Assistant Professor of English Grant Farred faced one of the toughest decisions of his life when considering whether or not to leave Williams in a year to accept a position in the program in literature at Duke University.
Farred has grown attached to both the faculty and the students at Williams and was wary of the current “disarray” in the Duke English department, but he was ultimately drawn to Duke by the opportunity to work with thinkers such as Fredric Jameson and to live and study in what he terms “one of the most pre-eminent intellectual spaces in the country.”
“I am incredibly conflicted,” Farred said. “I am not leaving because of what Williams doesn’t offer, but because of what Duke presents.”
This is the story for the nine professors who made the decision this year to leave Williams. The economics department was hit the hardest, with four professors departing. Associate Professor of Economics Diane Macunovich will leave Williams at the end of this semester to teach at Barnard College in New York City; Assistant Professor of Economics Vijayendra Rao left a tenure track position in December to go to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C.; John J. Gibson Professor of Economics Richard Sabot retired early to work full time at the booming Internet company Tripod; and Assistant Professor of Economics Cheryl Doss is headed to Yale to work as director of the M.A. program in international relations.
Sources say that Chair of History Dennis Dickerson will leave Williams at the end of this year to teach at Vanderbilt University. Assistant Professor of History Robert Johnson has resigned effective June 30 in order to accept an appointment at Brooklyn College.
In religion, Assistant Professor Gil Anidjar has resigned to start a tenure track position at Columbia University. And Associate Professor of Philosophy Sam Fleischacker will leave Williams to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Farred will stay through the end of the 19992-2000 academic year before going to Duke.
According to Dean of the Faculty David L. Smith the number of departing professors will probably end up being greater than nine by the end of the semester. “The list will probably end up longer,” he said.
President of the College Harry C. Payne said the number of departing professors is the “highest in a long time” as typically between three and five professors leave voluntarily each year.
“These are all people who we had really hoped would be at Williams longer,” he said. “If in the next two or three years we see a similar pattern, we would have to worry deeply. But it is my sense that the departures represent a random confluence of individual decisions.”
“It is sort of usual that you have unusual years,” he added.
Like Farred, many professors noted that they decided to leave not because of problems at Williams, but because of vocational and personal preferences. Specifically, many would like to live in more urban areas where there are more social options and employment opportunities for spouses.
But some cited lighter teaching loads at other colleges and universities as a draw. At Williams full-time professors teach five regular semester courses per year (or four during years when they teach a winter study), although many professors with administrative or other comparable duties are granted course reprieves.
Increased bidding for professors
Williams administrators say that it is impossible to generalize concerning the high number of resignations this year.
“I guess the strongest impression for me is just an incredible sense of bad luck,” said Smith. “Even if we have no more resignations it is still going to be an extremely bad year in terms of attrition.”
“When I look at the cases, it becomes clear that they are not responding to any event or situation at the moment,” Smith added. “It is coincidental that we have this convergence of departures. There may be common themes raised because the people are all talking about the same place and it is a place with a strong character.”
While Williams administrators stress that some professors leave every year, and the teaching body has never been completely stable, they do acknowledge that the number of tenured professors leaving this year is particularly high.
Four of the nine departing professors are tenured.
Payne said the departure of more senior faculty members may reflect the increased wealth of institutions.
“A number of the high quality schools are feeling more free-wheeling in their willingness to go out and bid for professors,” he said.
Chair of Economics Catharine Hill said the market for economists has grown more competitive as business schools and international organizations look for economists to fill their administrative and research posts.
And Cluett Professor of Humanities and Religion Mark Taylor, who is on-leave from Williams this semester, noted the job market for academics has become less static in recent years for two reasons.
First, he said schools are hiring more faculty in preparation for an anticipated bulge in student population in the coming decade. And second, the numbers of retiring professors are increasing.
But Smith stressed that academia is still very much a buyer’s market, with “more Ph.D.s than jobs.”
“The schools are able to hire and hire well,” he said.
While some of the departing Williams professors actively sought out new jobs, others, like Farred, were pursued.
Payne said the College does negotiate with professors who are considering leaving, and in some cases presents counter-offers. But he said there are limits to what can be done to retain professors, particularly in terms of increasing salaries.
“At a small college you can’t end up with a really elaborate star system,” he said. “The salaries have to be kept within a range.”
Strain in economics department
The economics department has scrambled in the past few months to fill several vacant teaching posts for next year due to the departures of Macunovich, Rao, Sabot and Doss, and the temporary absences of other professors.
“I don’t think the situation could get too much worse than it got this year,” Hill said. “I hope this year was unusual and that it won’t be the standard for the next few years.”
Hill said unstable factors (such as increased demand for economists) and unchangeable factors (including the isolation of Williamstown) have contributed to the high number of departures.
Macunovich said there were three major factors that attracted her to Barnard, a small women’s college: Barnard’s affiliation with Columbia University will enable her to work with graduate students; the lighter teaching load (four, as opposed to five, courses) was appealing; and finally, she said the social options for a single person living in Williamstown are often limiting.
“The teaching load is something that I think all of us here have been finding to be a problem,” Macunovich said. “But at the same time I am not aware of a tremendous amount of unhappiness that is driving people away and it is certainly not the department that is driving people away.”
However, Macunovich did note that the department has been strained in recent years by skyrocketing enrollments. She said the number of economics majors is twice as high as five years ago.
“Assistant professors find themselves with administrative duties and teaching very large courses, yet they are aware that they have to be doing research in order to get tenure,” she said. “All of this can be worrisome.”
Rao said he was often unable to find adequate time to do research while at Williams.
“I was finding that it was impossible for me to do any research while I was teaching,” he said. “The course load was simply too high and that was also frustrating me to some extent. Also during the particular period when I was teaching, the enrollments in economics were particularly high and it is not fun teaching 30 or 40 students. I found myself constantly dealing with very large class sizes which reduced the experience and weren’t what I had bargained for.”
“The extreme focus on teaching also made it impossible for me to keep abreast of the scholarly developments in my field.,” Rao added. “My colleagues and I simply did not have the time to discuss research and to stimulate each other as scholars. Consequently, the first year of my leave was spent retooling myself in economics and reading some of the literature that I had missed.”
Hill said the economics department does plan to cap courses more often in the coming years. The economics department will also offer three more courses in the coming year in order to combat the class size problem.
The department has already hired three new assistant professors for next year and two visiting professors, but is still looking for one more visiting professor.
The same teaching load concerns identified by departing economics professors were echoed by some professors in other departments.
Anidjar said the lighter course load at Columbia was a contributing factor in his decision.
Chair of the Department and Jackson Professor of Religion William Darrow said “work load was a deciding factor in some [of the departures] and is continuing to be a problem in recruitment.”
Hill added, “I think the college does need to look again at the number of courses that faculty teach. It is not the only factor in the departures, but one more thing working in the wrong direction.”
Associate Professor of Political Science James Mahon said the Faculty Compensation Committee is just beginning to review the results of a survey of the teaching loads at 21 other colleges similar to Williams.
“We are not the institution with the lightest teaching load, but nor are we the one with the heaviest,” he said.
Both Amherst College and Smith College have semesters structured like Williams, but require faculty to teach four courses each year (as opposed to five at Williams).
But Mahon said faculty at these schools may have other responsibilities that aren’t reflected in the survey, and more research needs to be done before conclusive comparisons can be made.
“Right now Williams doesn’t jump out from the crowd as a laggard,” he said.
Payne said he suspects the course load issue will be discussed in the next year or two, but he doubts that any resolution will be reached until his successor as President of the College takes over.
He said some small liberal arts colleges have lowered the number of required courses beneath five, but emphasized that five is still “the industry standard.”
Payne also said he doesn’t believe that teaching load was the driving force behind many departures.
“There’s no one I know of who is leaving Williams College to go to another liberal arts college with a lighter teaching load,” he said. “They are not going to similar places where life is better. They are going to different places.”
The drawbacks of a small town
The departing professors are going to different kinds of places, most usually cities.
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology David Edwards, who is currently contemplating the possibility of leaving Williams to work at the University of Wisconsin (although he has not yet been offered a position), said for him the major drawback of Williams is the location.
“This is not an unmitigated problem,” he said. “Williamstown is beautiful, half of the year anyway, and there are positive aspects to living in a small town. But it is isolated, and it is all too easy to lose touch with the wider world out there. Sabbaticals are one antidote to this problem, but they are only a partial solution, and they can also end up making you want more of the world rather than leaving you happy to return to the little valley where you came from.”
Darrow said it is inevitable that some professors will prefer to live in less isolated, more urban areas.
“Obviously some people would rather not live in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
Rao in economics noted that he was concerned that living in Williamstown would eventually limit the job opportunities for his wife, who is about to complete her Ph.D.
“[Williams] is in a terrible location from a faculty point of view,” he said. “And Williams prides itself on being a liberal institution, but it still doesn’t understand that women don’t stay at home and look after babies.”
Rao believes that Williams should work more closely with local businesses to develop job opportunities and should implement “affirmative action type programs for Williams spouses.”
“It is something I think Williams should worry about and take action about,” he added.
Payne said the administration is well aware of the problem of finding jobs for faculty spouses.
“As a matter of conscious policy we don’t create jobs for spouses,” he said. “But we are aware of the problem.”
Payne added that many faculty spouses are employed by Williams. He also said the College works with venture capital companies with the goal of spurring business development in the region and creating new employment opportunities.
Smith said the College does what it can to help faculty spouses find employment, but he would not want to see the College create an affirmative action-type policy for faculty relatives.
“I would say that we do what we can to help people find employment and if spouses are eligible for positions that happen to be open at the College we want to make sure that they get fair consideration, that they don’t get lost in the shuffle, but it is not the College’s policy to give preference to faculty spouses, and nor do I think it should be.”
Hill said several people have turned down job offers in the economics department this year because of the isolation of Williamstown and the limited jobs in the area for spouses.
“When this happens there is not too much we can do to make the offer more attractive,” she said.
Two different academic cultures
Teaching load and the location of Williams were considerations of nearly all of the professors who decided to depart. A smaller number placed an emphasis on increased time for research or the opportunity to work with graduate students.
“The bottom line is that research university culture and liberal arts culture are pretty different,” said Darrow. “And once you are ensconced in one culture it is a little hard to get in to the other. What is impressive is that the people at the top of one hierarchy are able to jump to the other.”
Rao, who is employed by the development research department of the World Bank, noted that the additional research time was a big draw for him. And Macunovich said she is looking forward to teaching at least one graduate course per year.
Edwards said he finds the idea of working with graduate students to be appealing because of the close connection which develops between professor and student.
“The good side of having graduate students is that you can work with them over a number of years and really see them develop,” he said. “One frustration for me in working solely with undergrads is that they often leave just about the time that they’re coming into their own. That’s the nature of undergraduate education as presently constituted, and you learn to take satisfaction in the time you have with them, but it is a source of frustration to see students leave for other pursuits and not have a chance to work with them through more advanced stages of their professional development.”
But Edwards also emphasized that Williams has supported his research to an unusual degree for a small liberal arts college.
“I have received more time off and more research support from Williams than just about anyone I know at any other institution at a comparable stage of their career,” he said. “I also value the fact that it is not number of articles and books and grant money that one produces that counts at Williams, which is the case at a lot of research universities. At Williams, you can worry less about quantity, and focus rather on the quality of what you produce.”
Taylor said he has seriously considered leaving Williams to work at larger research universities several times, and the tradeoffs are rarely clear.
“In most cases it comes down to the kind of context in which one wants to teach,” he said. “The situation has always been complicated. I am on leave at the University of Chapel Hill, which is opposite from Williams in almost every way. There are opportunities and hurdles both here and there.”
While Taylor acknowledges the tradeoffs between teaching undergraduates versus graduates, he also believes too many academics privilege research universities over small undergraduate colleges.
“Graduate education in the arts and humanities is moribund,” he said. “Furthermore it is immoral. The only primary reason graduate education remains the way it is is to deliver cheap labor to teach the undergraduates.”
Taylor said he doubts that professors leaving Williams will discover greener pastures at other colleges and universities.
“Many of these people are going to find—and I know what I am talking about—that the grass is browner,” he said.
“Williams is as good as it gets for what it is,” he added.
Rumors have circulated at Williams concerning Taylor’s future plans. But he said he hopes to be back at Williams teaching in the fall of 2000 after an absence of a year and a half.
“I will not be teaching at Chapel Hill next year,” he said. “I will, however, extend my leave from Williams in order to assume the responsibility of heading up a new company that will be exploring the use of electronic technology in higher education. … It is currently my plan to return to Williams to teach in the fall of 2000. As a lifelong student of Kierkegaard, however, I would not presume to predict the future.”
A new kind of relationship
While similar themes resonate throughout the stories of the professors, each also had some unique circumstances.
Sabot realized that he did not have the time to make the commitment to teach full-time at Williams, but still plans to teach occasionally in an emeritus professor status.
“I may be the youngest emeritus professor in the history of the college,” he said. “I am just having so much fun doing what I am doing, both with Tripod and helping other Internet companies get started, that I wanted to have a less structured relationship with Williams.”
Sabot, who came to Williams as a senior faculty member in 1984, hopes to help spur an entrepreneurial spirit among young Williams graduates and would like to be part of the movement to transform Williamstown into what he terms “the silicon village.”
“I have had a wonderful time at Williams,” he said. “I feel that Tripod is in many respects an extension of Williams and I look forward to an ongoing, productive and enjoyable relationship with Williams. I don’t think of myself as leaving, but simply changing the nature of the relationship.”
Assistant Professor of History Robert Johnson said he eventually decided it would be better for his long term professional standing to seek a position elsewhere. Johnson made the decision to look for a new job in January, and was offered the position at Brooklyn College later that month.
“I wanted to make sure I would be at a place where I could stay permanently,” Johnson said when asked about his reasons for leaving Williams.
Johnson noted that he was unsure of the security of his position here, but declined to be more specific. When Brooklyn College made him an appealing offer, he finalized his decision.
But Johnson said he will miss the students here, and was happy to have the opportunity to teach a wide variety of classes while at Williams.
Leaving with regret
Each professor leaving Williams for a different job has his or her own idiosyncratic story, but they all anticipate missing different aspects of the College.
“My decision was very difficult because Williams made me feel so very welcome and the level of support I was shown was really beautiful,” said Anidjar.
Farred, who was offered a position not only at Duke, but at an Ivy League university, said he will miss the Williams students and his colleagues in English and other departments.
“I think I am already starting to experience some separation anxiety,” he said. “I leave Williams happy, and it is precisely because I have been happy at this institution that I think I can be happy someplace else.”
Farred said he was completely unfamiliar with the Berkshires and the philosophies of a small liberal arts college before he came to Williams.
“I have come to understand how it functions,” he said.
He still examines the reasons for his decision to go to Duke.
“The course load is heavy, but that is not it,” he said. “It is the opportunity to be at one of the pre-eminent intellectual spaces in the country. … There are only two places in the world I would have left Williams for.”