Faculty departures require attention

Perhaps it is all just a coincidence, but it is nonetheless troubling that nine faculty members, four of whom are tenured, are voluntarily leaving the Williams College faculty after this semester. The number of faculty leaving is significantly larger this year than last year, or any other year in recent memory, and it raises concerns in several areas.

As students attending Williams College now, our immediate concern is how this will affect us – how it will affect the course offerings and the quality of the courses being offered. At least one professor is still listed in the course catalogue as offering courses next year, despite knowledge that the professor will not be here to teach them. Who will teach those classes? Will they be taught at all? What will happen to students who register for these classes?

If the classes are simply cancelled, but after preregistration, the students who signed up for those classes will be at an obvious disadvantage when they try to register for new classes during drop/add in the fall. Courses they might otherwise have taken might be full and capped, and preference will be given to students who preregistered for the courses.

On the other hand, if the College hires new professors to teach other people’s classes, we must be suspicious of the quality of the class, because the professor teaching the course will not be the professor who designed the course and may not be terribly excited about teaching that course. Also, students sign up for professors as much as for courses. It is a difficult balance that the College must strike between offering the courses they need to offer and allowing the faculty they have to teach what they know and care about.

In any event, students who register for courses with professors who later leave, are at a two-fold disadvantage. Either the course is cancelled and the students find themselves searching for a new course after many choices are full, or they find themselves taking a class whose title is the same as the class they registered for but which is fundamentally different under a different professor.

As we write this editorial, preregistration is still open. Sadly, by the time we publish, it will have closed. Were students informed sooner about faculty departures and leaves, they could incorporate that information into their registration decisions. Departments need to decide quickly what they are going to do about the courses offered by departing faculty members and that information needs to be published, at least on the registrar’s website. To continue to allow students to sign up for courses that will, in all likelihood, be cancelled, or to continue to list professors as teachers when it is confirmed that they will not be here is unfair.

Beyond the immediate concerns of today’s Williams students lie the greater questions. How can Williams keep the good professors it has and how can it attract more good professors to come? One disadvantage of our rural location is the lack of opportunities for faculty spouses to pursue their careers. Short of moving the College to the Pioneer Valley, however, we have little advice for how Williams can do better by spouses.

It has also been suggested that reducing the teaching load would allow professors to pursue their own research in addition to teaching well. Although it would require increasing the number of faculty significantly, and this is certainly a costly and difficult venture, we believe it is an option the College should at the very least give some consideration.

We should also try to hire to tenure track positions the professors whose priorities are in line with the mission of the College. We understand very little, we confess, about the real specifics of tenure decisions, but we know there is an intense pressure on junior faculty members to publish their scholarly work. We also know that Williams is a teaching institution, and excellence in teaching, above all, is what distinguishes our faculty.

There are certainly some professors out there in the academic universe who view teaching as a burden, and want only to publish more books. These professors will never be happy at Williams and we should try neither to attract nor to keep them here. However, there are many professors who care deeply about undergraduate learning and deeply about their own scholarship. It is these professors whom we should attempt to accommodate. After all, we want the best teachers at Williams. If scholarship informs better teaching, we should encourage it, and if scholarship plays a crucial role in tenure decisions, we need to allow our excellent teachers a chance to be excellent scholars, so we, the students, can benefit from them as teachers.

We do not claim to have the expertise to know how to balance these two competing goods, nor to have answers on how best to keep and attract the highest quality faculty. However, we cannot help being frustrated, and we cannot help being concerned that this may be more than a one-year anomaly.