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Recent Int’l Graduates Concerns with Dean’s Office, 1/3

Fellow current students have pointed out a concern recent international student graduates are having with Dean’s Office. Consider a Facebook discussion on the matter:

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There are many statements here to unpack (especially the comments!). Let’s focus on the concern that the original poster focuses on in this first of three discussions.

Some context: international students at Williams are on the F-1 student visa, and among its stipulations is that such students are given a 12 month “optional practical training” or OPT period post-graduation to legally work in the country. However, if one declares a STEM major, that one year is extensible to three. This also gives international student graduates in STEM majors three chances at applying for work visa (a lottery with a ~25% chance of success each year) to stay longer, if that’s what they want, as opposed to just one if the student had declared a non-STEM major.

Following in the footsteps of institutions like Princeton, the original poster reports that Williams is now categorizing the college’s Economics major as a STEM major, incidentally the most popular major among international students in the college. However, unlike Princeton, which allowed international student graduates in Economics to be retroactively categorized as STEM (thus allowing them a couple extra years to work), Williams has rejected such requests from graduates of the class of 2015 and 2016. In initial emails with Dean Ninah Pretto, the new Assistant Dean for International Student Services, where students/graduates cite Princeton’s example (and material evidence of this!), she immediately rejects these requests without providing any explanation. Students and graduates, however, pressed on emailing, restating evidence from Princeton to which Dean Ninah relented. She states that she is “afraid” of retroactively applying this policy to graduates, but that she would call Princeton today. She also states that the final authority rests with Dean Marlene Sandstrom.

As this post went to press, no update has arrived from the Dean’s Office.

Some questions:

  1. Is it Dean Ninah Pretto’s personal policy to not explain decisions she makes that materially affect the lives of Williams students/graduates? The comments suggest this is endemic to the whole Dean’s Office, but that is another long (but related) discussion to have.
  2. Is it not Dean Ninah Pretto’s job to check these policies ahead of time so she wouldn’t be “afraid” of doing anything? Clearly she had nothing to be “afraid” of, since Princeton was able to do this.
  3. If she were truly “afraid” of retroactively applying this policy to recent international graduates of the college, she would have checked before making such a unilateral decision on policy, which is what she did! So, why did she unilaterally reject the initial requests?
  4. To that point, does Dean Ninah Pretto have this unilateral authority? If so, what decisions can she unilaterally make for international students? Current and future international students would appreciate a list for future reference.
  5. If the students/graduates did not press Dean Pretto, would it be entirely possible that this issue would’ve just gone away and recent international graduates wouldn’t receive any fair treatment? My guess is that yes, it would’ve just been dropped, based on the experience of my peers. Thankfully, they kept pressing, or she might never have considered doing her job!
  6. In one of her latest emails to international students, Dean Ninah states: “As your International Student Advisor, I want to reiterate my commitment to serving and supporting each and every one of you. Again, this country is made up of immigrants from all over the world and they make the U.S. a unique and amazing place.” If this is truly her position, does Dean Pretto believe that recent international graduates are less deserving of her commitment to serve and support? What criteria does she use to make this determination? Again, current and future international students would certainly like to know.

What do fellow classmates/EphBlog readers think?

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Hello, EphBlog! – Concerned Ephs ’17 (and ’18, and ’19, and so forth)

The first time I came to Williams was the fall before my freshman year – my eighth stop in my college tour, and by then, I’d discovered that the best way to truly learn about a school, skeletons included, wasn’t through admissions tours or glossy brochures, but by dropping in on a class, looking at the person beside me, shaking my head, and declaring “Oh my god, I heard that problem set was so hard.” Fortunately (for me at least) this proved quite effective when I visited because it happened to be midterm season then. I sat in a physics lecture, looked to my right, and said: “Oh my god, I heard that midterm was so hard.” The girl seated beside me, Jaime, enlarged her eyes and nodded in agreement, and to my delight, began speaking in earnest, generous detail about her packed (to put it lightly) week: a dance show just three days for which she had daily rehearsals, some RA work that was due with the statistics department, planning a surprise birthday for her entrymate (Willy D!), holding office hours for a CS class she was TA-ing, and, of course, the lab element of her physics midterm. Jaime looked exhausted and sleep deprived, and had the bloodshot eyes to prove it. As she was about to say more, to my surprise Jaime stopped herself and shrugged: “Sorry, I shouldn’t be complaining. Forget what I just said.” Perplexed with this realization following her rant, I asked her what she meant. “Everyone at Williams is so lucky to be here. Sometimes it gets overwhelming but what makes this all so worth it, what makes this place unique I guess, is that everyone really cares.” She packed up her things, and in the face of a mountain of commitments the following day, proceeded to old Sawyer, where her tutee would be waiting. I was sold – no one in any other school said anything remotely as powerful.

It didn’t take long after I first arrived to realize how true Jaime’s words (and so, so much more!) are. Coming from the other side of the world, coming to Williams was a huge leap of faith; now, some years later, my roots are firmly planted in this fertile, Purple Valley. Some of my most cherished memories and most powerful moments include the all nighters I spent with fellow classmates studying for that last bio final in Science Quad; the conversations I’d have with professors-turned-mentors, where their passions exude in their excitement; the many times I’ve seen both friends and strangers drop everything to help a fellow classmate in need. As time went by, the four years here I once considered a mere stepping stone slowly became an end unto itself. As with the many who read and write for this blog, I’ve come attribute much of who I am today to the people I’ve met, befriended, learned from, and mentored (you go full circle at Williams!), and the ideas that I’ve explored with them here in the Purple Valley.

It’s for these very reasons that I, along with two friends from the class of ’18 and ’19, have taken to EphBlog as students who are very concerned with the state of matters in the college. As our affinity and affection for Williams grew, so did our awareness of the institution and internal workings behind the name. As many of my fellow upperclassmen will agree, the more time one spends at Williams, the more one begins to notice the disturbing cracks in the well: fellow classmates unceremoniously ignored or stonewalled by administrators, the rude and unfair treatment of students who want to start clubs (some elements of Williams make this shockingly difficult if they do not agree with you!), backwards and arbitrary use of policy, rampant and potentially systemic Honor Code violations, and so much more! It was a deeply sad and distressing moment for all of us when we realized that the Williams to which we aspired wasn’t the Williams we thought it was.

Unfortunately, Williams students are not ideally placed to solve, let alone notice, these problems. We students come and go every year, the Record is unable to report anything substantive (for good reason, which we’ll get to in a future post!), and no student will have any reasonable measure of institutional memory to draw on. What’s more is that in our efforts to get answers to issues, it’s been made quite clear to us that there is no place for questions, debate, and opinions (esp. if you do not agree with Williams) in the Purple Valley. Sometimes, these concerns may initially seem isolated to individual cases. However, as we began investigating and hearing more and more Hopkins Horror Stories (as they’re known among students) and other disturbing events from fellow students and professors, patterns just as perturbing started emerging that we could no longer ignore – especially since many of them are quite structural (and thus here to stay) in nature! Many of our professors, especially those who’ve been here longer, pointed (some willingly, most unwillingly) to EphBlog as a means of cataloging, reporting, discussing, and connecting these issues – where else can Williams students earnestly, meaningfully do this? It’s our hope that these efforts help usher a more transparent, fairer Williams that all of us can proudly call their alma mater. At the end of the day, we all play a role in shaping what Williams is, and what we ultimately want it to become.

All this said, though, we also love talking about issues at Williams separate from these concerns – to alums, please let us know what you’d like to hear! We’re very into Ephs doing cool things (so we’ll post a bit about that every now and then!), career advice for younger underclassmen (such as getting that internship), and which classes to take/professors to meet. Otherwise, if you have any tips or issues you’d like to discuss (other current students especially!), shoot us an email at concerned.ephs@gmail.com – we would love to hear from all Ephs!

Happy Friday!

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Middlebury Admissions Data

Here (and saved copy here pdf) is data on the last 10 years of admissions data from Middlebury. Sample:

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Williams should be just as transparent. For example, has the percentage Williams students admitted via early decision gone up at Williams as much as it has at Middlebury?

Record op-ed writers have called for more transparency. EphBlog agrees! The simplest way to ensure transparency is to expect/require Williams to be at least as transparent about topic X as the most transparent elite college. So, if Middlebury makes public ten years of admissions data in this format, Williams ought to as well. This does not require Williams to arrange the data in exactly the same format as Middlebury does. That would be too much work! But Williams has a report that is very similar to this, one that the President/Provost/Trustees use as a basis for discussion and debate. Motto: No school more transparent than Williams.

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Coalition for Transparency and Accountability

ctaMost interesting new student movement this year is the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability. Good stuff! EphBlog’s advice:

1) Focus this week-end on transparency rather than accountability. You can always come back to accountability at the next Trustee meeting.

2) With regard to transparency, focus on the general principal rather than too many specific examples. You want to get the trustees to agree to the following:

EphBlog’s Maxim #9: William should be as transparent about topic X as any other elite college unless the Trustees explicitly decide/explain otherwise.

Perhaps this could be worded better? The advantages of this focus include:

a) A clear rule. If Amherst or Harvard or Berkley are transparent about course ratings, endowment investments or faculty meetings, than Williams should be transparent as well. No need to adjudicate every possible topic ahead of time.

b) A default toward openness. The trustees have already committed to greater transparency. You want to make such transparency the explicit default unless there are compelling reasons to be secret.

c) A burden on the trustees. Your current proposal asks the trustees to do a bunch of work. That is a mistake. The trustees are busy people! They don’t need any more assignments. Instead, you want them to have to do work only if they block transparency. As long as Williams is transparent, the trustees shouldn’t have to do anything.

d) A strong standard. You don’t want Williams to be as transparent as other elite colleges in general or on average. The College could meet that standard by being more transparent than Amherst on topic X and less on topic Y. Instead, on each item separately, Williams must be at least as transparent as the most transparent school is on that topic.

3) Be collaborative. The trustees are your friends. They love Williams as much as you do. (Even if you don’t believe that, you should act as if you do. Such tactics are much more likely to achieve your goals than mindless confrontations.) In that spirit, you should compile items that Williams is less transparent about relative to peer schools. (Again, your advantage is that the trustees have already committed to transparency. You are, therefore, helping them to achieve the goal that they themselves set.)

My favorite example is student course evaluations. At Harvard, for example, students can read every comment that every past student has made (in the Harvard equivalent of our SCSS forms) about every class. Very transparent! Williams should be equally transparent. Another example is endowment transparency. Wellesley provides many more details about its endowment management than Williams does. That shouldn’t be the case. We should be at least as transparent as Wellesley. A third example involves grading. Middlebury provides more details than Williams does. There is no reason for that, assuming that the trustees are really committed to greater transparency. More examples under the EphBlog Transparency tag.

A copy of the current version of the CTA’s demands is below the break. Worth going through item by item?

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Grade Inflation

Grade inflation is a problem at Williams, one we have discussed many times in the past. Start here for a good introduction. The most annoying aspect of the debate is the refusal by Williams to make the data public, or at least available to students and alumni.

Here are the grade distributions at Middlebury.

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The average grade at Middlebury has increased from 3.32 to 3.53 in 11 years. How much higher will it go in the future?

Why can’t Williams be as transparent as Middlebury when it comes to this important topic?

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“Mirror, mirror on the wall / Who in the land is fairest of all?”

“Nobody is more qualified to multitasking and doing all the things that you need to do as president than a woman, a mom. What I would look for is a mom, somebody who’s administered locally, state, interstate with energy issues, so maybe a mayor, a governor, an oil commissioner, maybe somebody who’s already run for something, vice president. I don’t know!”

Former Alaska Gov, Sarah Palin answered questions during a public appearance at Long Island (LIA) Association Meeting and Luncheon in Woodbury, N.Y. Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011.

More here

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Falk at the Faculty Meeting

Spectral Talent (who seems to be a faculty member and who ought to join us as an (anonymous) author) writes:

It does appear that he [Adam Falk] has not appointed an independent committee. However, from his lengthy discussions about his plans at two faculty meetings, one of which was devoted entirely to this topic, it is clear that he has spent a great deal of time hammering out these ideas with present and past senior staff (with the present senior staff appearing to be strongly in favor of the plan). It is also clear that he and others have looked closely at what other institutions are doing and that that has informed his own ideas here. Finally, he is not “just announcing the decisions that he has already made.” Rather, he is spending hours of time getting input from the full faculty on those plans before presenting them to the trustees. Will he change his plans based on these discussions? Who knows? But at least he is having them.

1) Alas, my descriptions of Falk’s actions are coming across more critically than I intended. I simply wanted to note that, unlike Morty with athletic admissions and student housing, there has been no independent committee or formal survey of peer institutions. And that might be a very good thing! Perhaps it is about time that a Williams president exercised more executive energy. I just wanted to point out how surprising I, and others, found it. I have no doubt that Falk and others have thought long and hard about this topic and that they have excellent reasons.

2) Now that we have solved the Form 990 issue, the next step in my endless transparency crusade is to make faculty meetings more transparent. How to do so? Simple:

  • Post on the Dean of the Faculty’s webpage any material (handouts, Powerpoint slides, et cetera) that are distributed/shown at (or before) the meeting.
  • Post the notes from faculty meetings. (These are currently (corrections welcome) distributed to department/program chairs and are also available to any faculty member for review.)

Related thread here. Within the context of this greater transparency, it would be fine to withhold some sensitive material (perhaps about compensation, perhaps in reference to a specific student). My proposal is for 95%, not that 100%, of the handouts/slides/notes. If this were done now, then it would be easier for the larger Williams community (especially students, staff and alumni) who are not (and can not be) at the faculty meeting to appreciate the work that Falk (and others) have put into this proposal. Thanks to spectraltalent for bringing this to our attention.

On the larger point of the need for more transparency, who can argue with Professor Frank Morgan?

Our mission and purpose (which can be found online at www.williams.edu/home/mission) not only justify our best decisions but also mandate a more open decision process, in which we can practice what we preach about the free exchange of ideas leading to better understanding, more ideas and better solutions. Such open exchange of ideas, one of our core values, however inconvenient, deserves and requires our commitment, especially because it is sometimes inconvenient.

Exactly correct.

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Not Considered Public

In order to have a meaningful discussion about the Gaudino Option, especially with regards to the B- minimum grade required to invoke it, we need some basic data about grade point averages at Williams. So, in my role as EphBlog reporter, I sought out that data. Here is what Registrar Charlie Toomajian wrote back:

Dave:

I am sorry to report that the information you requested is not considered public by the College. By faculty regulation, we do not release information about class rankings and providing the data you requested could jeopardize that ruling.

I hope the discussion proves lively and informative.

Charlie T.

1) Thanks to Charlie for taking the time to answer and for giving me permission to quote him. Note that this ridiculous paranoia is not Charlie’s fault. There are voices at Williams who think that the less transparent that Williams is, the better. Those voices prevent us — or, really, all alumni, students and parents — from having an informed conversation.

2) My original e-mail to Charlie is below the break. But note that I am not asking for class rankings! I just want to know average GPAs and the cut-offs for Latin honors. This is some sort of state secret? Pathetic.

3) If the College were serious about not “releas[ing] information about class rankings,” then it should stop publishing the names of Summa students (or the name of the Valedictorian). (Summas are the top 2.5% of the class by GPAs.) But, obviously, Williams is just using that phrasing as an excuse to keep me (and you!) poorly informed.

4) Given the strong praise that Adam Falk had for transparency at the Boston Alumni meeting, do you think that I should politely follow up with him?

5) Some of this data (like average GPA) is regularly discussed at Williams and reported in the Record. Why keep it a “secret” from us?

Read more

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Respecting Our Mission

Excellent letter to the Record from Professor Frank Morgan:

At a time of important decisions, Williams must remember its mission and purpose. I see Williams College as a joint student-faculty/staff enterprise dedicated to the proposition that understanding brings progress. We value critical thinking, the free exchange of ideas and a community based on open-mindedness, inclusiveness, mutual respect and freedom from prejudice.

Do we need to adjust our priorities to adapt to the current climate and stay number one according to U.S. News and World Report in order to attract the best students, faculty and staff? No. I believe in our ideals. That’s what attracted me to Williams, and I do not think that we can do better than to attract those who share our ideals.

I am concerned that during some recent major decisions we have not focused clearly on our top priorities. Take the decision to close Greylock and Dodd dining halls. It might well have been the right decision, and one that would have been reached after a different process. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that for financial reasons we had to cut $800,000 from dining services. The question is exactly how to do that. The arguments we’ve heard have been about the most popular dining options. Those are legitimate but secondary considerations. The prime consideration should remain our mission and purpose, encouraging intellectual and community conversation among students, between students and faculty and across groups that are diverse intellectually, culturally and socially. We could include staff, visiting speakers, alums, prospective students, families and other guests. The potential for fostering such activity through College dining options I find exciting.

Our mission and purpose (which can be found online at www.williams.edu/home/mission) not only justify our best decisions but also mandate a more open decision process, in which we can practice what we preach about the free exchange of ideas leading to better understanding, more ideas and better solutions. Such open exchange of ideas, one of our core values, however inconvenient, deserves and requires our commitment, especially because it is sometimes inconvenient.

Such considerations apply not just to dining services decisions but also to the neighborhood review, the disposition of the new library, all the ways we spend our money and, more importantly, our time here at Williams.

Indeed. The College does some things well when it comes to transparency and some things horribly. The basic conflict is between people in the Administration who think that information/details should be “reserved for policy makers” — this was the justification given to me for keeping the details behind the 2009 Report by the Athletics Committee secret — and those, like Frank Morgan, who think that, as much as possible, a “more open decision process” and an “open exchange of ideas” are critical to the future of Williams. Frank is right.

Whose side are you on?

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Provost Report 2010: Conclusion

Today finishes our two week tour of the 2010 Provost Report. Professor Bill Lenhart concludes:

Williams is in a strong financial situation by virtually any comparison—except with the Williams of three years ago. In the wake of the financial crisis, we have significantly less revenue from endowment and less revenue from gifts. It would be unwise to anticipate endowment growth in the future of the kind we’ve experienced over the past 15 years. Our challenge then is to reduce spending in ways that protect our mission of providing the finest possible liberal arts education and that return us as soon as possible to where, if capital markets remain steady, we can resume growth in our operations each year. This is a goal we can achieve with the continued help of faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and friends.

Indeed. Thanks for all the many thoughtful comments during this discussion. Kudos once again to Williams for providing such detailed information.

How much transparency should Williams provide in the future? That’s easy! Just slap up on the webpage whatever material is distributed at Faculty or Trustee Meetings — or, at least 90% of it. Doing so requires (virtually) no extra work since all the charts/tables/slides have already been created. A small portion of the data would need to be kept secret, because of federal regulations, fund-raising sensitivities and other issues.

But if, going forward, Williams were to be as transparent as it seems to have been in this case, I would have little to complain about, at least when it comes to financial issues. Next steps include admissions, grade inflation, course enrollments, and . . .

But, for now, baby steps!

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Reports to Secondary Schools

Amherst makes public, and has done so for many years, its Report to Secondary Schools. These documents are thorough and informative. Kudos!

Why doesn’t Williams do the same? We have all the same data. We almost certainly prepare a similar report for internal use. (I bet that the trustee (pdf) “Committee on Admission and Financial Aid: Robert G. Scott, Chair; David C. Bowen, Valda C. Christian, Michael R. Eisenson, Jonathan A. Kraft, William E. Oberndorf, Malcolm W. Smith, Laurie J. Thomsen” looks at a report each year that is indistinguishable from this one.) Here are some historical copies. I read the one from my class and it was, unsurprisingly, very similar to what Amherst makes public.

Simple rule: If we create a already create a report for internal use that is almost identical to a report which Amherst makes public, then we ought to make our report public as well.

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Data From the Provost

Huge props to Provost Bill Lenhart and the rest of the Williams Administration for making this excellent collection of data publicly available. (Hat tip to Will Slack ’11.)

1) There is so much good material here, I don’t even know where to begin. I will devote next week to an item-by-item discussion. Contain your excitement.

2) At first glance, this data looks highly detailed and comprehensive. I could imagine that this is almost exactly the same as the information that the Trustees are looking at this week-end. True?

3) As longtime readers know, I (and others at EphBlog) have been complaining/campaigning/cajoling for years in order to encourage Williams to be more transparent. This is exactly the sort of material that we had in mind. Anything (or, almost anything) that is presented at a faculty meeting or to the Trustees ought to be made public.

4) The more information that members of the College community have about Williams, the more informed their opinions will be. More informed opinions lead to better discussion and debate, which leads to better decision-making and results. But that is too wordy! EphBlog needs a handy slogan which encapsulates this argument. Suggestions? Transparency for excellence?

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Digitizing Project of the Record begins

From the Library Website:

Getting the historic Williams Record online has involved many people working countless hours to solve the numerous difficulties that arose; there is still much to be done. Staff at the Internet Archive and Williams College Libraries are continuing their efforts to make the scanned images easier to locate and read. However, many issues of the historic Record are already in the Internet Archive and can be read page by page.

Take a look: go to Internet Archive and search williams college student newspapers. You’ll get a list of Williams Record volumes and the related titles Williams Advocate and RecordAdvocate.

The e-transfer process will certainly take a long time, but the benefits to researchers will probably be numerous.

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Budget Transparency

Kudos to Williams for being transparent to faculty/students/staff/alumni about its plans for budget cutting. Consider:

Williams Budget Adjustment Summary (PDF)

Williams Budget Adjustment Presentation (PDF)

Fascinating stuff. My comments below:
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Some Beg to Differ

In response to a suggestion that Williams be more pro-actively transparent by posting its annual Form 990s, (then) President Shapiro disagreed and said he thought “we were transparent enough.”  That is hardly an incontrovertible view,  so in the spirit of academic discussion, that position  may be examined and challenged.

For instance, while it is true that the college (like most private colleges, but not Bennington!) posts its audited financial statements, the detail in these is poor beer compared with the coverage of specific activities shown by the Form 990.  An interesting exercise would be a comparison of these two reports and, indeed, one might be forthcoming in this EphBlog space before too long.  Such an exercise shows that valuable elements of transparency are added to the college portrait when the 990 is included in the information set.

In response to an earlier post on this subject, one comment (by Mike) argued that the Form 990 is “easy to find” (e.g., on www.Guidestar.com) and, therefore, why press the college to post its own?   Sure, the Form 990 is easy to find, but only if the user is familiar with the 990 itself, knows about the Guidestar website, and is also a registered Guidestar user.   The number of such users is not large among potentially interested parties.   Face it:   this ain’t easy or obvious for lots of people.  Whatever that degree of “ease,” however, it is surely  much much easier for colleges to simply offer these reports to their alumni and donors by simply putting them up on their websites.

By the way, the arguments deployed here with respect to Williams apply with equal force to all other private colleges and universities (represented by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities – NAICU, itself a nonprofit, which offers its own Form 990 here), and also to the myriads of other “charitable organizations” in the current nonprofit universe.  There are about 2 million of them, these days.  So, this is not to pick on Williams alone.

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The 2008 Form 990 Debuts on Guidestar

The Williams Form 990 for Fiscal 2008 (viz., July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008) finally showed up on the Guidestar website yesterday, almost 14 months after the end of the reporting period.    For those, like myself, who think this document is very useful and affords more detailed insight into the finances and activities of the college, this is too long a wait.

For the last several years Williams has been filing its Form 990 with the IRS at the very outer limit of the permitted reporting window, around mid-May of the following fiscal year.   That is, the 4 1/2 month normal reporting limit,  plus the 3 month extension granted automatically on request, plus a second (and final) extension, which must also be requested by the reporting institution.   That makes the 10 1/2 months of “reporting lag.”   Add in the ca. 2 1/2 to 3  months it requires for Guidetar (and others) to acquire this material from the IRS Ogden office, and that accounts for the approximately 14 months before this material becomes “publicly visible” to interested parties on any website.

Some other colleges and universities do better, by filing earlier and themselves posting these documents on their own websites, something that will be detailed in a subsequent post in this space.

Compare the 10 1/2 month reporting delay and almost 3 month posting lag for Williams with the availability of the college’s audited financial statments, the latest of which was signed by the auditors on September 18, 2008, less than 3 months after the close of the 2008 fiscal year.  These, to be sure, are posted, albeit discretely, on the college website, although exact date of posting is not clear to me.  In fact, almost all colleges and universities I have reviewed seem to put these accounts up for their constituency to see.  But not Bennington!

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Morty says “No” to Greater Financial Transparency: the Background

In a post on EphBlog (my first) on July 20, I recounted briefly how Williams President Shapiro said “No” to my suggestion that Williams  promote greater financial transparency by posting its annual Forms 990 on the college website.  The current post gives the background to the story and, of course, expresses the hope that Williams, under new administration, will “come around” and see the issue from a different perspective.

The Form 990, as data nerds know, is the annual information return filed by the majority of 501(c)(3) nonprofit, “charitable” organizations with the IRS.  Williams and other private colleges are among those organizations.  These forms are to be filed within 4 ½ months after the end of the nonprofit’s fiscal year which, in the case of most educational establishments, is end-June.  In certain circumstances a nonprofit can get up to six months additional time to file, but within at most 10 ½ months after fiscal year end, the 990s should be in hands of the IRS.

It is useful to note that a Form 990 is, by law, a public document.   The filing institution is obliged to make it available on request and/or provide a hard copy at cost, of the most recent three years’ reports.  The IRS will also furnish a copy if contacted using Form 4506-A, Request for Public Inspection or Copy of Exempt or Political Organization, the title of which is, yes, a bit of a mouthful.  For those “in the know,” recent Forms 990 can also be downloaded from www.Guidestar.org (the nom de web of Philanthropic Research, Inc.) and a couple of other sites.  But, there are substantial lags before these documents make it to GuideStar, and in some cases they are not very timely when they get there.  In the case of Williams, it has frequently been a year to a year and half (measured from fiscal year end) before Form 990 filings make it to the GuideStar site.

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Williams Forms 990: Completing the Set

Several posts under “Form 990″ on the EphBlog contain links to forms 990 filed by Williams with the IRS in recent years.   Those for 2004 and 2005 seem to be missing.    Here, to complete the set, are these two filings.

Williams Form990 2004 and Williams Form990 2005

If any reader feels moved to acquire the whole set from the past 10 years, they happen to be living on my computer, and I can provide.

For those historians searching for pre-1998 forms 990, it appears to be the IRS standard to destroy these nonprofits’ filings after 10 years, so they may be hard to obtain.    The website www.Guidestar.com currently makes available only the most recent three year run for non-premium users.

At the present moment, Williams’ 2008 form 990, which should have been filed with the IRS months ago,  is not yet posted on Guidestar, but it should be along shortly.   When the 2008 filing appears, it will find its way onto the EphBlog like the others.

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Greater Financial Transparency? Morty says “No.”

During the recent reunion weekend, in a public meeting, President Shapiro said “No” to the suggestion that Williams should post on its website the Forms 990 it submits on an annual basis to the IRS, even though the information in these forms is, by law, open to the public.    Details on this exchange coming shortly.

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Transparency in Athletic Dominance

Larry George raises an interesting point.

A bit off topic, but I had a Wellesley parent complain rather bitterly to me about how “totally unfair” it was that Wellesley had to compete against the Williams women in one of the spring sports (”Why don’t you all skip this playground and just go compete in Division 1? You don’t belong here.” She was a little embarrassed when I pointed out that I figured Wellesley’s team was drawn from a pool of about three times as many female students as Williams has (and that the Williams team had an extremely high average GPA so it wasn’t as though Williams had compromised its academic admissions standards in recruiting the team).

Don’t be so sure. How can Larry (or the Wellesley mom) know whether or not Williams has “compromised its academic admissions standards?” Although we have plenty of evidence that Morty has raised the academic standards for Williams athletes over the last 5 years, it is hard for an outsider, like the Wellesley mom to be certain. Moreover, none of us can know what the currents standards are.

But this is a solvable problem! Williams could make public the average college GPA (and SAT scores) of its sports teams, both raw and weighted by playing time. Williams would do this unilaterally, but with an eye toward making this a NESCAC standard. Since the data would be for last year’s teams, you would have some disconnect between the numbers and the Ephs on the field this year. No data for any individual student would be released, only team averages.

Williams could begin by doing this unilaterally, and then seek to make it a NESCAC standard. Other than the costs of making the calculations, what is the downside?

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Best Practices for the Endowment

I had an interesting discussion with a Williams administrator yesterday with regard to
my concerns about the endowment. No one expects Chief Investment Officer Collette Chilton and the Investment Committee to work miracles. But they should be able to adhere to a set of best practices as exemplified by peer institutions. To be specific, consider The Boston Foundation (tBf), led by former Williams trustee Paul Grogan ’72, and Wellesley College. Both organizations do a fine job with resources similar to those of Williams. Which best practices should Williams emulate?

1) Quarterly reporting. Consider this webpage and pdf from tBf. Given that Chilton and her staff compile quarterly reports for the Investment Committee, there is no excuse for not sharing that information with the rest of us.

2) Manager transparency. Consider the explicit listing of Boston Foundation managers.

Note that there is not complete transparency here. In particular, we do not know which private equity and venture firms tBf invests in, much less which specific funds sponsored by those firms. That’s a complex issue which we can save for another day. But there is no excuse for Williams not to tell us which firms it uses to manage the standard equity and fixed income portions of the portfolio.

3) Clear asset allocation, benchmarks and category performance.
The Boston Foundation provides its asset allocation here. As discussed previously, Williams makes public its asset allocation policy, but we have little idea which benchmarks it uses to measure manager performance nor how well those managers have done, at least in aggregate. Consider the 2003 Report (pdf) from Wellesley.

There are two components to endowment returns. First, what categories were the funds allocated to? An endowment that is 75% in equities will perform very differently than one which allocates only 25% to equities. Second, which managers are selected within a given category? Two endowments can both allocate 50% to equities (as Williams does) but their performances can differ dramatically depending on which managers each selects. There is a case to be made that the performance data for a specific manager should be kept secret. But there is no excuse for not doing as Wellesley does above and reporting the aggregate performance of the managers within each specific category of the overall asset allocation.

Again, it would be one thing if reporting this information to the Williams community were a major burden to Chilton and her staff. Transparency is valuable, but not at any cost. However, every single piece of information (manager identity, asset allocation, benchmarks and relative performance, all on a quarterly basis) is already collected and reported to Morty, the Trustees and the Investment Committee.

Best practices require that Williams share that information with the rest of us.

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Swarthmore Comparison

At my request, HWC sent in these notes on Swarthmore’s finances and comparisons, in terms of disclosure, with Williams.

There’s some overview stuff in the annual reports. The management discussions are quite good, particularly if you read them over time:

http://www.swarthmore.edu/Admin/investment_office/

http://www.swarthmore.edu/Admin/investment_office/FinancialRpt_06-07.pdf

Also, the discussion of each year’s operating budget has some more overview:

http://www.swarthmore.edu/Admin/investment_office/BudgetSummary08-09.pdf

But, no. Not a lot of detailed level spending information beyond the “spending by natural classification” section of the “notes” right at the end of each year’s financial report.

I don’t expect Morty to provide the level of detail you are seeking. But, when I’ve looked at dozens of colleges’ financial reports and can’t go to Williams’ report and quickly identify the size of the endowment and the endowment spending for operations, something is not as clear as it could be. Endowment per student, operating expenses per student, and net revenue per student are the first things I want to know about a college.

The Williams Econ department’s high ed finance project is all over those indicators. Why should they be hard to find in Williams’ annual report?

I don’t have a problem with Williams’ reporting overall. Williams provides less data that some schools, more than many. The key shortcoming is the lack of any management discussion or historical charts that help the layman understand the annual financial reports. I have to go to the NACUBO endowment survey each year to find out what William’s endowment is because the annual report has it all co-mingled with estate trusts such that the number isn’t the number they report to NACUBO. How hard would it just be to just add a sentence that says: The endowment on June 30th was…

It’s not like one of these schools that needs to obfuscate. Williams College’s financial strength is readily apparent and unassailable.

For now. During good times, Williams can get away with opaqueness. During bad times, openness and transparency is even more important. Why can’t the College tell us the details of its budget/finances?

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Morty on the Spot

Kudos to Morty for agreeing to this event and to College Council for organizing it.

College Council has organized an All Campus Question and Answer Session with President Schapiro. President Schapiro has offered to answer any and all questions students have about how the financial crisis will impact student life on campus (ranging from the impact on financial aid packages and expected family contributions, to the impact on funding for academic programs, to the impact on the resources available for student activities and residential life, to anything else students want to ask). Anyone who shows up will have an opportunity to ask questions and receive responses directly from the President.

Good stuff. My questions (with background) below the fold. What question would you ask Morty?
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Comparative Transparency

Williams will never be as transparent as I would like it to be. But perhaps I am just nuts! Yet is it unreasonable to demand that Williams should be at least as transparent as, say, Amherst? Compare the financial reports of Williams and Amherst. Both colleges provide basic financial statements but Amherst does much more. See (pdf) the Descriptive Analysis of Endowment and Other Similar Funds on page 33 and the Statistical Information on page 52 for fascinating details on Amherst.

Why won’t Williams make the same information available to us?

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Intellectual Honesty

Information wants to be free, or so all the cool Ephs tell me.

One of my favorite recurring crusades is to encourage/cajole/force Williams into being more transparent. Too much information is too restricted to too few people. A central hallmark of an academic community is openness, a willingness to consider evidence and discuss policy. To that end, I have sought and received permission to publish important documents like the Report on Varsity Athletics (thanks to Professor Mike McDonald) and the Report on Williams in New York (thanks to Professor Chris Waters). It is truly pathetic that the College does not make these reports available on its website. Also of interest (but perhaps reasonable for the College to exclude since they are the statements of individual faculty members rather than official Williams committees) are commentary on athletics from former Coach Dave Barnard and commentary on WNY by Professor Robert Jackall. It seems a shame that, were it not for EphBlog, no one would have easy access to these important documents.

Yet, in all these cases, I received permission from someone in authority to publish this work. What about cases where I do not receive permission? We had this problem during our CGCL seminar two years ago on the Diversity Initiatives. The actual Diversity Initiative report was never made available to the general public. You needed (and still need) a password of some kind. Any high school students considering Williams (or their parents) can’t get in. And, since I did not have permission to make the information public, I did not. The same was true (after an initial tease) in the case of the Alcohol Task Force report from 2005.

But just because I am too fastidious to publish something without permission does not mean that every Eph is, nor does it mean that I won’t ask others to do so. Information wants to be free, after all. A kind-hearted Eph put the Alcohol Report on the web three years ago. Another Eph (could be the same person but the formatting looks different) has done the same with the Diversity Initiatives (portions of) the recent Self-Study. Great stuff!

Williams College should make these all documents public, on its own website. A scholarly community is defined by a openness and transparency. When former Dean of the College Steve Fix spoke at the Boston Alumni Society annual meeting a few years ago, he insisted that “Intellectual honesty is the highest value at Williams.” Exactly correct. When will the administrators who run our College live up to this claim?

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Here To Help

Think that EphBlog is never helpful to the Williams Administration? Think again! Andrew Goldston ’09 reports that at the College Council meeting about poo fighting Dean Merrill said (paraphrased):

I’m not a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I’m not shutting down alcohol on campus. What I am doing is reviewing, where are the super big problem points, particularly in the excessive drinking culture at Williams.

In ’04-’05 we had the Alcohol Task Force, they made an interesting report, but I left it had home. That report should be visible, available.

You think? Was it just two years ago next week that I effusively praised the College for making the Report publicly available?

Congratulations to Williams, and the people who run it, for being so open in discussions of the issue of alcohol on campus. The full report is here. Below the break is the e-mail that Dean Roseman recently sent to the “Williams Community”.

The topic of alcohol (much less drugs) is an interesting one. Perhaps the report is worth reading. But, for a process-obsessed curmudgeon like me, the most important thing is that Williams has published it conclusions and the underlying data for all to see. Openness is the sine qua non of a scholarly community. Kudos all around.

Link doesn’t work? Me either! As is so often the case, I was too quick in my praise of College officials. They removed the report the next day.

Thought that my praise of the College’s openness with regard to the Alcohol Report was premature? You were right! Director of Public Affairs Jim Kolesar ’74 writes:

We made a technical mistake in posting the alcohol web site. The data is intended to inform college discussion. The intent was for it not to be available to the public since we’re not aware of sufficiently comparable data from other schools. The mistake was that the site was posted originally in a way that made it open to all. That’s now been corrected. We intend to make it available to alumni and parents. That correction will take a day or two. When it’s ready, we’ll notify all alumni and parents for whom we have e-mail addresses.

Pathetic. As Jim notes, the site is no longer available.

1) File this under the category of no praise goes rewarded. When will the College learn that, 95% of the time, honesty is the best policy? I find it impossible to believe that any potential applicants would choose, say, Amherst over Williams because of what they read in the Report if Amherst refuses to publish similar data. High school seniors are not that stupid!

2) It would be reasonable for the College to sanitize the Report a bit, prior to publication. Reasonable people might suggest that the raw comments should be summarized and not included. But to hide the entire report from the world over concerns about the lack of “sufficiently comparable data from other schools” is borderline dishonesty. Will tour guides be instructed not to mention the Report? Will applicants who request a copy be denied one?

3) Still want to read a copy of the Report? Well, EphBlog is here to help! Now, the relationship between EphBlog and the College is a tricky one. We are not out to embarrass the Williams; we want more people to apply and more of those accepted to enroll. But, as Dean Fix reminds us, “intellectual honesty is the highest value at Williams.” So, while I have never abused my alumni login privileges by accessing a private document and then making it public, I am happy enough to facilitate such abuse by others. So, where is the student brave enough to post the Report (or at least the highlights an summary) to her own blog?

And, mirable dictu, a responsible Eph did make the report public here because “information wants to be free.” Indeed. Comments:

1) The Report is now “visible” and “available,” just as Dean Merrill requested. No need to thank me!

2) There is some other information that wants to be free. For example, why can’t those of us off-campus look at the Williams Diversity Databook (link won’t work if you are not on campus) portion of the Self Study for Accreditation? Some future Dean may want that to be “visible” too. Let’s help her out!

3) The other major report that should be public is from the Diversity Initiatives. Who will make that information free? Future Deans will thank you! (Note that our CGCL two years ago covered this report in detail.)

4) Unless someone either objects or has a better idea, this year’s CGCL will cover the Alcohol Report and the Self Study for Accreditation Report. Contain your excitement!

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Rewarded Praise

Thought that my praise of the College’s openness with regard to the Alcohol Report was premature? You were right! Director of Public Affairs Jim Kolesar ’74 writes:

We made a technical mistake in posting the alcohol web site. The data is intended to inform college discussion. The intent was for it not to be available to the public since we’re not aware of sufficiently comparable data from other schools. The mistake was that the site was posted originally in a way that made it open to all. That’s now been corrected. We intend to make it available to alumni and parents. That correction will take a day or two. When it’s ready, we’ll notify all alumni and parents for whom we have e-mail addresses.

Pathetic. As Jim notes, the site is no longer available.

1) File this under the category of no praise goes rewarded. When will the College learn that, 95% of the time, honesty is the best policy? I find it impossible to believe that any potential applicants would choose, say, Amherst over Williams because of what they read in the Report if Amherst refuses to publish similar data. High school seniors are not that stupid!

2) It would be reasonable for the College to sanitize the Report a bit, prior to publication. Reasonable people might suggest that the raw comments should be summarized and not included. But to hide the entire report from the world over concerns about the lack of “sufficiently comparable data from other schools” is borderline dishonesty. Will tour guides be instructed not to mention the Report? Will applicants who request a copy be denied one?

3) Still want to read a copy of the Report? Well, EphBlog is here to help! Now, the relationship between EphBlog and the College is a tricky one. We are not out to embarrass the Williams; we want more people to apply and more of those accepted to enroll. But, as Dean Fix reminds us, “intellectual honesty is the highest value at Williams.” So, while I have never abused my alumni login privileges by accessing a private document and then making it public, I am happy enough to facilitate such abuse by others. So, where is the student brave enough to post the Report (or at least the highlights an summary) to her own blog?

4) The most recent example of similar College reticence concerns the Report on Varsity Athletics. To this day, the College refuses to post a copy of this Report on its website, despite the fact that it is one of the most important College documents produced in the last decade. Why should the College be afraid of discussions like this? It is sad to see a similar pattern of secrecy and denial in the case of alcohol on campus.

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Openness

A regular reader noted this thread on College Confidential which references our discussion of the 13% statistic and suggests that there is a price for openness, that the College should not be excessively honest in reporting accurate data about itself.

I could not disagree more.

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Data, Data

I had hoped to take a break from anchor housing blogging, but there is just so much good discussion at WSO that not-linking is impossible.

My favorite new factoid is that only 4% of William students are “dissatisfied” with residential life. Is there another elite college that has fewer dissatisfied students than Williams? Not that I know of. I lived in a Harvard undergraduate house — under a form of anchor housing quaranteed to make CUL swoon with delight — for four years. Much more than 4% of my students were dissatisfied with residential life.

I think that a big reason for the discrepancy is the existence at Williams of the Odd Quad, of a location (with its own dining hall) at which a self-selected group of students who see themselves (correctly or not) as different from the mainstream can create their own community. Odd Quaders at other schools, with no such location, are much more likely to be dissatisfied.

This is one of the key points of the current system. Although there are definitely students that would be happier with anchor housing (my guess is that they would be the more popular, out-going, mainstream students), many other students will be worse off.

If the CUL is intellectually honest, they will provide a thorough discussion of this point in their report. It is reasonable to conclude (although I disagree) that the typical student will be better off with anchor housing. It is reasonable to conclude that anchor housing, on balance, is a good idea. It is simply not true that no one loses with the change. The CUL needs to recognize this and discuss it openly.

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Hooray for CUL

I have written my fair share of criticisms of the CUL over the last few weeks. I do not think that they have made any sort of case that the worthy goals they seek will be accomplished by cluster housing.

But, credit must be given where it is due. The CUL’s new website is wonderful! It gets the basics right (list of members, feedback form) but does an even better job of being scholarly in its social engineering. Note the listing of its annual reports, including (all?) the raw material from the 2003 survey. This is great stuff. I commend the CUL for being so transparent in its operations.

I believe that other material, especially the details behind the famous 13% statistic, will be forthcoming.

At the end of the day, I may still disagree with the answer the CUL comes up with, but I am running out of reasons to fault their process. I look forward to reading their proposal. I hope that they will be as thorough and comprehensive as the authors of the Report on Varsity Athletics. Of course, that report is not immune to criticism, but it still provides a pitch-perfect example of how to make a case for policy change in an academic community.

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