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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 6

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week two weeks going through it. Day 6.

Critics of American higher education these days frequently call for the entire edifice to be disrupted and dismantled on the grounds that tenured radicals promoting “political correctness” run the show and create an atmosphere that silences dissenting views. But that’s an outdated and misdirected critique.

Really? Doesn’t seem outdated to me! Williams bans speakers. Here’s what happened at Pomona just a year ago:

As the 2017 school year came to a close, protesters at Pomona College staged a sit-in, symbolically unregistered themselves from sociology classes and called for rescinding a visiting scholar post that was awarded to Alice Goffman, a white sociologist who chronicled the impact of prison and policing on black youth. In an open letter to the sociology department they demanded “peer-appointed influential student positions on the hiring committee.”

Sure sounds like an “atmosphere that silences dissenting views.” And Goffman is a liberal! Imagine what would have happened if Pomona had tried to hire a conservative — much less someone who voted for Trump!

First, tenure is fading; only 24 percent of undergraduate college courses in the U.S. are taught by tenured or tenure-track professors.

Again, Seery conflates two separate issues: what is happening in colleges in general (the decimation of tenure) versus what is happening at places like Pomona/Williams (tenure as strong as ever). If anything, tenure protections (or at least faculty confidence) are stronger now than 30 years ago, at least at Williams, because the rate at which tenure is granted has increased from 20% to 80%, approximately.

Second, the professorial radicals who came of age in the sixties are retired or dead, and professors who have achieved tenure subsequently have often acceded to the new Administrative Order of academe. Yes, there remain professors who espouse crazy theories, but not to the point that such textbook radicalism would threaten their jobs.

Are today’s radicals better than those of a generation ago? No! I think they are much worse, mainly because they seem much more eager to silence/punish views with which they disagree. It is hardly a surprise that the most strident critics of the College’s banning of Derbyshire were among the faculty’s oldest members.

If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s). The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).

Exactly correct. (And I love the phrase: Residential Life Industrial Complex!) Consider a recent example from Williams:

On Monday, members of the Davis Center placed signs along the path on the lawn outside of the Paresky Center and the Congregational Church. The signs contained facts and statements related to the College, Williamstown and Native American history. Shawna Patterson-Stephens, director of the Davis Center, was the primary organizer behind the project.

Doesn’t Shawna Patterson-Stephens have anything better to do with her time? If we must have a Davis Center, then it ought to be run by a professor.

“Oftentimes, attempts to bring awareness can have a sense of irrelevance, a sense of ‘that happened to those people over there,’ but a project such as these signs brings the issue closer to home,” Angela Wu, assistant director of the Davis Center, said.

The Davis Center has a director and an assistant director?!? As always, if College employees, on their own time and spending their own money, want to protest, more power to them! Protest is cool. But I am pretty sure that these protests occurred during the workday, using signs constructed from materials bought by Williams.

“In recognition of Indigenous People’s Month, the Davis Center wanted to provide recognition [of] native people’s culture and the legacy of injustice that has historically been committed against the indigenous community via these signs,” Dominic Madera ’21, a community builder at the Davis Center, said.

“It’s incredibly wrong that we live on and claim land as our own that we acquired by killing, harming and moving American Indian bodies,” Katie Manning ’20, a community builder at the Davis Center, said.

The Davis Center has (multiple!) “community builder[s],” students that the College pays to protest itself!

Read the whole thing. Again, if students want to protest, great! But I bet that Manning/Madera are paid for the time they spent putting up those signs by the College. The whole article is either a brilliant parody or the perfect illustration of the Residential Life Industrial Complex.

Back to Seery:

Such people present elaborate and intensive “orientation” programs for the students. They have money to hire students to hector other students about the need for making everything warm and welcoming. On the academic side of things, the deans are constantly hiring outside “diversity trainers” and “leadership consultants” and “workplace bullying” experts to come in and present all-day workshops on said issues. There’s a whole bureaucratic apparatus in place and it isn’t faculty driven at all—though some faculty members take advantage of it, once the incentives and cues are put so clearly into place.

“Hire students to hector students” sure sounds like Madera/Manning are doing.

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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 5

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week two weeks going through it. Day 5.

Some long-standing small-college virtues and priorities at Pomona seem to be fading, even as we get more technologically adept and administratively enabled.

True at Williams as well. Fifty years ago, almost every single faculty member lived close to the college and centered their lives around Williams. That was less true 25 years ago and even less true today.

But notice how Seery never talks about that! How many Pomona/Williams faculty members “commute” to work, either flying in from another city or only driving a long distance a couple of days a week? How many live far enough away that they don’t really care what happens in Williamstown? If you want “small college virtues,” then you want every faculty member (and every senior administrator) to live close by. Seery never demands this of his fellow faculty members, probably because of the real sacrifices it would require.

Back in 1990, if I felt a student was in personal distress, I would pick up the phone and call a dean I knew, and we’d have a discreet conversation about that troubled kid. And because I personally knew and trusted that dean, I also knew that she would follow through and contact the student and, sure enough, would see to it that she’d soon, one way or another, have a face-to-face sit-down with the student to find out what’s going on and to provide appropriate counsel and care.

And, back in the day, that dean was much more likely to be either a fellow member of the faculty or the spouse of a college employee or both. The bigger an organization becomes, the more those personal connections are lost.

Today if I have a troubled student, I’m supposed to go to the portal.


I call BS on this claim
. I am certain that the Pomona Dean of the College (Audrey Bilger) and/or the Dean of Students (Miriam Feldblum) would love to hear directly from Seery if he ever notices a student “in personal distress.”

I am sure there is a portal, but its existence does not prevent Seery from behaving exactly the same as he did 30 years ago. The more likely explanation is that he does not know Bilger/Feldblum; he no longer feels comfortable just picking up the phone and calling them.

The portal will tell me that, first, I have to fill out an information page about who I am, and then fill out another page about the student, checking off the problem from a list of possible concerns. That portal submission goes to some midlevel dean’s office that is called (for the moment anyway) something along the lines of the Office for Student Success and Personal Wellness. My portal entry, I recently learned after inquiring, generates an email or two to the student, but no phone call, and no face-to-face sit-down (unless the student shows up on his/her own initiative). Portal-generated emails to distressed students refer those students to other portal links whereby they can seek, a click away, information about counseling services or the like. All those portal links, to be sure, sit securely behind the latest ITS-supervised security firewalls (which need constant monitoring and revamping and outside vendor support and renewal) so that a student’s privacy cannot be violated.

Meanwhile, a troubled student under my watch did in fact drop out recently, and I learned after the fact that no human being, even from the rather well-staffed Office for Student Success and Personal Wellness, had ever met with that student, even after my many portal submissions and emails and desperate phone-called pleas for expert intervention.

I bet that there is another side to this story. You really believe that, at a place like Pomona, “desperate phone-called pleas” from a faculty member about student welfare had no effect? If true, someone should be fired. More likely, Seery — the hero of every paragraph — is over-stating his attempts and/or unaware of what happened behind the scenes.

But, really, a single story and portal complaints are not the point. The main issue is the size of Pomona/Williams, the tenure of the people who work there, and the depths of the connections among them. If Seery wants to return Pomona to its small college roots — as I would like to return Williams — then we simply must a) reduce their size, b) require local residency for faculty/administrators, c) preferentially hire among faculty/administrator spouses.

There are a dozen or more faculty spouses at Williams who would love a job in the Dean’s Office. We recently had two openings. Did we hire a spouse? No. Instead, as usual, we do a “national search.” I have nothing against the folks who were hired, both of whom seem well-qualified, and one of whom is an Eph. But Williams would have been better off hiring locally. We have too many strangers and transients as it is . . .

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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 4

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 4.

The most conspicuous change I’ve seen over those years is that the number of administrators has ballooned. On the shelves in my office I still have my first Pomona College catalog, for the academic year 1990–91, a printed black-and-white publication with a four-color but poorly designed cardboard-stock cover glued over the smudgy pages in between. Toward the back of the catalog, under “Administration,” there are nine offices listed, covering three pages, naming 56 persons as the members of the administration. Thereafter, the professors are listed, a total of 180. At the time, Pomona matriculated 1,487 students. In 2016 it takes me about ten seconds to find all this information in the cheap 1990 catalog.

Good stuff. I believe the Williams library is working on putting our old course catalogs on-line. You can be certain that the same was true at Williams.

Cut to the future, 2016. . . . Pomona College now has, by my careful count, 271 administrators … . The number of Pomona College faculty remains roughly the same (a current Pomona website lists the number of regular faculty at 186). The number of students has increased to 1,640.

The president now has nine vice presidents (up from four in 1990). The Dean of Students Office has gone from six persons in 1990 to sixty-five persons in 2016 (not counting administrative assistants). . . .

Summary overview: the number of students at Pomona has increased 12 percent from 1990 to 2016; the number of faculty has increased 3 percent; tuition has increased 253 percent; the number of administrators has increased 384 percent. Pomona now employs far more administrators (271) than faculty (186) to fulfill its small college, nonprofit educational mission.

Exactly right. Administrative staff have ballooned at Pomona — and at Williams and at Amherst and at . . . .

I know that there are good people who will sincerely try to explain and defend the mushrooming increases in administrative positions. Some attribute it to an onslaught of federal regulation (e.g., Clery Act, VAWA, ADA, FERPA, Title IV, Title IX) and increased scrutiny by regional accrediting agencies, all following from reauthorizations of the Higher Educational Act of 1965. Some point to increased competition for students owing to the emergence of rankings services, globalization, helicopter parenting, and so on. Some say that a more diversified student body requires more administrators in tow. Some say corporatist trends have infiltrated higher education everywhere. The net effect of all these macro-explanations is to conclude that the administrative overthrow of the erstwhile SLAC model was inevitable, and all we can do now is shrug our shoulders, sit through PowerPoint meetings with small breakout sessions, learn to speak the prevailing jargon, and watch reruns of The Office for off-hour comic relief.

This is both true, and too defeatist. Since the same thing has happened at every single elite school, the cause is not a specific president or powerful vizier.

But a visionary board of trustees (or president) could have done something, could still do something.

1) Fix the current number of non-faculty employees at its current level. EphBlog was recommending that policy 13 years ago. The Trustees should not micro-manage the institution, but fixing the headcount is a perfect trustee-level way of solving the problem.

2) Ratchet down the total number of non-faculty employees by 1% each year. More than 1% of the staff leave each year, either via retirement or voluntary departure, so this would require no firings. A 1% drop each year is imperceptible, but, in a decade or two, we will have made real progress.

3) Recruit the faculty to do more. Lots of faculty have no interest in anything but their teaching and research. And that is OK! But dozens of faculty would be eager to take a turn as, say, an assistant Dean of the College or assistant Provost.

Odds of this happening at Williams (or Pomona)? Zero point zero.

Here’s an increasingly typical scenario at Pomona: A meeting of the faculty is called because someone above our pay grade has decided that we all need to learn about a new complicated software package that ITS will roll out in several phases. The new package may involve the logistics of registration, or computer security, or computer storage, or business accounting (many of these matters have in fact generated such meetings in recent years). Now, if we professors were all lawyers in a corporate law firm, calling a meeting of so many lawyers time and again might be tallied in terms of collective billable hours lost to the firm. But for some reason, we in academe don’t reckon these meetings as an inherent and escalating cost of our technological infrastructure.

Seery fails to understand that many (most?) of the problems he points out at Pomona are not just problems at elite liberal arts colleges. They are problems at every successful non-profit. The exact same thing is happening at, say, the College Board and CFA Institute. When lots of money rolls in, empires will be built, bureaucracies will grow, and the original mission will fade. The old line is: Every successful organization starts as a mission, turns into a business and ends as a racquet. Where is Williams today in that evolution?

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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 3

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 3.

Seery pulls few punches:

For the rapid destruction of the American small college—which is what we are witnessing—I could wag my finger at a number of culprits and conditions. But I want to focus my ire here on one main responsible party: small liberal arts college presidents. They bear the bulk of the blame. The fish rots from the head down.

This conflates two separate issues. First, small liberal arts colleges have been decimated over the last 30 years. Scores have closed, almost always because students stopped applying/enrolling. Maybe a few of the presidents involved were greedy/incompetent. But not all of them! Second, elite liberal arts colleges like Pomona and Williams have changed a great deal. That is the “rot” that worries Seery.

Colleges are formally and informally governed far more like top-down Leninist organizations than hippie communes. Members of the board of trustees, operating according to a set of by-laws for the corporation, bear the legal and fiduciary responsibilities for good stewardship at the top, but in fact the president holds the keys to the Chevy and can drive it pretty much wherever he/she wishes (and over time, the president handpicks many of the members of the board and also pushes out critics, so it becomes more or less an old boys club). The president thus enjoys a great deal of formal and discretionary power, and isn’t constrained, as would be a CEO of a for-profit company, for overriding and clarifying concerns about bottom-line profit or shareholder returns.

True and false. It is true that college presidents, like corporate CEOs, have a lot of power and that, in general, trustees defer to them. But there is some amount of “market” discipline. Look at all the liberal arts colleges that have disappeared! Look at the movement in prestige and rankings. Look at the college presidents that are forced out, people like Hank Payne at Williams and Nancy Roseman at Dickison.

More importantly, it is naive to blame person X for something if that same something is happening everywhere. You can believe in the Great Man theory of college presidencies: The reason that Williams looks the way it does is because Morty Schapiro caused it to look that way. But you can’t simultaneously believe that and also observe that every elite college has changed in the exact same way. If every college now has highly paid administrators or too many staff, then the fault can not lie with a specific president. The cause must be systematic.

The hallowed and possibly countervailing notions of “faculty governance” and “academic freedom” are not professorial prerogatives or rights inscribed somehow in Nature or the Constitution but are, instead, discretionary privileges extended by the beneficence and norms of the Powers-that-Be at the uppermost echelon of the college. Oh, faculty committees can write reports and hold meetings and take votes and make a small ruckus. But the president is in charge, and can ignore or squelch all the noise below. And so the ultimate responsibility for the college’s corruption and demise should not be distributed or attenuated. No buck passing.

Huh? The faculty at Pomona used to be X powerful. It is now X/2 powerful. The same thing has happened at Williams. You can blame college presidents for grabbing more power — and Lord knows that I love to blame Adam Falk — but you have to blame the faculty as well. They could have fought much harder than they did. They could fight much harder now. What precisely has Seery spent the last few decades doing? Not much, I bet.

[S]mall liberal arts college presidents don’t know what they are talking about, and yet they talk as if they do. As a class of professional liars, they shouldn’t be trusted with the truth-seeking institutions with which they’ve been entrusted. They are to promote the college as a place of teaching. But they are not teachers. They are to sing the praises of the liberal arts classroom. But most of them have never set foot on a liberal arts college campus before heading one up. Most of them, I dare say after perusing their lifelong track records and educational and career choices, would never have sought out a presidency at a small liberal arts college but for the enormous pay and status that now come attached to those jobs.

“[P]rofessional liars?” Come on! To be a college president, you have to be a bit of a politician, you have to get along with people you don’t like — obstreperous senior professors of government, for example. You can’t tell people exactly what you think all the time. You often speak in platitudes. But that has been true of college presidents for hundreds of years. This is hardly the same as being a liar.

It is a separate question whether or not the current (outrageous!) pay of elite college presidents attract the wrong sort of candidates. I agree and, moreover, even if it doesn’t, there is no reason to expect that high pay actually leads to better presidents.

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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 2

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 2.

But that cancerous disease—of a burgeoning and expensive administrative apparatus über alles—has infected small colleges, too, and its damaging effects are particularly pernicious there.

An autonomous managerial class has emerged whose immediate and ulterior interests are occupational as opposed to educational (a distinction that ought not to be collapsed), and whose mission is to serve administrative purposes as opposed to teaching purposes (another distinction that ought not to be elided). Perhaps worst of all, the management model of organization, in trying to bring small colleges into the fold of purportedly national “best practices” and procedures, is destroying the distinctiveness, the localism, the teacherliness, the very raison d’etrê, of small colleges, one by one, all across America. Those colleges rich enough to compete for students and brand recognition with the likes of Stanford and Princeton may survive the last shakeout, but I’m afraid it will be at the expense of, as it were, their institutional souls.

An “autonomous managerial class” has certainly emerged at Williams over the last 30 years. Its key members include Collette Chilton, Chief Investment Officer; Steve Klass, Vice President for Campus Life; Leticia S. E. Haynes, Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity; and Frederick W. Puddester, Vice President for Finance & Administration and Treasurer. Note:

1) None of these jobs existed 30 years ago. Indeed, there are at least 8 people in jobs that did not exist 15 years ago and who are paid much more than almost any member of the faculty. If the Williams of 1990 could survive with these roles, then couldn’t the Williams of 2018?

2) These people are paid much more than the faculty. From the 2016 Form 990 (pdf), the total compensation numbers are:

Chilton: $1,476,000
Haynes: $122,000
Klass: $378,000
Puddester: $473,000

(The Haynes number is surprisingly low since her predecessor, Mike Reed, made more than twice as much in the same job.)

3) These people are much more powerful than the average faculty member. The easiest way to track power in any organization, other than via compensation, is to examine access. Klass/Puddester meet more with the president of Williams in an average week than the typical faculty member does over the course of a year.

4) This is just the tip of the administrative iceberg. I left out folks like Megan Morey
Vice President for College Relations, Jim Reische Chief Communications Officer and Keli Gail
Assistant to the President and Secretary of the College because those jobs existed 15 years ago, albeit with much less power, and with much lower compensation (relative to the faculty). And then, in the levels below the President’s senior staff, we have scores of new positions/employees.

Seery is correct about the growth of this “class” and its ever increasing power/wealth relative to the faculty. I devoted nine days of discussion to explaining what this meant: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Read it if you want to understand the past/future of faculty governance at Williams. Short version: Faculty governance has decreased each decade at Williams for at least the last 50 years. Falk accelerated/completed that change.

But, is it fair to say that Pomona/Williams are losing “their institutional souls?” He offers no evidence for this much stronger claim. Steve Klass is a good guy! He would agree with everything that Seery says about the centrality of the classroom to the mission of Williams. Klass would just argue that, in addition to great teachers, a multi-billion dollar institution like Williams needs great administrators, people who decide, for example, where to build the new dorm. Does Seery disagree?

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Jeremiad and Eulogy, 1

Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 1.

Seery begins:

I write this essay with mixed feelings. Half of me is mighty reluctant to write something harshly critical about higher education in the United States because I’m such a true-blue believer in, beneficiary of, and insider (here in my nook) to the system: Why should I contribute to the clamorous cross-country badmouthing so in vogue? We educators today are under siege by roving bands of pauperized parents, skunk-eyed skeptics, bean-counting accountants, dastardly disrupters, cretinous accreditors, mega-moneyed magnates, technology tycoons, pooh-poohing pundits, profiteering politicos, and others.

The more you love something, the more you have a responsibility to engage in honest, thoughtful criticism of it. I haven’t written almost every day for 15 years about Williams because I hate it. I write about Williams because I love it. Despite that (or maybe because of it), I suspect that most of Hopkins Hall views me as a “skunk-eyed skeptic.” Not that there is anything wrong with that!

My on-the-ground, in-the-hallway reality thus contravenes the prevailing narrative depicting professors as a bunch of pampered partisan prigs. Go ahead, troll me, if you must.

Professors as a class are hardly “pampered.” Indeed, the dramatic over-supply of Ph.D.’s and the ever increasing adjunctification of higher ed means that the average Ph.D. who teaches college students in the US is under increasing siege.

But Seery and his tenured peers at Pomona (and Williams) are among the most pampered workers in the entire world. Does Seery really not know that? First, they can never be fired. (Recall Williams Professor Aida Lalelian use of the term “nigger” to attack a faculty colleague. In any other company in the US, she would have been fired the next day. As a tenured professor at an elite college, she was safe.) Second, they get raises every year. Even the worse teacher/scholar at Pomona, once tenured, is on almost the exact same ever-rising ladder of prosperity as Seery. Third, their required workloads have decreased dramatically. At Williams, professors have gone from “3 and 3″ — meaning a requirement to teach 3 courses each semester — to “3 and 2″ to “2 and 2.” You can be certain the same thing has happened at similar colleges. If tenured professors at Pomona are not “pampered,” then no employee is.

I’m an outspoken, latter-day, and self-appointed apostle for the small liberal arts college (SLAC) form of education, a distinctively American institution.

Me too! Read “Choose Williams Over Harvard” for the details.

Only about 1 percent of the nation’s twenty million undergraduates are educated these days in a SLAC. Maybe I’m whistling past the graveyard, or going down with the sinking ship, or living on an isolated island as a blinkered holdout after the war is long over, but I still assert that the small liberal arts college form of education ought to be recognized (because it is so in fact, sotto voce, even if in dwindling numbers) as the gold standard, the summum bonum, the best of the best, for undergraduate education (rich, poor, white, black, religious, secular, you name it).

That is absurd. Has Seery ever met a high school senior with, say, 25th percentile intelligence? He should go visit some average high schools! Such students don’t like school, they don’t like reading, they don’t like all that intellectual stuff that Seery (and I!) like. And that is OK! We should no more make such students go to places like Pomona than we should make non-academically inclined Pomona students get a Ph.D. Graduate school is not for everyone, and neither is life at a SLAC. Such students are much better off learning a trade after high school.

But, to the extent that Seery is talking about the intellectual elite, I agree. If you have a choice between Pomona and, say, Cornell, you should choose Pomona for all the reasons that you should choose Williams over Harvard.

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