President Vogt …on the Record

The Record editorial board conducted this interview with Pres. Vogt in his office on Thursday, October 28.

One of the big issues on campus has to with the restrictions on post-season play for NESCAC. Are their any discussions underway or do you have any plans for this issue?

I’m going to dodge a little bit because I’m just getting into that issue. I’m generally familiar with it and, in fact, I spoke at length this morning with Hank about it; we had breakfast together.

There seems to be some well-known divergence within NESCAC on this issue. The Maine schools have a point of view, and some of the other presidents have differing points of view about how we ought to do this. As I understand it, certain agreements have already been reached about post-season play.

Also, the NCAA seems to be in the process of evolving its policies so that there will be fewer at-large spots available for its post-season play, which may or may not coincide with NESCAC’s somewhat restrictive post-season. We are kind of in an intermediate stage, as I understand it, where the question of how a conference champion is determined is not yet certain, so that’s very much in a state of flux.

I understand the nature of the controversy. I am somewhat aware of it from my time as a trustee, but I am not as familiar with it as I want to be to form my own opinions about where we go.

One thing I will say is that if we have made, and I understand that we have, as an institution, certain commitments to NESCAC then I think it would be very difficult and I think inappropriate to unilaterally breach them. What I want to do is to understand what our institutional perspective is and then go with that to NESCAC.

We’ve also got the issue in football of reducing the squad size from 85 to 75. There may be some inclination on the part of some of the other members of NESCAC to go even further, just some rumors that I have heard.

Williams was ranked third again in the US News & World Report rankings. Is this something that the trustees are concerned about?

The US News & World Report issue on colleges is important in that a lot of people take it seriously. I think that we have to take it seriously in the sense that it is an evaluation that it is in the public domain.

Are we going to change our curriculum and the way that we conduct our affairs in order to respond to that, I don’t think so. I think Williams knows better how to conduct its educational program than the editors of US News & World Report.

On the other hand, they take a serious look at all of these things and you can always learn. We can learn from them as well as we can learn from anyone else.

One of the categories where Williams was lower than some other schools was in faculty resources. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I must confess that I don’t fully understand that. It’s again an item on my docket to look into. There was a lot of discussion about the class size, that it is the number of classes under 20 because we finished down on the list on that. We’ve always been academically number one, as have the other top three schools, and we’ve never been out of the top three in eleven years. We were number one a number of times. I don’t think our school has changed since we were number one, but some of the criteria have changed. That’s their business; our business is what we are doing here.

Faculty resources, as I understand it, is a reflection of the way that our Winter Study program is structured compared to other colleges which have a straight two-semester or four-quarter curricular structure. When you start taking faculty resources and fitting the number of faculty available into this unusual structure which really is almost unique to Williams in our cohort of colleges. A lot of schools went to a Winter Study system back in the ’60s and for the most part have abandoned that. We’re one of the few that hasn’t.

When you take your number of faculty and you do what US News does, that is set up certain criteria, and then put it into a computer which cranks out results you get different teaching loads for our faculty than you do for others. It’s an apple vs. orange kind of dysfunctional mix.

I think maybe the way we come out of that is more of a result of our system not being in line with the other colleges with whom we are compared in terms of the semester structure.

There is always talk around this time of year that certain faculty members are not happy with the current Winter Study system. Are there plans for the College to look into the basic premises behind Winter Study?

In the law we have the Latin saying “res ipsa loquiter” the thing speaks for itself. We’ve been committed to it for a long a time. Its been discussed, there have been pros and cons on it for a long time and we continue to do it. I think Williams is committed to it.

I think you have to, particularly if you are Williams College, and you are really as good as we are, you have to always be re-examining your priorities and never take anything for granted. I think we should always be re-examining just about everything that we do and taking fresh looks.

So Winter Study should always be evaluated, but from where I sit, I don’t see it going away any time soon. I’m kind of looking forward to it.

Everyone has certain things that they want from the college and yet the college is sitting on a large pile of money. Are there any plans for the College to start spending more of its endowment?

The endowment is an interesting phenomena, and we nicked the billion-dollar mark in the endowment over the summer. We now have considerably less then just a few weeks ago since the markets have gone down.

In 1992 the College was in a position where it had to cut down on faculty FTE’s and end the row house dining in order to save money. I don’t think any of us are ever comfortable with the endowment; the worst mistake you can make is say “now we have enough.” The money is spent, tuition only covers 50 percent of the cost.

We are going to continue to be conservative since it has paid off for us. I don’t see any big breakthrough in when we are going to start spending this money. It wasn’t long ago that we didn’t think we had enough.

Are there any issues which have been raised by the faculty that you feel need addressing?

I’m in the process of meeting with senior faculty at dinner meetings. The table in the Dining Room of the president’s house only seats 16. The whole purpose of that is to listen to what faculty have to say. I’m rapidly getting to know a number of them and they really are a marvelous group of people, very talented and I enjoy immensely getting to know them. I hope that as we continue on, getting people together in these meetings for two to three hours of intense conversation is very enlightening for me. It’s going to take a while to get through that process, which is fine because my thinking and their thinking as we move on through the year might change on certain subjects.

I think it is fair to say that just about every issue that you can think of is something that the faculty thinks about.

Can you talk about some of the changes that have taken place at the College since your time here as a student?

The last meeting I presided over here was as president of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house, which now is the town hall. The meeting over which I presided was held in the room which is now the town jail. A lot of people think that is entirely appropriate for the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.

Fraternity days were much different then the campus is now. Of course there were no women here. The whole social structure was built around fratern
ities.

The curriculum was different then; we had a core curriculum. You had to take certain courses in order to move on in a major. You selected a major your junior year, but if you hadn’t taken the courses leading up to that you couldn’t do it. I had to take some courses in the sciences which were not fun for me because I was never very good at them.

I think it was the time of the ’50s, Eisenhower was president, and making a “C” was perfectly acceptable. It was a time where people complained about apathy on campus. Students were not exercised by student issues, it was very quiet.

Of course then we moved into the ’60s which were tumultuous on social issues and enormous changes took place on campus. Then we moved into the ’70s and a lot of the modern structure of Williams College came out of Jack Sawyer’s presidency.

I don’t know if I could find much of a comparison at all with the curriculum, the pressures I think you folks have are different from the ones that we had. Williams was tough academically. We worked very hard, I thought. There was no such thing as a double major.

I think it was just a more quiet, different time and if you take it in ten-year chunks and you got people here you would find people talking about a different atmosphere. As I said earlier, the experience is very similar. Your peers are of equal caliber. Teaching is still what it is all about.

There were no diversity candidates at that time. We had three students of color in my class. The diversity of talents, racial diversity, religious diversity, ethnic diversity, all of this is much stronger than it has been in the past and I think it is a real strength of the modern Williams community.

I told the parents of first-year students the other day “ask your sons and daughters how they feel about Williams and you will begin to understand what is special about this place.” People develop a feel that we all share across generation lines. That’s not much of an answer, but it’s subjective and emotional. You will find over the years you will get very emotional about this place.