Allen calls for review of tenure system

Executive Editors Nat Bessey and Sarah Carr and News Editor Scott Moringiello recently met with Herb Allen ‘62 to discuss his thoughts on the theater and dance complex. This is the second of two parts of the interview. With this interview, the Record is inaugurating a series of interviews where alumni will share their thoughts on the College.

What do you think some of the trends and threats to higher education are?

I think the most interesting opportunity and threat to traditional education, particularly higher education is the Internet. And I think over the next 15 years establishment schools… are most threatened by the Internet. You’re paying today $30,000 for your education. Why? If you break your education down into its parts, the social experience is the dominant part, probably irreplaceable. The Internet poses no threat to that. The intellectual experience is derived 80 to 90 percent from the classroom. Often you go away for a year. So let’s say you have a pretty solid three year experience here. And let’s deal with the model that 20 percent of your classes are lecture classes. Let’s take Art History 101. In Art 101, you go into a lecture hall and the professor stands virtually in the dark and throws slides on the wall. Take that as the norm today and then over here you have tomorrow’s Internet, which is immediate, complete streaming of an image, real time, 5-foot screen that can roll down in any room, and you could pack it up in a small package and it could become the computer of 2008. I can unfold it in a men’s room in Grand Central station and I can get your lecture at Williams College with exactly the same fidelity, with exactly the same lecture and subject matter. I would pay $5 or $10 for that lecture.

If that’s possible you’ve entered the world of economics, you’re out of the world of academics. So the professor who’s teaching the course at Brown or Williams or UCLA or Montana State, who may be the best in the subject, who is going to broadcast over the Internet her or his classes, and people at large around the world are going to pay for that. Somebody is going to get that money and somebody is going to do it. Now you’re sitting up here at Williams College thinking that x percent of my $30,000 (which will be $50,000 by then) divide your $30,000 by those courses which can be taught on the Internet and that’s the threat to the modern college. The college course will be replaced by the Internet, your social experience will not be. Basically, what I’m saying is that instead of the three years you practically go to college, you might go a year and a half or two years, and the other year you may take on the Internet because it’s going to be $5 instead of $1,000. So what are school’s going to do to face that competition, to join the Internet because you can’t fight it. How are they going to be the leaders in Internet programming? And you’ve got a wonderful professor up here who thinks of these things named Mark Taylor.

The two key components that we’re talking about are the improvement of image and size of screen. All of that is being answered in laboratories all around the world. When you think of the fact that thought now can be transmitted both instantly and upon demand…why are you attending most of the classes you are attending?….That’s the threat that I see to higher education. It’s a threat, it’s a challenge, it’s exciting. The great schools in 2010 might not be the great schools in 1998. I find that very interesting. That’s the biggest single change that I see happening.

What types of things do you see Williams doing to face that challenge?

I think that, like all schools, Williams will be slow to face the challenge. There will be one tenth of one percent of the people who will be screaming, ‘Wake up, guys. The world is going to change.’ But 99.9 percent of the people say, ‘Well, we’re comfortable.’ That’s the nature of everything. That’s the nature of thought. That’s the nature of corporate life. I think that there are voices up here that are beginning to yell…. . I don’t think Williams—I don’t think many of the mainline established schools— are in the forefront of the change, and I’m not talking about the technological forefront. MIT I’m sure is at the technological forefront. But this is a light force, there’s a social movement that’s going to take place that’s completely different from mere technology, and some schools will get it, grasp it, and some schools won’t. And those that don’t will be left in the dust. Now Williams, Amherst, Hamilton, Middlebury, and all the schools of this size will always have to be a nice experience and a very interesting one. But they are going to have to get what’s going to be a new program, and nobody really knows what it is yet. But it’s exciting, and if I were your age, I’d be thrilled to be investigating and be a part of it. To challenge this system, you know to say are we asking the right questions here? Are we making the demands that should be made of an institution like this? Is the faculty on top of it? Are they willing to break the mold of what they’ve been doing all their lives? Not quite break the mold, I don’t mean change it a whole lot. Are they open, are they liberal? And I don’t mean liberal in the traditional political sense, but are they liberal in the traditional sense of the word—open minded, forward looking, aggressive? Those are good questions. And those are questions that I think students not only have the right to ask, but they should be demanding the answer to. Accepting the status quo going into the next century will be tougher.

Do you see any way of stopping the annual five percent increase in tuition?

Yes. Let’s be specific. Take Williams College, to investigate an attack of that Williams College cost structure would require the aid of experienced managers. And by that I don’t mean just academic managers. Certainly this is an academic institution that has to be understood as such. This is not a corporation. However, in many ways it is a corporation. You know, it has a budget; it has expenditures; it has income; it has costs. And in this community there are a number of very experienced executives. You can’t do that within the academic boundaries that exist; it’s just not possible. You really do need some people with corporate experience to do that. Those people with corporate experience then have to adapt that experience to an academic environment, because they are so different. I think that the trustees are going to have to examine every aspect of the cross structure of this college and say why, and challenge it, and threaten it, and be willing to upset the apple cart a little bit by saying this is no longer tolerable. You’ve had trustees here who question any number of issues that create a larger bureaucracy within this institution. There’s nothing new.

Tenure is something that a lot of people investigate. It should probably be a great issue of debate on the campus. Is tenure a major cross driver? You had a trustee last year…who did an extensive study saying that tenure is a major cost; it’s unnecessary to the College. I don’t know if that’s right or if that’s wrong, but it would be a great subject of debate. In a liberal institution you would have that debate. I’m not aware of that debate taking place. I think that all sorts of things can be investigated. I don’t see any reason why a college should be different from every other entity on earth that grows larger. In other words, every entity on earth that grows larger can be investigated and people can say it can be smaller, you can cut down on this earlier. For some reason colleges don’t seem to go through that experience.

A lot of people would disagree with what I’m saying. They’d say, ‘well no we are investigating’ and all that, but if they are investigating and it still happens all the time, they’re not doing a very good job investigating. And also, why should all these schools be exactly the same price? You know, why shouldn’t you be able to take five or 10 percent of your courses on the Internet today at virtually no cost? There are probably very good reasons and answers to everything I am saying, but whose asking the questions? Are they before the student body? Are they before the faculty? Are they before the trustees? What’s the mechanism? I don’t know. No, I don’t accept anything as automatic. I don’t even accept the status of this school as automatic. As a matter of fact, I prefer not to accept the status of this school, because I think as much as we all make fun of this being rated third, I find it objectionable.

I think if you ask Dick Farley…if he would accept a third rate standard, what do you think the answer would be? I think it’s okay to say that these ratings are ridiculous if you’re number one. But if you’re number three you better get to be number one before you say they’re ridiculous. And so why aren’t we number one? That is a poll taken by peers; it is not a poll taken by a group of people sitting in Mongolia. This is a poll taken by people who are experienced and know what’s going on. What do we have to do to improve? How are we attacking that problem?

Do you see your willingness to get involved with things as a universal feeling within the alumni you know?

I think you have to create a mechanism. It is unnatural for alumni to come back and interact with the students when there is nothing for them to interact about. In other words, you’ve got to create events. Are there any student events where the students invite the alumni back (separate from the sporting or concert events)?

If you don’t own a house up here, and you don’t come up here all the time, there’s no mechanism [for interacting], so you have to establish some mechanism. I think the alumni—probably an unusually large percentage of the alumni—would like to interact with the students. This school seems to attract and hold its alumni better than any place in the country. Even if you count the number of people who have moved back into this area, it’s astounding. So people would like to be involved with the school. I think the students would probably have to come up with more ways to do it, and the faculty does too, but I think it really has to come from the students.

You seem doubtful as to the existence of student activism. What are your impressions of Williams students today in comparison with alums?

I think the level of excellence is unchallenged. I think the student body is sensational, for the most part… . Every aspect of the school is sensational—that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shaken up. If you’re number one, you should be past number one. If you’re number three, you should be number one. If you’re number five, you should be number one. In other words, once you get to the top spot, where we are now, you should be better than that. I don’t care who you are or what you are, every morning when you wake you should think, ‘what are the little improvements I can make?’….I’m on the board of Coca-Cola; it’s a company with slogans for everything. But I think the best slogan they have is like the old man who really gave birth to the new Coca-Cola… . He had a great quote that life belongs to the discontented. That covers it. There’s no reason to ever be contented up here. You’ve got a great group of colleagues.