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Cultural Hub

From the Wall Street Journal:

When it opens, it will be the first destination hotel in this once-great manufacturing town. But visionary ideas have been percolating in North Adams since the mid-’80s, when plans emerged to renovate a 28-building industrial campus, the former Sprague Electric capacitor plant—at one time the city’s biggest employer—into a showcase for cutting-edge art. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (or Mass MoCA), which opened there in 1999 after a long gestation, has helped transform the city. “We saw the [plant] closing, the desperation in the community,” says North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright. “And we all admit one thing, resoundingly: Where the hell would we be if it were not for Mass MoCA?”

A slew of projects, starting to roll in this summer with the mayor’s support, promises a leap forward, further changing North Adams into a destination for art and performance, accommodation and food. It may be a turning point for a city that’s dealing with population depletion, high unemployment and addiction rates and empty storefronts that starkly contrast with the well-heeled Williamstown, home to Williams College, right next door.

Read the whole thing. There is a great senior thesis to be written about the rise of North Adams as a cultural destination. Who will write it?

And there’s much more in the pipeline for North Adams. Though clearly ambitious, the ventures under construction this summer are a fraction of the city’s proposed master plan, a grand scheme to build a “cultural corridor” that’s currently outlined in blueprints and feasibility studies, featuring at least four new museums along with a distillery and “art hotel,” both designed by Jean Nouvel. It’s all the brainchild of Thomas Krens, who hatched the original idea for Mass MoCA before moving to New York in 1988 to run the Guggenheim for almost 20 years.

Krens, who has a home in neighboring Williamstown, would not discuss details of his official return to the Berkshires, but they’re easy to discover by talking to local power players. His Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, a quirky 34,000-square-foot institution featuring model trains zipping by landmark buildings by architects such as Frank Gehry, is most likely to break ground first, followed by the Global Contemporary Art Museum, a motorcycle museum and a museum of time. If even a portion of the plan gets off the ground, it may be as significant for the area as Mass MoCA’s opening 18 years ago. “We’re one attraction away,” says Mayor Alcombright, “from being a weeklong place to be.”

Is there an alum who has had more of an impact on the local area than Krens? If so, who?

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Highland Woods

Adam Shanks’ Eagle article on Highland Woods is notable more for its naivete than for its news.

When Tropical Storm Irene dumped as much as 9 inches of rain on the Northern Berkshires in late August 2011, flooding at the Spruces Mobile Home Park left the town’s most vulnerable residents homeless.

Just over five years later, state and local leaders gathered on Thursday to dedicate a building that stands as a testament to the town’s unified response to the storm’s devastation: Highland Woods.

Built with the help of multiple agencies and funding from sources local, state and national, the 40-unit affordable senior housing facility is now fully occupied. Several were residents of the Spruces.

A better reporter would have wanted to know the details of how the new residents were chosen. I bet it wasn’t a lottery! Although it is sweet to note that several (meaning 3?) are former Sprucites, the more interesting question is where the vast majority came from.

“This is a prime example of what a group of people and organizations can do when they get together behind a common purpose that they really believe in,” said Elton Ogden, president of project developer Berkshire Housing Development Corp.

Or, this is a prime example of what happens when local powerbrokers get their hands on a pile of someone else’s money. The people behind Berkshire Housing certainly benefit from a storm like Irene.

Highland Woods was built on a 4-acre parcel on Church Street was donated by Williams College in 2013.

Why should any alum donate to Williams if the College is just going to turn around and give their money to some random non-profit? If I wanted my charity to go to affordable housing, then I would just give it directly to that cause. I don’t need/want to launder my gifts through Williams.

“It was clear that we at Williams were going to want to find some way to participate in making this situation better,” said Williams College President Adam Falk. “I’m deeply grateful that were given the opportunity to do something that was relatively simple compared to all of the other extraordinary work.”

Falk is so generous in giving away alumni money. He is the very model of of modern major virtue signaller.

Funding for the project came from a number of sources, including a $2.67 million grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and $5.4 million in federal housing tax credits.

If the total cost was $8.5 million, then who ponied up the other $500,000?

He stressed that “no corners were cut on the design and construction of this building.”

A ruptured pipe caused water damage in the 40-unit building and caused delays in February — on the very day residents were set to begin moving in — but the project has since recovered.

Alrightty then! How much damage/delay would there have to have been before Shanks asked some harder questions?

A sprinkler line in the attic was inadvertently filled with water and, when it thawed after the winter’s freeze, the two-inch pipe bursted open. The damage from the incident only impacted the eastern half of the facility, which had to be stripped to the studs and almost entirely rebuilt, Ogden said.

Who paid for that rebuilding? But don’t worry! No corners were cut! A better reporter would have gotten an estimate from local builders about the true cost of the building. Not that government contractors ever pad their bills . . .

Higher Ground, a nonprofit that formed locally in the wake of Irene, also donated $125,000 that contributed to the facility’s furniture and landscaping.

Has anyone heard of Higher Ground?

Higher Ground grew out of our community’s effort to serve the survivors of Tropical Storm Irene and is working to keep our community involved in the recovery process.

The classic line about non-profits is that they begin as a cause, turn into a business and then end up as a racket. I certainly believe that the people who started Higher Ground were doing God’s work in finding shelter for those displaced by Irene. Are they still? A better reporter would find out. Best case would be that Higher Ground is now closing, they had $125,000 left in the bank, so they donated the remaining money. But didn’t the donors of that money expect it to go to former residents of the Spruces? Back to the article:

“The completion of Highland Woods is truly a community success,” said Susan Puddester, president of Higher Ground’s board of directors.

Susan Puddester is, presumably, the wife of Frederick Puddester, one of the most powerful officials at Williams. Did her husband play a role in deciding whether or not Williams would donate the land? Do people with a Williams association have an edge in getting a spot at Highland Woods? Investigating those questions would make for a much more interesting news article.

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Big Reaction

science_camp

From the Eagle:

Williams College Summer Science Lab gets big reaction from students

There are plenty of creams, tablets and elixirs on the market that claim to cure health problems and ease ailments, but do they actually work?

During this month’s Williams College Summer Science Lab sessions, students were able to use professional tools to investigate household compounds, putting things like antacids to the test to see which ones really work.

“That’s why we do chemistry, so we know we’re not being lied to,” Darla Torres told her students during last week’s session.
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Torres is a rising Williams College sophomore, and part of a cohort of five Williams students and three from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, who have helped teach the fifth- and sixth-graders participating in this year’s Summer Science Lab. The college students have been working with local teachers to develop science curriculum for North Adams Public Schools.

Comments:

1) Good stuff! Kudos to Torres and the other students involved. Kudos also to the faculty/staff who made this all happen.

2) EphBlog’s position on local charity/community is simple: The College should, to the greatest extent possible, make its facilities available for this sort of work. The College should write few/no checks to local non-profits.

3) Love the expression on the little girl’s face, head in hands! The obvious thought bubble: “Thanks EphBlog! I love spending my summer in the science lab rather than being outside with my friends . . .”

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Used Furniture

From a letter to the editor in the Eagle:

The Board of Trustees of the Becket Athenaeum wants to publicly thank Williams College for its generosity and willingness to commit staff time in making some of the furniture from its former Sawyer Library available to nonprofits and municipalities throughout Berkshire County. It’s a fine example of teamwork and community spirit.

The Becket Athenaeum — a 501(c)(3) rather than a town-owned library — was one of numerous organizations that participated. As a result, we were able to replace some of our aging furniture, much of it fragile and uncomfortable, with gently used ADA-compliant tables and chairs. Buying new or even used furniture was not an affordable option for us, so we couldn’t be more delighted with the new additions to our library. Our only expense was moving it.

Special thanks to Shaun Lennon, Tim Reisler, and JoAnne Moran at Williams for their help and patience in managing the process.

Good stuff! Kudos to all involved.

The College, alas, wastes a lot of money on local non-profits, writing big checks to the schools and hospitals that administrators/faculty use. Doing so is absurd. Alumni give Williams money to spend on Williams, not so that college officials can, inefficiently, spend money on themselves.

But donations of material and employee time (within reason) is fundamentally different. The more that the College can do this, the better. EphBlog’s motto when it comes to local charities: Be generous in time/materials and stingy in writing checks.

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Mr. & Mrs. Lipp ’60 Endow Senior Curatorship at the Clark

Longtime patrons of the arts Robert Lipp (’60, P ’90, ’92) and his wife Martha Berman Lipp (pictured separately above) are the latest major donors to the Clark Art Institute. With a $2.5 million gift, the pair endowed the position of senior curator currently held by Richard Rand. (Readers of my occasional art posts will remember him as the author of the “Celebrity Look-Alikes” feature that I mentioned in a post last month about the Eye to Eye European portraits exhibit).

The Clark announced the Lipps’ donation in conjunction with another contribution by Sylvia and Leonard Marx, which endows the position of Director of Collections and Exhibitions, currently held by Kathleen Morris. Although Mr. and Mrs. Marx are not Williams alumni, they’re also part of the Eph family: their daughter Nancy Marx Better is married to Jamie Better ’83.

The Clark’s news release expresses the importance of these donations:

With these gifts the Clark realizes the goal of endowing all three of its senior curatorial positions.

“The role of a curator is of supreme importance to any museum,” said Michael Conforti, the Clark’s Director. “As stewards of the collection, curators safeguard the museum’s treasures, oversee acquisitions, coordinate exhibitions and new scholarship, and interpret the collection for ever-changing audiences. These generous gifts are a tremendous acknowledgement of the outstanding work of the Clark’s curators and the international significance of our curatorial program.”.

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Geometric Death Frequency-141

GeometricDeathFrequency

Via Flowing Data:

“Federico is the ultimate shape-shifter, in a way,” said MASS MoCA director Joseph C. Thompson in a statement. “The bricks and mullions and windows of our buildings become files of digital data; the pixels become black spheres meticulously cut, stacked and assembled; the courtyard becomes and contains sculpture. There’s something alchemical or magical about it, and all the while Federico remains behind the curtain, as if to say, ‘Look ma, no hands.'”

Federico Diaz: Geometric Death Frequency-141-spot from federico diaz on Vimeo.

More here. Informed commentary for artists and physicists would be welcome.

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Material World

A sneak peek of a new exhibit at Mass MoCA, set to open on April 24.

As Aidan points out, this is reminiscent in form of the “Narrow are the Vessels” exhibit from last year:



More about that here.

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WOW: Wilco at MassMoca

The Wilco Solid Sound Festival will be held August 13-15 at MassMoca.  Tickets go on sale Friday.  Kind of a bummer that the biggest pop music event in who-knows-how-many years in the Berkshires is occurring when very few students will be in town … still, this is a major coup for MassMoca, and for North Adams in general.  If you aren’t familiar with Wilco, you should be.  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is inarguably one of the ten best albums of the aughts.

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Reckoning With Gravity

MassMoca is currently featuring a very cool exhibit in its massive gallery, Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With, by Eph artist (and Bicentennial Medal winner) Inigo Manglano-Ovalle ’83.

You can watch numerous videos of Manglano-Orvalle discussing his work and his view on art at the PBS website.  One of his video installations is currently being exhibited at the WCMA.

Speaking of prominent artist alums, check out the latest work from Camille Utterback ’92.

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Heck of a Weekend at Williams …

Whether you are an alumnus in town for the big game, or an undergrad looking for ways to distract yourself from approaching finals, this weekend should be a fun one on and around campus.  One suggested itinerary:

  • Thursday night, check out jazz/funk legends Medeski Martin & Wood at MassMoca.
  • Friday night, check out one of Eph Stephen Sondheim’s best musicals, Company, at the ’62 Center Mainstage.
  • Saturday morning, catch the first half of the women’s soccer NCAA contest before sprinting over to Weston Field for the Amherst game.  More info on Homecoming events here.
  • Saturday night, don’t miss the Octet’s 35th Reunion Concert, featuring tons of Octet alumni making it back to campus to perform.
  • Sunday morning, depending on Saturday’s results, make the 45 minute drive to Troy to support men’s soccer against host RPI in NCAA action, or head down to Cole Field to catch the women in second round action.  (Alums pay special heed to this one — Troy is on the way home for anyone from the NYC area crashing in Williamstown Saturday night!).
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“Williamstown” Update, Part Four: North Adams Edition

The expansion of MassMoca is not to be missed: the architecture is incredible, and the Lewitt exhibit is, for the first time, a permanent installation that can even trump the breathtaking space housing it.  Here are some pictures, concluding one of the author for those brave enough to venture below the break.

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Architectural detail from the gorgeous connector between Lewitt and the rest of the museum:

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Sounds of Silence

WilliamstownJazzFestivalDue to budget-cutting at Williams, its major source of funding, the Williamstown Jazz Festival has ceased operation. The annual multi-day spring program had included music, dance, film, and an intercollegiate jazz competition, and was run as a collaboration amongst Williams, the Chamber of Commerce, MASS MoCA, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, with additional venues provided by St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Clark. Some events had free admission; others had an admission charge, but that did not bring in nearly enough to keep the festival going once Williams ended its subsidy.

For more about the festival, go here. (A link at the top of that site opens up a sampling that includes snatches from Williams jazz and gospel choir groups and a faculty jazz group.)

This is a true loss to Williams, to music groups from many colleges, and to Williamstown and the surrounding communities. I am grateful to the people who had the vision to start the Jazz Festival and to those who made it happen every year. My heart goes out to them and to the people who had the difficult task of deciding whether to continue the funding from Williams.

May more abundant times return soon.

(Thanks to Frank for alerting us to the festival’s demise via a post in in Speak Up!)

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MassMoca Anniversary, Part Two

Check out another great article on MassMoca, again highlighting alums Krens and Thompson, to add to last week’s compendium

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Ten Years of MassMoca

This weekend, MassMoca celebrated its ten year anniversary.  Its impact on the region, and on North Adams in particular, can not be overstated.  Without MassMoca, there is no Porches Inn.  There is no Gramercy Bistro or Taylor’s Fine Dining.  There is likely no stadium style movie theater in North Adams.  There would not be a viable future for a restored Mohawk Theater.  There certainly would not be a DownStreet Art gallery tour, an initiative that has turned a bad economy into a positive local enterprise by doubling its utilization of vacant downtown space in just one year.  (It’s just a shame that all of the MassMoca-spurred development occurred subsequent to the criminally stupid “urban renewal” that destroyed much of North Adams’ historic downtown in favor of a strip mall …).

Kudos to MassMoca founder Thomas Krens ’69 and founding (and current) Director Joseph Thompson ’81, two Ephs who had the vision to see something spectacular where everyone else just saw blighted, abandoned factory buildings in a town decimated by industrial upheaval.  It is a testament to the strength of their vision that, only ten years later, the notion of repurposing industrial buildings in blighted or rural communities as a means of economic revitalization has become almost trite.

And MassMoca continues to be a pioneer: with its recent highly-regarded Sol Lewitt installation, its partnership with the Clark, its continued integration of commercial and municipal space into its complex, its outreach to kids, and its environmental initiatives.  All in all, the museum is arguably the largest contribution Williams and its alumni have made to the greater Berkshire region in recent memory.

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7: Stop Giving to Local Charity

The College gives about $500,000 each year to local charity. There was never a plausible reason to do so when we were rich. There is no money left to spend now that we are poor.

UPDATE: Apologies for not including more details on this.

1) I don’t know of any place that the College spells out this giving in detail. Here is a citation for the $500,000 number. At some point, Director of Public Affairs Jim Kolesar ’74 kindly sent me a list of the donations and I thought I published it on EphBlog, but now I can’t find it. I will reach out to Jim again.

2) The annual spending may or may not include the major capital gifts that the College makes to local non-profits. (The details, like most aspects of the Williams budget, are totally opaque to outsiders.) Classic examples from the past include: $250,000 to Mount Greylock High School (a classic of early EphBlog snark), $2 million to MASS MoCA and $1 million to North Adams Regional Hospital.

3) A very small amount of giving (like $16,000 per year to the ambulance service) isn’t giving so much as it is a fee for service. No one complains about those items, but a) other than the ambulance service I can’t think of other examples and b) they make up a tiny percentage of the $500,000 as a whole.

UDPATE II: Recall that the Presidential Search Prospectus tells us:

A recent study showed that over the previous ten years Williams had made annual financial contributions in the community that averaged more than $500,000 and additional one-time contributions of $5 million.

That would suggest annual spending of $750,000. This should be cut by 80% or more.

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Community Support

Three years ago, the local teachers union negotiated an overly generous contract. Details below. Stand by for major controversy this time around.

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Your Alumni Fund Donations at Work

Like all good class agents, I am hard at work raising money for the alumni fund, writing holidays cards to my classmates, sending them e-mails, making phone calls and thanking them for their contributions. All good stuff. If you haven’t volunteered to be a class agent, you ought to give it a try. It is a nice way to re-connect with classmates (Hello Kim Daboo!) and give back to Williams, especially nice for those of us who can’t afford to write a million dollar check.

But wait! I have a better idea! Instead of asking Kim and others to give money to Williams, I am going to ask them to write a check to MASS MoCA. Let’s cut out the middleman.

MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) Director Joseph C. Thompson announced today the launch of the Berkshire Permanence Campaign — the regional phase of MASS MoCA’s overall Permanence Campaign, an effort announced in April of this year with a goal of raising $36 million for MASS MoCA’s endowment and program support. The regional campaign kickoff was accompanied by the announcement of a gift of almost $2 million from Williams College for the previously announced Sol LeWitt project.

Williams College President Schapiro said, “MASS MoCA and the LeWitt project offer an unprecedented opportunity for Williams students. As the only place in the world where scholars will be able to see, study and actually help make LeWitt’s work, MASS MoCA will be the destination for an international audience. Williams students will have this gem right next door and some will even have the chance to participate in the installation as apprentices. This support also cements a scholarly tradition of interchange between Williams and Yale University: Williams undergraduates and Masters degree recipients from the Graduate Program in Art History, offered in conjunction with the Clark Art Institute, comprise the single largest source of students to Yale’s PhD program in Art History. It will also put Williams students shoulder to shoulder with those from Yale, MCLA, Bennington, local high schools, and many professional artists working together to realize this great installation.”

Comments:

1) Issue one is always transparency. How much money has Williams promised over what time scale to which non-profits? How much money has it contributed over the last 5 years? (Recent gifts include $250,000 to Mount Greylock Regional High School and $1 million to North Adams Regional Hospital.) Who approved this decision? (That is, were the trustees involved or just senior staff?)

2) Why should I give money to Williams if Williams is just going to turn around and give that money to MASS MoCA? Here is my rule: Williams should donate no money to non-profits unless that money directly impacts its mission of being the best college in the world. Some charities make the cut. The best example is giving $10,000 (is that the amount?) to the volunteer ambulance service of Williamstown. But that is not so much a donation as payment for services rendered since so many students are transported by the ambulance. Outside of the ambulance and a couple of other tiny exceptions, Williams should not write checks for other non-profits. (And the same applies for other charities. If I donate $1,000 to MASS Moca, I want them to spend that money on, you know, contemporary art. Call me crazy! I would hate it if they turned around and then donated that $1,000 to Williams — or to MGRHS or to NARHS or to any other worthy acronym.)

3) Recall Morty’s shpiel from three years ago.

Williams exists to educate students. The greatest determinant of the quality of their education is the quality of faculty and staff. We can only recruit and retain the best if the local community is healthy. So when the College, after careful consideration, invests in the local infrastructure, especially in public education and healthcare, every dollar benefits our current and future students. This includes the pledges we’re paying over several years toward the construction of a new Williamstown Elementary School building and to the capital campaign of North Adams Regional Hospital as well as a cash infusion to forestall a potentially disastrous budget crisis at Mt. Greylock Regional High School.

This was mostly bunk three years ago because, as we have discussed endlessly, the quality of local schools and hospitals plays a de minimus role in faculty hiring because none of Williams peer schools have local schools/hospitals that are significantly better. But at least the argument by Morty above isn’t obviously ridiculous. Yet there is no way that can apply to the quality of the local contemporary art museum. To argue otherwise is absurd. MASS MoCA could close tomorrow or become the world’s greatest museum and neither outcome would have a meaningful impact on the quality of a Williams education.

4) Want to increase the chances that excellent professors will come to Williams and stay there. (Surely I am not the only one who misses Marc Lynch and Gary Jacobsohn.) Simple solution: Show them the money.

5) To think clearly about this, or any other expenditure, you need to focus on what else that money could be spent on. Or, specify where you would trim Williams current budget to come up with $2 million. Readers who think that this is money well spent should specify what expenses should be cut to pay for the gift.

6) Those who argue that this is fine, that the College is so rich that spending $2 million is not a problem sound a lot like the folks who told me that spending $250,000 on MGRHS was not worth worrying about. OK. But what level of gift-giving would concern you? What if the College gave $2 million every year to local charities? What if it were $5 million? You can be sure that there are dozens of local causes worthy of our support, organizations that both do good and make the local community more attractive. Where does the generosity of Williams end?

7) Below the break I recycle a post from more than 4 years ago about a charitable gift to MGRHS. My rantings, at least, are consistent.

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Silver Medal

One of the more contention issues on EphBlog in years past has been the quality of the Mount Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS) and its relationship with Williams. See below for background and rant. More news coverage to follow.

Most/all Williams faculty and administrators feel that MGRHS is not as good a school as it should be and that this hurts Williams since good faculty are, therefore, less like to come to, and stay at, the College. They argue that Williams should spend its own money (i.e., alumni contributions that I and my fellow class agents are busy raising) to fix this problem.

I have argued (here, here and here) that this is 95% bunk. Four years ago (in the first post that got me in trouble with the powers-that-be), in the context of the College’s gift of $250,000 to MGRHS, I argued:

Who decides where the college donates money? Senior members of the administration. Where do the children of senior members of the administration go to high school? For at least some, the answer is Mount Greylock. Indeed, we can read about the exploits of Matt (son of Morty) Schapiro on the Mount Greylock tennis team here.

So, is it any wonder that Morty Schapiro and other senior people at the college might think that the worthy goal of providing a better education at Mount Greylock High School is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of the College’s money?

Followers of recent financial scandals on Wall Street will note the similarity to the case of Jack Grubman and Citigroup and the 92nd Street Y. You can read many of the details here, but the relevant part of the puzzle was the alledged use of Citigroup’s corporate philanthropy to facilitate the educational goals of star employee Jack Grubman. The basic claim is that Citigroup gave money to an elite Manhattan pre-school in order to better the odds of admission for Grubman’s twin children.

The central problem for both Citigroup and Williams is that any act of philanthropy is a) good in and of itself; b) potentially useful to the larger goals of the insitution (Williams benefits from having better faculty and better faculty are more likely to come to Williams if the local school system is good); and c) potentially beneficial to specific senior employees with decision-making authority over the philanthropy (Morty Schapiro benefits if his son’s tennis team has nicer facilities).

Of course, we at Williams Blog Central think highly of Morty Schapiro — and not just because we want a job from him some day! — so it is out of the question that Williams might have given to Mount Greylock for reason c). But the conflict of interest doesn’t go away just because one has faith in the specific people involved. If you disagree, ask yourself how things would change if Williams gave $250 thousand every year, or how about $2.5 million, or even $25 million. Whatever the amount, reasons a) and b) would still be true.

But the problem is not merely a theoretical conflict of interest. The actual facts are not what the Williams administration often tells us.

First, MGRHS is an excellent public high school.

The school [MGRHS] was listed among the top 500 schools in the nation last week by U.S. News and World Report. The weekly magazine, famous for its annual college rankings (which named Williams as the top liberal arts school for 2008 – and its nemesis, Amherst, as No. 2) awarded Mount Greylock a silver medal, one of 24 awarded in Massachusetts. Five other schools received gold and 14, bronze.

The magazine based its rankings how well students did on state tests, how well disadvantaged students were educated and whether the school provided college-level coursework. It analyzed public information from nearly 19,000 schools nationwide.

Travis said the school district’s low poverty level may have played a role, but Mount Greylock students have performed well on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests and a large number of students take Advanced Placement courses.

The magazine found more than half of the student body participated in AP, taking an average of three tests with a pass rate of nearly 80 percent.

This is the second time in six months the school has been cited in a national magazine. Earlier this year, Newsweek ranked Mount Greylock 413 out of 1,300 schools.

If MGRHS is really in the top 5% of high schools (and I believe that it is), then what is the problem? Why does Williams need to spend my alumni donations on items that the taxpayers of Williamstown feel are not important?

MGRHS is not St. Paul. But Williams faculty (both prospective and current) don’t have the option of sending their children to St. Paul. If they don’t work at Williams, they need to work at some other college. Are the local schools around Amherst or Swarthmore or Middlebury any better? No! Moreover, the vast majority of Williams faculty don’t even have the option to move to a similar position at a competing school. Even if the local high school near Bowdoin is excellent, only a small percentage of tenured Williams faculty could get a tenured slot for the same pay at Bowdoin, not because they are stupid but because the academic job market is so competitive, especially outside of Division III.

Now, in a very small set of circumstances, this might matter. Perhaps Economics Professor Steve Sheppard would not have left Oberlin to come to Williams if MGRHS had been worse (see here). Perhaps former Political Science Professor Marc Lynch would have stayed at Williams if MGRHS were better (see here). But you don’t make policy on the basis of outlier cases. And, more importantly, we now have clear evidence that MGRHS is a top 5% school. How much benefit would we really get in terms of faculty recruitment and retention if the College spend millions of dollars to move it from top 5% to top 3%? Almost none! After all, Morty has told us many times that the College already gets its top choices when it hires, even with MGRHS as it is.

My views are the same as they were three years ago.

Can anyone point me to a specific faculty member whose decision about whether or not to come to, or stay at, Williams was determined by the quality (or lack thereof) of the local high school? I doubt it.

Consider some of the professors (Cook, Jacobsohn, Fleischacker, Muirhead and Garsten come immediately to mind) that have left Williams. Does anyone argue that had Mount Greylock High School been better (10% better, 50% better, whatever), they would have stayed? I don’t think so.

Consider William’s recent recruitment efforts. Morty reported in the Alumni Review (sorry, can’t find the link) that the College was getting, essentially, all its top choices in recent faculty hiring. Given the oversupply of faculty applicants, I certainly believe that Williams does this well.

But if it has done so well (over the last few years), why does Williams need to start giving money to Mount Greylock High School (and other local works) now?

If giving millions of dollars to local charities is neither sufficient for faculty retention nor necessary for faculty recruitment, then what is the point?

There may be reasons for Williams to spend money on MGRHS, but faculty recruitment and retention is not among them.

More to come tomorrow! Contain your excitement.

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MassMoca Tarps

Great NYTimes article on the resolution of a hotly disputed exhibit in the enormous gallery at MassMoca. Even before I reached the last few paragraphs of this article, I was guessing this dispute was fabricated, all part of the experience. Maybe I’ve just seen too much contemporary art. I wouldn’t be shocked if MassMoca was in on it: the tarps practically scream of conceptual art, particularly given the themes of this exhibit. And even if unplanned, the tarps will undoubtedly come to be viewed as part of the art by critics.

Speaking of North Adams, the Mohawk will be opening sooner rather than later: should provide another huge boost for downtown. For a great summary of recent changes to downtown North Adams, including photos, read this recent Berkshire Eagle article.

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EphBlog Solves MGRHS Deficit!

A long-running interest of EphBlog has been the financing problems facing local schools, especially Mount Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS). Classic posts here, here and here.

The short version of this history is that the College gave $250,000 to MGRHS to help with a temporary financing crunch. The town voted increased taxes to help out one year, but then failed to do so again last year, despite the hard work of Professor Sam Crane. (Note that my prediction that the College would pony up more money was wrong.)

Anyway, the latest update in this saga is a report by several Williams faculty and staff about the future trends in school finances. The report is excellent! Kudos to Dick De Veaux, Cappy Hill, Sue Hogan, Keith Finan and Jim Kolesar. I am glad to see Williams faculty and staff so involved in the well-being of the local community. The report concludes:

In the final analysis, to project balanced budgets for the school into the medium-range future will require dramatic steps by the school’s policy makers and communities to increase revenues, decrease expenses, or somehow combine the two. None of the ideas generally floated in public discussions would by itself balance the budget for very long.

Alas, I haven’t had time to go throw the entire report, but it seems well-done, thorough and depressing. Unless something is done, the school finance gap is doomed to get much larger. The school’s expenses are simply out-of-whack with its revenue under any reasonable forecast.

Fortunately, EphBlog is here to help! The central problem with MGRHS is that expenses are too high. Want to cut expenses in a service business? Cut salaries and benefits. Problem solved.

Now, our more sensitive readers may be shocked by this suggestion. How can we balance the budget on the backs of our no-doubt underpaid and overworked teachers? Yet, before the tears well up in your eyes, please guess (without looking at the report!) what the average teacher salary is at MGRHS. (Note that the school budget crisis has been going on for several years and lots of smart, dedicated people like Professor Ralph Bradburd have done everything they can to reduce costs while maintaining educational quality.)

Got your guess?

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Override Fails

The Eagle reports that:

Voters rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override in yesterday’s annual town election by a narrow, 80-vote margin in a heavy turnout. The town will now have to cut roughly $530,292 from four major budget areas before next week’s annual town meeting.

I am impressed with the sophistication of the voters of Williamstown. Last year, they voted for the override. One way to interpret this, perhaps, is that they were ready to treat last year as a true (one time) emergency. This year, they felt, collectively, that town officials were not trying hard enough to be frugal. So, now those officials — including Professor Ralph Bradburd — get to try harder. This is precisely how the architects of Proposition 2 1/2 hoped that it would work.

But John Weyers voted against the override. “My personal opinion is that the budget isn’t handled right, and the teachers need to pay more for their medical insurance,” he said after voting in the afternoon.

Like John Weyers, I am suspicious of some of the budgeting at, at least, the high school.

The override failed despite a concerted effort to drum up support from Together for Williamstown, a ballot question committee that was reformed this year to push for an override.

“I thought we were going to win,” said Together for Williamstown Chairman George T. “Sam” Crane. “A lot of people put in a lot of effort.”

“Everybody’s going to get hurt by this, and that’s the shame of it,” he said.

I am sad that all of Sam’s hard work failed to win the vote. I still think that there is a great senior thesis to be written about the efforts of TFW. It’s not too late for a smart ’05’er to start interviewing people and taking surveys.

And now, what says Williams College? Longtime readers will know that the College’s contributions to Mount Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS) have been an interest of mine. [Interest? How about obsession. — ed. No, Barnard/VISTA is an obsession. MGHRS is an interest.]

It is clear that folks from Williamstown would like the College to contribute again. College officials have repeatedly said that last year’s contribution was “one time” in nature. Place your bets.

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Funding “Predicament”

The Berkshire Eagle has a nice update on this year’s budget battle in Williamstown. Professor of Political Science Sam Crane seems heavily involved in the push for another Proposition 2 1/2 override. A careful study of the forthcoming campaign, as well as last year’s successful one, would make for a great poltical science thesis.

However, as happy as I am to see Williams faculty take leadership roles in the local community, I take issue with some of Crane’s comments:

He [Crane] added that the acrimony in the community surrounding such a vote is a result of “the politics of evasion in Boston and Washington,” which puts pressure on communities.

“It’s uncomfortable and no one likes it, but that’s the way it works,” Crane said.

Why is it the fault of “Washington” that Williamstown has a budget deficit? Does Crane think that there is some big pile of money buried under the Lincoln Memorial that could be used to help out Mt. Greylock Regional High School? Crane might have a point in blaming “Boston” since Proposition 2 1/2 does put serious constraints on local communities. But, again, it isn’t “Boston” that created Proposition 2 1/2, it is the voters of Massachusetts. Moreover, the voters of Williamstown can, democratically, decide to set their taxes at whatever level they decide to fund whatever good works they choose.

I suspect that Crane realizes all this and that his talk of “evasion” is a rhetorical ploy to increase the likelihood that the forthcoming override attempt will succeed. In his place, I would do the same.

For all those wondering where the College stands on the issue, we have:

During last year’s crisis, Williams College donated $250,000 to help shore up the situation. Last Wednesday, Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin confirmed in an interview with WNAW Radio that there have been some talks between Mount Greylock officials and the college about this year’s predicament.

The fix is in.

But Williams spokesman James G. Kolesar said no decision has been made. “The college is certainly interested, along with the rest of the community, and concerned about the situation at the high school, and is trying to stay well informed about the situation,” he said.

Kolesar said last year’s donation was out of the ordinary. “The deal was that the situation was so dire it was hoped that a one-time infusion could help buy time for the whole community to work toward a long-term solution,” he said.

Turns out that the community — despite (because of?) the leadership of folks like Crane and Ralph Bradburd — has little interest in working toward a long-term solution. In fact, the community seems to have decided that Williams College will step in to pick up whatever funding MGRHS needs.

Note that the override amount has been set at $530,292. One would think that this amount would be enough to cover whatever shortfalls currently exist at MGRHS. One would be wrong:

But even if voters approve an override, the Mount Greylock Regional School District would still face a $743,549 shortfall in its proposed budget of $9.2 million. If an override fails, the school deficit would increase by another $300,677.

So, the proponents of the override (presumably including folks like Crane and Bradburd) set an amount that is not enough to pay for everything that they want to see at MGRHS. Why would they do this?

1) They think that $500,000 is the most that the voters will approve. This seems implausible since the voters approved last years override of about the same amount by almost 2:1.

2) The school budget request has been padded so that the missing $750,000 won’t be terribly missed. It would be perfectly reasonable for the school committee to pad things in this way, despite their protestations to the contrary.

3) Proponents expect that the College will come through with another $250,000 or even more.

I vote for 3.

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Save our Schools

Hayley Wynn ’06 has an excellent article in the Record on the budget crisis at Mt. Greylock Regional High School. She does an especially fine job of gathering comments from several faculty members. (I wonder how she decided which faculty members to interview?) Highlights included:

In spite of the College’s $250,000 gift to Mount Greylock Regional High School last spring, the high school is again facing a tough budget crunch and the possibility of more cuts in student services. While administrators stressed the importance of the quality of local education to the College, they were unwilling to say that more aid will be forthcoming.

Ahh, but the good citizens on the School Committee certainly think — wink, wink — that the College, if presented with an ultimatum, might very well put up some cash again.

Professors with children in the public schools have a personal stake in the issue. Steve Sheppard, professor of economics, has two children attending local schools, one in seventh and one in ninth grade. “The quality of local educational opportunities was a very important factor in my decision to come to Williams,” he said. “Sadly, I have to say that I think the quality of local schools has been hit by the cuts of the last several years, and is below what we, and most people, would expect of the hometown of the best liberal arts College in the country.”

Steve Sheppard came to Williams in 2000! Isn’t it a bit much for him to discover now that the local schools aren’t up to snuff? I am ready to believe that Mt Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS) is not as good a school as Sheppard would like it to be, but I am highly suspicious of the claim that its quality has dropped significantly in the last 4 years. I’ll try to contact Professor Sheppard to see if there is any evidence of this that I am not aware of.

Karen Kwitter, professor of astronomy, expressed similar concern. “When my family moved here almost 25 years ago, people were already saying that Mount Greylock, while not as stellar as it had been, was still a first-rate school,” she said. “That was important, because I was never interested in sending my kids to a private school…I would say the situation now is critical – teaching positions are gone, and students have to pay for being in a play or participating on an athletic team.

Kwitter, as a long time faculty member, has more standing than Sheppard if it is true that MGRHS has gone downhill over the last 20 years. I am unaware of any evidence that it has in fact done so. But if the best she can do is to whine that “students have to pay for being in a play or participating on an athletic team,” then I am suspicious here as well.

Student activity fees are not a MGRHS-only phenomenon. Such fees are now the norm across Massachusetts, including my own lovely town of Newton. Perhaps these fees are a bad thing (representing the decline of public education in America). Perhaps they are a good thing (charging people for the resources that they use). But, in either case, they are, essentially, universal.

Neither Sheppard nor Kwitter nor the nameless professor-that-Williams-wants-to-hire have a lot of other options, at least in Massachusetts, that would avoid sports-fees, budget battles and the like. And Massachusetts is not the only state where this is going on.

As always, if you are a Williams professor — especially one, like Schapiro, Bradburd, Sheppard and (I think) Kwitter with students in MGRHS right now — the optimal answer is that the College spend a large amount of money immediately. Any deleterious effect that this had on the endowment or on fundraising would never affect you.

Note that this is also the best answer if you are just a resident of Williamstown. Threaten the College with a low school budget and watch it pony up some extra money.

Everybody wins!

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Property Values

The Transcipt article on the school budget features Professor of Economics Ralph Bradburd

Committee member Ralph Bradburd defended the committee’s budget saying it had made difficult choices and $139,833 cuts that it would have preferred not to.

“I think we would be foolish and the town’s would be foolish if they didn’t recognize that property value is contingent on the value of the education at the high school,” Bradburd said.

He added that he didn’t believe that townspeople would want to see the value of their home decrease.

No property owner wants to see the value of her house decrease, so Bradburd, in his push for a larger school budget, is smart to appeal to her self-interest. But the good citizens of Williamstown are no doubt hopeful that Williams will come through for them again, as it did last year.

The budget approved Tuesday includes the cost of 5.9 full-time teaching positions currently funded by Williams College and the Greylock Assistance Project Fund, restores 3.6 full-time teaching positions cut from the current budget, adds a special education teacher, restores mid-level administration, funds 50 percent of athletics and activities costs, and includes $60,000 in tuition costs for students enrolling in the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School.

I believe that readers interested in providing charitable gifts to the schools in Williamstown can do so directly via the Greylock Assistance Project (GAP). Cuts out the middleman, I’d say.

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Poor Greylock High School

The school committee has voted on a budget for Mt. Greylock Regional High School (attended by students from Williamstown and Lanesboro) and it looks like there may be trouble. Long time readers will recall that the College’s relationship with the local high school is a favorite topic on ephblog.

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Faculty Recruitment and Retention

The main rational for using College funds on local good works like Mount Greylock Regional High School is that it helps in the recruitment and retention of excellent faculty. Since everyone agrees that Williams needs good faculty, the argument goes, everyone should agree that these gifts are a good thing. See here for Morty Schapiro’s version of that argument and here for Ralph Bradburd’s.

Again, this is not unreasonable. Certainly everyone would prefer that Mount Greylock High School be better rather than worse. My concern is about the size of the gift relative to the size of the benefits to Williams.

Can anyone point me to a specific faculty member whose decision about whether or not to come to, or stay at, Williams was determined by the quality (or lack thereof) of the local high school? I doubt it.

Consider some of the professors (Cook, Jacobsohn, Fleischacker, Muirhead and Garsten come immediately to mind) that have left Williams. Does anyone argue that had Mount Greylock High School been better (10% better, 50% better, whatever), they would have stayed? I don’t think so.

Consider William’s recent recruitment efforts. Morty reported in the Alumni Review (sorry, can’t find the link) that the College was getting, essentially, all its top choices in recent faculty hiring. Given the oversupply of faculty applicants, I certainly believe that Williams does this well.

But if it has done so well (over the last few years), why does Williams need to start giving money to Mount Greylock High School (and other local works) now?

If giving millions of dollars to local charities is neither sufficient for faculty retention nor necessary for faculty recruitment, then what is the point?

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MB = MR

Professor Ralph Bradburd was kind enough to send in these thoughts on the College’s charitable gifts to Mount Greylock High School in response to this post.

I see that you’re still up your old tricks. So, why should the college
ever give, indirectly, any of your hard-earned donation money to the local
schools? The answer is enlightened self-interest. You may or may not
remember that Williams College is “nestled in an idyllic valley” in the
Berkshires. That’s great for many students, but it isn’t so great for
faculty who are single, and it isn’t so great for faculty in dual-career
relationships. (As Prof. Roger Bolton once quipped, “There are two kinds
of faculty that Williams has a hard time hiring: single faculty and married
faculty.”) The result? Many departments in the college, Economics one of
them, have a difficult time hiring faculty of the quality that you enjoyed as an undergraduate and that, I presume, you would want undergraduates to continue to enjoy today and in the future, and this means that the effort
and expenditures that go into hiring each year are frighteningly large.

One thing that the college’s location does offer, relative to many other
higher educational institutions, is a rather family-friendly town. It’s
pretty safe here. Drugs aren’t too much of a problem. And, very
importantly, the schools are good. Not “great,” mind you, just “good.”
Unfortunately, even the current level of quality of the local schools is in
great jeopardy because of a combination of factors, important among them the small size of the local tax base and the substantial decline in state funds for our local schools.

If the quality of the local schools declined much from its current level,
they would cease to be an acceptable option for faculty and senior staff.
(Should you believe that this is unlikely, I suggest that you speak with
some of the older retired faculty. They will inform you that prior to the
creation of the Mt. Greylock Regional High School District, virtually all
faculty members sent their children off to boarding school for high
school.) What would be the consequence? Some people would not even
consider coming to teach at Williams because they simply would not be
willing to send their children off to boarding school. Others might still
come here, but the college would have to raise salaries enough to
compensate them for the cost of sending their children to boarding school,
the annual cost of attending which now approximates the cost of attending
Williams. A private school tuition benefit would be taxable if it was not
extended to ALL faculty and ALL staff, raising the gross cost of
effectively providing it, and extending the benefit to all staff would
clearly be very expensive. The impact on town-gown relations of such a
policy could also prove quite costly to the college.

So sure the college could make you happier by not giving any money to
support the local schools, but doing so would be penny-wise and
pound-foolish. I would think that if you learned anything in your
economics courses here, it would have been that money should be expended to the point where the marginal benefits equal the marginal costs. On that basis, supporting local schools is a good use of the college’s money.

Professor Bradburd’s reference to my “old tricks” refers to my, uh, campus activism in the 1980’s. [Don’t you mean “loud-mouth political blow-hardery”? — ed That was the old me! I’m not like that anymore. Sure — ed.]

In any event, Professor Bradburd’s comments seem as sensible today as they did 20 years ago. Whether or not I learned “anything” in my economics courses at Williams is, alas, a matter of some dispute, but whenever one of my students doesn’t understand something, I always blame the teacher first.

;-)

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Insular

This Berkshire Eagle editorial, “Williams Steps Up,” on the NARH gift from the College deserves comment.

Williams College has demonstrated exemplary generosity by contributing $1 million to the $12 million campaign now under way to renovate North Adams Regional Hospital. The college is no doubt acting in its own self-interest to an extent. A modern hospital is an essential component of a thriving, progressive North County community, and in order to attract high caliber faculty and students, up-to-date health care facilities are a compelling feature.

This just isn’t true. Prospective students have no idea whether the local hospital is the best or worst in Massachusetts (although most are smart enough to know that it is unlikely to be the best). How often did you think about hospital quality when you were 17?

Prospective faculty members are, by and large, so happy to have a tenure-track position at a decent school that hospital quality is the last thing on their minds.

But in a larger scale of things, Williams has recognized, as have other traditionally insular institutions of higher learning, that its fortunes are closely tied to the condition of its extended neighborhood. In so doing, the college has become a model of community leadership for others, especially in the corporate community, to emulate.

Who you calling “insular,” Berkshire Eagle? And, as long as we are looking for “leadership,” I wonder how much the Eagle has contributed to NARH?

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Charitable Giving

Helen Ouellette, Vice President for Administration and Treasurer, was kind enough to provide this summary of the College’s charitable giving:

The past year’s contributions include $250,000 to the high school to save teaching positions that, even with the override that was voted, would have been lost due to the drop in state funding; $16,000 to the ambulance service (which Williams students tend to monopolize!); and $15,000 awarded competitively in Olmstead grants to local teachers for curricular and professional development. As you know, we also announced last week a $1 million contribution to the North Adams Regional Hospital, though that will be paid out over a number of years.

Because we are ourselves a public charity, we can only direct the money we steward outside the College if such a contribution is in support of our core mission of education. Consequently such gifts tend to be to local schools, the hospital, and core civic infrastructure, all of which are vital to our ability to recruit and retain the quality of people we need. This usually plays out in the press as philanthropy, but its actual motivation is a narrow self-interest in the needs of Williams.

Thanks to Helen for so quickly providing this run down. It seems like almost everyone that I deal with at the College is kind and competent and quick to answer my questions.

I am somewhat mollified by this information. If the College is spending less than, say, $500,000 per year on charity, out of an operating budget of over $100 million, then there is nothing outlandish going on. Gifts to the ambulance service are more of an operating expense than a charitable gift.

At the same time, I simply do not believe that these gifts are: “vital to our ability to recruit and retain the quality of people we need.” The College hires two sorts of people: those who already live in the area and those who need to be induced to move there. The latter are overwhelmingly faculty.

Those already in the region have made the choice about the costs and benefits living in a place like Williamstown. Although it is nice for them if the College spends its endowment on making their local hospital better — just as it would be nice for them if the College spent money on better roads, nicer parks, more police officers and every other item near and dear to residents of any town — there is no benefit to the College per se in doing so.

The (mostly junior) faculty that the College is recruiting to come to Williams are, in general, so thankful to have a tenure track job that the issue of the quality of the local hospital is essentially irrelevant. Moreover, those that have options other than Williams are much more likely to be concerned about Williams’ isolation, and the effect that this has on things like partner employment opportunities, than about NARH.

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Unhealthy Hospital

On the charity front, Brooks Foehl ’88 was kind enough to point out that the Alumni Fund actually raised $7 million last year, not the $1 million that I claimed. Either way, I am still suspicious of the College’s gift of $1 million to North Adams Regional Hospital for the same reasons that I was suspicious of the College’s gifts to Greylock High School.

The article quotes Helen Ouellette, Vice President for Administration and Treasurer of Williams College, as saying:

“For more than a century, North Adams Regional has been where members of this community have come to give birth, receive critical help, treat emergencies, and, more recently, be guided on how to keep themselves well. A healthy hospital is essential to a healthy community.”

All of which is true. The problem is that there are many, many things that are essential to a healthy community. Should Williams be paying for them all? Just how “unhealthy” would the hospital be if Williams declined top contribute?

When I initially blogged about charitable giving in the context of a $250,000 gift to help Mount Greylock High School, some might have accused me of churlishness. “Come on Dave, who cares about 250k?” But, $1 million raises the bar quite a bit. My next research project will be to find out how much the College gives to charity. I would hope that this information is not secret.

I’ll also note that the College’s extensive and well-organized collection of new releases features nothing on the topic of the College’s charitable giving.

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