York State? Third, our politics are broken. Even if Trump tried to create internal borders, the Democrats would go crazy.

My recommendation to Trump is the same now as it was on March 14. Close the borders to the outside world. (We are now 90% (98%?) of the way there anyway.) Would that matter much to the course of the infection? I don’t know. But it can only help. It is also the best way for Trump to increase his odds of re-election. (I am honestly interested in contrary opinions to this claim.)

What will happen? I don’t know. On some dimensions, I am more optimistic than I was three weeks ago. Who would have predicted, say, California’s ability to stop the exponential growth of infections? Some treatments seem promising. Bill Gates is doing amazing work with vaccine production. On other dimensions, things are much worse. CV-19 is now everywhere. Even with closed borders, it might be impossible to find every carrier. Cases will explode again in the fall, just as they did with the Spanish Flu, for which the second wave was much deadlier than the first.

And what would that mean for Williams, come September 2020?


CV-19 Questions, 8

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 8: How will Williams handle gap-year requests from admitted students?

If it looks like the disruption might go on into the fall (and I would put the odds of that at 50/50 right now), there will be a lot of first years who would want to take a gap year. And who could blame them! But Williams won’t want that. Its costs, at least in terms of faculty and staff, are fixed. It has 540 seats to fill in September 2020, and it wants to fill them, even virtually.

Solution? Williams should/will probably require students to make the gap year decision much earlier, perhaps by May 31. And it should/will put some teeth on it, will insist that anyone deciding later to take a gap year will, except in exigent circumstances, have their acceptance withdrawn. With good information by May 31, it could use its wait-list more extensively than it has in the past. And you can be sure that this year’s wait-list will be the longest we have had in a generation.


CV-19 Questions, 7

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 7: Will time-off policies change?

Williams might still be an online-only school in September.

If you were a rising senior, wouldn’t you take a gap year if you could not return to campus, especially if you were an athlete? And wouldn’t you be all the more likely to do so if all your friends were doing so? The snowball effects would be strong.

Solution? This is a harde problem! Williams does not have the threat of acceptance withdrawal to hang over the heads of current students, especially rising seniors. Maybe try to bribe them? Williams only costs X in 2020-2021, even if students are allowed to come back in January. How low would X have to be to ensure that most (80%? 95%?) students came back?

Of course, the demand for Williams spots is strong. We could take scores of transfer students. Or am I overestimating the number of students who would be interested in transferring to Williams if classes were still virtual in September? There might be very few interested in transferring for just a year. But would a (rich!) student (and her family!) be interested if she could transfer into Williams permanently? I bet that there are hundreds of students who were rejected from the classes of ’21 and ’22 who would consider that offer quite closely . . .

What do you predict will happen? What should Maud be doing now to prepare?


CV-19 Questions, 6

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 6: Will grading policies change?

This question was over-taken by events. President Mandel writes:

[W]e have made the decision to switch to universal pass/fail for all courses taken by undergraduates this semester. You will not be surprised to learn that many people have expressed strong views on the subject, sometimes referring to what other schools are doing. Those examples vary, because each college or university is responding in ways appropriate to their own situation. Some are continuing with existing grading policies. Some are moving to optional pass/fail, with a subset pushing back their deadline for declaring a class as pass/fail. Still others, including MIT, Columbia, Wellesley and Bowdoin, have established universal pass/fail grading policies for all students.

Maud’s letter goes into a lot of detail. Would readers like a close reading? Could spend a week on this one! It has more nonsense than I expected. Key line:

Some people expressed concerns to me that a move to pass/fail would disincentivize students.

“Some people!” Did “Some people” also forecast that the sun would rise in the east? I want to meet these “Some people.” They are very smart! I would also like to meet the person who disagrees with this forecast . . .

There is zero doubt that students work much less without grading. Call the amount that students would work X — even with a global pandemic, but with the structure/incentives of grades — measured however you like. With universal Pass/Fail, do you forecast 90% of X, 50% of X, or even lower?

What do our student readers plan to do?

If I were on the Williams faculty, I would have voted against this. Maximum understanding/leniency toward students who have problems — just as most of us do even in the absence of a global pandemic. A virtual college course without grades is little more than an extremely expensive TED-talk.

Is this the first sign of Woke Maud?

Entire e-mail below the break.

Read more


Close the Borders, 2

Professor Darel Paul notes:

Recall our discussion from last week. (And note some of the over-taken-by-events nonsense in that comment thread.)

The point that Paul is making, and that is very little discussed, is that there is no (plausible, short-term) solution which does not rely on vast restrictions on movement and behavior. Don’t the readers of EphBlog see that?

Imagine that we magically made every person in the US free of CV-19 tomorrow. Problem solved? Crisis averted?

No! The crisis would just be (briefly) delayed. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, someone would come into the US, unknowingly infected with CV-19, and the spread would just start again. We haven’t (even today!) closed the borders. We haven’t (even today!) set up 14-day quarantines for new arrivals into the US. I don’t even see any discussion of those (necessary!) policies outside of EphBlog.

We have no (public?) plausible plan for the sort of extensive contact tracing and electronic monitoring which countries like Hong Kong and Singapore are using. (To be fair, this is now a topic of discussion in certain parts of the internet.)

Paul’s point is that, without these policies, it is inevitable that CV-19 will work its way through the US population, at least until we reach herd immunity or develop a vaccine. Anyone who isn’t discussing that mathematical fact is not serious.

UPDATE: Even the New York Times is still writing nonsense:

If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt.

The virus would die out on every contaminated surface and, because almost everyone shows symptoms within two weeks, it would be evident who was infected. If we had enough tests for every American, even the completely asymptomatic cases could be found and isolated.

The crisis would be over.

No. In a world of global travel and open US borders, the spread would just start again. If the Times (and the “experts” it talks to?) is still this clueless, on March 23, what hope is there?


CV-19 Questions, 5

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 5: How is the endowment doing?

Answer: Not well.

1) Williams is about 30% less wealthy than it was a month ago. Wow! Even as rich as we are, that sort of drop will put a crimp in some of our strategic plans. The new art museum is the first things we should cut.

2) The endowment was at $2.9 billion last June 30. Through the end of February, it was up about 9%. But the college was also spending money, and raising money, throughout that time period. Put our total wealth at over $3 billion and the recent drop cost Williams a yard, as we finance bros say.

3) Will the next report from the Investment Office look that bad? No. First, the S&P is only down around 17% since last June. Second, a lot of the College’s investments — especially in private equity, venture capital and real estate — is not “marked-to-market.” The College’s managers are able to “smooth” returns, and you can be certain they will do so this year.

4) How much of a hit will this cause to the Williams budget for next year? I am unsure. Recall:

Spending from the endowment to support operations, referred to as asset use at Williams, is expected to be 5.0% of the twelve quarter trailing average of the end of year investment pool over the long run.

There is a big hit now, but endowment growth has been significant over the last few years. So, it could be that the trailing twelve quarter average wealth as of June 2020 is not that different from the same figure calculated for June 2019. So, perhaps the allowed “draw” from the endowment won’t be much lower. Of course, 6 months ago, the College planned/hoped that it would be higher, so some (minor?) belt-tightening might be required.


Kudos to Cohen

We have had our differences with Professor Phoebe Cohen in the past, but this is good stuff!

Kudos! Any other faculty involved in the fight? Tell us some stories.


I worry a lot about Berkshire Medical Center. What is the latest news?


CV-19 Questions, 4

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 4: What about graduation?

Graduation will not happen. (Anyone think otherwise?) What are Maud’s options?

1) Plan on a September graduation. Might work wonderfully! Worst of the virus will be passed, one hopes. Hundreds of people would come back. Combine it with Convocation. Could make for an epic week-end!

2) Plan on a double-graduation in June 2021 for members of the class of 2020 and 2021. Benefit is that things are (highly?) likely to be settled by then. There is plenty of room on campus to house 500 returning members of the class of 2020. Easiest logistically and most satisfying emotionally.

3) On-line graduation this spring. I am suspicious. But, then again, who knows? Could be very moving, especially if it were combined with faculty actually walking through the their places in the lawn and a handful of nearby students participating. A lot would depend on the state of meeting-size restrictions in MA by the middle of May.

I recommend plan 2) because I am worried that this crisis, and the resulting travel restrictions, will continue into summer.

What advice would you give Maud? What do you think she will do?


CV-19 Questions, 3

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 3: What about staff?

There are dozens (100? 200?) staff that Williams no longer needs, at least until September, mainly dining hall workers and custodial staff. What should be done?

Given how rich we (still?) are, and how close we are to the end of the school year, I recommend just paying them “as-if” the students were still around. Assuming that some social distance can be maintained, now is a good time to work on cleaning and renovation projects which are normally pushed to one side during the school year.

But, come June, things get trickier. (Does anyone have details on how staffing normally fluctuates during the summer? I assume that some staff stay on, but surely not all of them.) Williams can’t pay salaries forever. That is why we have unemployment insurance. If Williams is not hosting summer camps and the like, then it should furlough staff it does not need, with the hope that they can be brought back in September.

But, in between the faculty (working as normal) and the support staff (with nothing to do), we have the endlessly bloated administrative staff of Williams. What should happen to them? Will the Title IX office just be investigating itself? Will the grievance mongers in diversity/inclusion/equity turn their greedy eyes on the faculty? (Probably!) For now, there is no need for changes.

But, if I were Maud, and there were 50 or 100 positions/people I wanted an excuse to get rid of all at once, now (or, better, May) would be a good time to strike . . .


CV-19 Questions, 2

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 2: Will Williams modify international admissions this week?

EphBlog has been a big fan over international admissions for more than 15 years. We loved it when Maud increased the percentage of internationals to 11% for the class of 2023. But does the existence of a global pandemic change that?

And, with admissions decisions due in a week or two, now is the time to ponder that question. Come September, students from some countries might be prevented from coming to the US. Or, if they do come, they might find it difficult to travel home. Would Williams be doing them any favors by admitting them with so much uncertainty?

Why not just skip a year with regard to international admissions? Just admit US citizens and permanent residents from the regular decision pool? (We would still have a bunch of international students already admitted early.)

Again, this is not what I want! I want Williams to become 25% or more international. But maybe not this year . . .



While clearly not the most important question facing the College at the moment (this discusses what I think is the most important question right now), the reunion question is important and could have some long-term implications for Williams, perhaps moreso than for many other colleges and universities.  Specifically, while the College has not yet cancelled the 2020 reunions, I think it is pretty likely that they will not take place.  Registration for reunions is currently “on hold until further notice,” and I don’t know how much planning is currently happening on campus (or by class volunteers).

If all of this year’s reunions are cancelled, will the affected classes (the ‘5 and ‘0 graduating years) simply skip their reunions this cycle?  This would mean 10 years between reunions for these classes.  (I’m ignoring the 50-year+ classes which, I think get invited every year).  I think that would have a long-term, measurable impact on giving from those classes, although probably not enough to really matter to the College.  Most troubling, I suspect, would the cancellation of the 25th and 50th reunions for the classes of 1995 and 1970.  The 25th and 50th reunion classes typically give the largest class gifts each year.  Over the past 12 years (dating back to the 25th Reunion of the Class of 1980), the 25th Reunion class gift has averaged just shy of $7 million (with individual classes ranging from $3.6-$13.6 million).  Over the past 7 years (data can be found at the links on this page), the 50th Reunion class gift has averaged over $17 million (with a low of $9.7 million and a high of $41 million).  The 50th Reunion class gifts count everything given between the 40th and 50th reunions, so perhaps cancelling the reunion won’t impact the overall gift as much, but I’m sure that smart people in the Alumni Development Office are trying to estimate what the impacts would be.

Could the College reschedule everyone for next summer?  I don’t know whether there would be room for that many classes to have reunions at once.  Or perhaps do the 2021 reunions and 2020 reunions on back to back weekends next summer?  What do you think makes the most sense? Will skipping out on a reunion cycle dampen alumni enthusiasm for Williams?


CV-19 Questions, 1

Let’s spend the next few days asking questions about the future of Williams in the era of CV-19. (And, yes, I was sorely tempted to call this series “Wuhan Flu Questions,” but I resisted the trolling urge.) For each question, I want your thoughts on what will happen, what Williams will do, and what Williams should do.

Question 1: Will Williams re-open in September 2020?

I don’t know. And isn’t that scary? There are many unknowns, of course, but Mission Park is, basically, an ugly, immobile cruise ship. Will cruises be running by September? Again, I don’t know. But it is easy to imagine a world in which they won’t be.

Maud, being a smart college president, will very soon have some of her best people pondering this question. After all, she can’t make this decision on September 1. She will need to make the call . . . when, exactly? And much of the decision may be out of her hands. If Massachusetts is still forbidding large gatherings in August, how can she possibly open Williams in September?

What advice do you have for her?


Ask a Pandemic Expert: How are we doing?

Dr. Rich Besser ’81 is probably the leading Williams-affiliated voice on pandemics, having served as the acting director of the CDC during the emergence of the novel H1N1 influenza virus (often labeled “swine flu”). Dr. Besser was widely lauded for his response to H1N1 (which, fortunately, turned out to be far less serious than what was originally thought–it has a reproduction rate between 1.4-1.6 (SARS-CoV-2 looks to be around 2.2) and only a 0.02% fatality rate (SARS-CoV-2 looks like it kills between 1-5% of those infected)).

So what does he have to say about our current predicament?  In a March 5 Washington Post editorial, Dr. Besser writes:

The failures of public policy and imagination have been stalking us for years, creating haves and have-nots: parents who don’t have paid sick leave from work (only 10 states and the District of Columbia mandate it); a lack of affordable childcare or sick child care; at least 28 million Americans living without insurance and nearly one-third of the population still underinsured; health protections that are not distributed evenly from region to region; and fear among undocumented immigrants regarding access to care.

Our nation’s predicament today is both tragic, because so many people will likely suffer, and maddening, because it didn’t have to be this way. In the short term, the United States must play the hand that we’ve dealt ourselves. Indeed, there are no short-term solutions to our long-term neglects. The underlying work our nation must do to ensure all people in the United States have a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being — sick leave, universal health care, quality child care and early education, as well as fair immigration policies — must be done in moments of calm.

In the meantime, we could also consider a fund to compensate hourly workers without paid leave for their loss of income when sick; provide legal aid for those who are fired for not coming to work when ill; fund outreach to non-English speakers; ask insurers to waive co-pays for testing and treatment; supplement funding for community health centers that care for a large proportion of those without insurance; and ensure free meals are available for children when schools are closed.

This time around, things seem likely to get far worse in the U.S. before they get better.  How do you feel about our public health response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus?  Have we missed our tracking window with all of the testing mishaps of the past month?  Or have our current problems been baked in for years, not just in the 2018 disbanding of the Pandemic Response Team ( but in the policy decisions that we’ve made, or failed to make, over decades.  Or are you pretty happy with how things are going?


Close The Borders

Professor Darel Paul wakes me from my dogmatic slumber by tweeting:

Assume that President Trumps has three goals: protect the the health/lives of US citizens, minimize the damage to the US economy and win re-election. (Fortunately, achieving the first two will be great help to the third.) Note also, that there is nothing that businesses hate more than uncertainty. As long as the crisis rages, they will want to cut back. They would prefer a scenario in which things are very painful for two months and then finished. Nothing is worse than a somewhat painful period for an unknown length of time.

It is the interaction between business behavior and uncertainty which highlights the importance of Paul’s question. Even in a world in which COVID-19 turns out not that bad over the next few weeks, as long as it is bad enough, business can’t get back to normal. Even if we knew Orlando were mostly OK today, it is hard for people/businesses in Orlando to return to work as long as a bunch of travelers from Seattle could show up tomorrow. Given those facts, Trump’s optimal strategy is fairly obvious: Close the borders in April. Crush COVID within the US by June. Reopen the US for business on July 4th with a big party. Keep the borders closed till the election.

March: There is not much to be done in March beyond what Trump and every governor/mayor is doing. We need tests. We need masks. We need ventilators. We need to prepare for the unstoppable wave of very sick people. The die is cast. Trump should not be overly political, but he should keep a list of every bonehead decision made, by both Democrat and Republican officials. How could Governor Doug Ducey allow the Arizona Renaissance Festival to go on? Why did NYC Mayor Bill DeBalsio wait until day X to close the bars? Don’t make a big deal of those things now. Stay above the fray. Offer to help. Invoke federalism. Insist that you should not be making decisions for every school district in America.

April: Disaster strikes. This is now inevitable, no matter what Trump (or anyone else) does. Math plays no favorites. When things appear at their worst, have a televised address. (With no other speeches before this. Indeed, avoid the cameras for the two weeks prior.)

My fellow Americas. The wolf is at the door. Our mothers and fathers are dying in the hallways of our great hospitals. Our doctors and nurses are fighting the tide of death each day and night. Their bravery is that of our greatest battlefield heroes. Never, in our 200 years as a Nation, has the future looked so bleak.

This will be our finest hour.

I am taking personal command of the fight against COVID-19. The buck stops with me. I will, with your help, either conquer this threat or resign the Presidency.

Today I am ordering the closing of all US borders. We can no longer allow even a single infected person into our country. The borders will stay closed until we can be certain that only healthy people are allowed in.

And so on. Many more things will be done, of course. Wuhan and South Korea show how COVID-19 can be contained. We should follow their playbook. Test everyone all the time. Isolate the ill. Confine people to their homes. Federalize the National Guard. Recall our troops from Japan, South Korea and Germany. And so on.

Yet the border closing is the key political maneuver. It is consistent with Trump’s message. Only he would even consider it. Joe Biden is on record against it and will probably object when it happens. Make the election of 2020 all about whether a US president has the right to close the border — and about whether doing so was justified in the case of a global pandemic — and Trump wins.

May: Things get better on the health front, not least because the initial set of social distancing directives in March had a significant effect and because hospitals are ramping up their capacity and skills. Indeed, the reason for giving the speech in April is that, again because of math, you can be mostly certain that things will look better in May. But the economy is still frozen. How to fix that in a world where people can’t go out? UBI will probably be popular. Perhaps incentives to companies to maintain their current payrolls. But those are just delaying actions while the virus is brought under control.

June: Another televised address, either one to three months after the first one.

My fellow Americans. We are winning the war against COVID-19. The bravery of our doctors and nurses, the ingenuity of our scientists, the dedication of our public servants, the individual contributions of every citizen in every neighborhood have swung the battle in our favor. We are at the beginning of the end.

Today, I am declaring July 4th to be the re-opening of America for business. You will be able to leave your house, go out for a meal, take the family on a vacation. Life can start to return to normal.

Does this timing make sense? I don’t know. Yet regardless of the timeline, the key trick is for Trump to provide a focal point, a specific date, given a few months in advance, at which things can return to normal. The hardest part of coming out a recession is the coordination it requires. I won’t go out to eat if none of the restaurants are open. You won’t open your restaurant if no one is going out to eat. If the whole country knows that on, say, September 1, we are back in business, then all the restaurants and bars and hotels and amusement parts will open and all of us will go to them. It will be a giant national party.

Whether the “re-opening” — and we need a better phrase — happens in July or in September does not really matter. The key is that Trump gets to declare victory, in a clear fashion, to claim credit for a battle won, to cite some of the (un)popular decisions he made in leading the country. The economy will do nothing but zoom forward, from that day until the election. Trump wins in a walk.

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Close Williams

timber_wolfEphBlog’s advice: Close Williams today.

1) There is no better time to close Williams than a week before Spring Break. Pull a Harvard! Tell students they have to pack up and leave. (Allow some flexibility for low-income/international students.) Treat it like the end of the semester. Empty the dorms. Cancel all sports. Go online.

2) The people who run places like Harvard and Yale (and even Amherst!) are smart and serious. If they are closing — and closing Harvard is much harder logistically than closing Williams — then we need a really good reason not to close.

3) What about graduation? Graduation has already been cancelled! You just don’t know it yet. The Governor of Massachusetts will, within weeks (if not days!), ban any gathering over 1,000 people. And then he will ban gatherings over 100. And then he will institute a quarantine with the National Guard patrolling the streets. That is how bad this is going to get. Whatever else the next few months will bring, Williams will not be seating 500 graduating seniors together on June 7.

4) Might this be an overreaction? Maybe! (EphBlog does occasionally overreact to global events.) South Korea seems to have bought things under control. The warmer weather may help. But overreaction in an attempt to fight a global pandemic is no vice. If things look much better in two months, you can invite the seniors back to spend three weeks on campus prior to graduation. What a party that would be!

Good luck to all!

UPDATE: EphBlog gets results!

Williams College will end in-person classes on Friday, March 13, and dismiss students for spring break on Saturday, March 14, a week earlier than planned. We will be moving to remote learning beginning on Monday, April 6.

This seems a touch panicky to me. There are, presumably, a number of in-person exams which were scheduled for next week. How easy for is it for students to move already-bought plane tickets up a week? Then again, closing is the right call and reasonable people can disagree on the timing. Maybe the goal is to move out 80% of the campus by this Saturday, including the 50% (?) who drive, and then have a week to deal with the laggards.


Amherst Closing Thursday

Amherst is closing on Thursday. Who knows when it will re-open . . .

Dear students, faculty, staff, and families,

The COVID-19 virus continues to spread and affect many parts of the U.S. and the rest of the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has announced that we are past the point of being able to contain this disease. While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects.

We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now. Let me make our decisions clear and then provide additional information:

Amherst will move to remote learning after spring break, beginning Monday, March 23, so students can complete work off campus.

Classes are cancelled on Thursday and Friday of this week, March 12-13, so faculty and staff have time to work on alternate modes of delivering courses, and students have every opportunity to secure transportation.

All students are expected to have left campus by Monday, March 16. Only those students who have successfully petitioned and have remained in residence over spring break will be allowed to stay on campus to do their remote learning.

Campus will remain open and all faculty and staff should continue their regular work schedules.

0) Amherst is closing! Our work at EphBlog is done!

1) Wuhan Flu is the greatest crisis (90% certainty) of my lifetime. So, I will try to make fewer jokes. This is all going to be much less funny in April when sick old people are being turned away from Berkshire Medical Center and left to die at home.

2) If I were Maud, I would be sorely tempted to do the same. One argument against is that Williams is a much more isolated location and so, perhaps, less likely to be hit as quickly as Amherst/Northampton/Holyoke. But that is far from certain. And, moreover, Spring Break is the most obvious time to do this.

3) Although the message above is not overly clear, I believe that this is as extreme as it sounds. Amherst is sending students home, not just early or for a few weeks. It is sending them home for the rest of the semester. There will be no classes at Amherst until September, at the earliest.

4) Does this mean that Amherst will be forfeiting the rest of its athletic contests? Presumably so. It would be beyond weird if sports teams could petition to stay on campus while non-athletes were sent home. No Directors Cup for Amherst this year!

5) Will students receive refunds on, at least, room-and-board charges?

6) How tough will Amherst be with the “petition” process? It might allow hundreds of students to stay. It might allow only a score. I assume it will be very tough.

7) If things are bad enough, in Biddy Martin’s view, that Amherst should close now, what are the odds that things will be better enough to open in the fall? Many of the experts I read think that things might be worse next October than they are now.

What do you predict Williams will do? What do you think Williams should do?


Coronavirus Email Updates & New Website

Update on coronavirus measures – Week of March 4th

Dear Williams students, faculty and staff,

Following is this week’s email on COVID-19. Because the situation is changing constantly, we’re going to launch a college website where you can find updates and additional information at any time. Look for an announcement once the site goes live later this week.

The first thing we want you to know is that the college’s academic mission and your health and safety are our top priorities. If decisions need to be made or actions taken, we’re going to do so with those concerns foremost in mind. A leadership team is conferring daily to review emerging developments and promptly make any necessary decisions.

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