Reviewers propose canceling WNY

The Williams in New York Program Review Committee made its final report public last week, assessing the strengths and shortcomings of the WNY Program and unanimously concluding that the Program should not be continued in its present form. The Committee was divided six to three on whether the Program should be completely discontinued after next year or invested in and improved. The final decision rests on a faculty vote to take place at the faculty meeting on May 7.

A “yes” vote will mean that the Program will end after the 2008-09 academic year, while a “no” vote will signify that the College will act to revise and expand the Program in line with the Committee’s findings. The vote will require a simple majority, though the Program’s inception had required a 60 percent approval. Chris Waters, chair of the Committee, explained that the Steering Committee and Dean of the Faculty Bill Wagner collectively decided on the majority requirement given that the issue concerns an existing program established on a pilot basis, not a new curricular offering.

Faculty approved the WNY Program – established as part of an experiential learning initiative – in May 2001 with a 67 percent vote. The program then began as a Winter Study course in 2004 and as a full semester program starting in fall 2005, though not on a permanent basis. Its pilot phase will end next spring, and the Committee was charged with “assessing [the Program’s] long-term viability and making recommendations with respect to the future,” the Committee’s report states.
The report notes the Program’s strengths, particularly its emphasis on experiential learning, the opportunity to escape rural isolation and engage with diversity, the wealth of cultural offerings and its ideal mid-town Manhattan location.

The Committee report goes on to identify several “programmatic and logistical problems that threaten the long-term viability of the Program,” mainly concerning “intellectual coherence, long-term viability, and expense.”

One of the Committee’s prime concerns lies with the integration of fieldwork with academics. While fieldwork is central to the Program and fosters the experiential learning that defines WNY, the report questions how successfully it merges with the classes taken alongside the fieldwork. “Members of the committee – are anxious about whether the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts or if there are just parts,” the report states. “At times, the justification for the WNY Program’s non-fieldwork curricular components doesn’t seem that clear or well-developed intellectually.” It adds, “Certainly students interested in the Program have often been confused about its overall curricular purpose and have found it difficult – as have members of the committee – to see an overarching unity, beyond the simple fact of its New York locational focus.”

In addition to a lack of curricular coherence, the report points to the inconsistent quality of fieldwork placements and adjunct instructors and a low student demand. The Committee unanimously asserts that the Program not continue with the current eight students per semester, explaining that, “Apart from the significant issues of cost, there are too few students to allow for the social diversity and intellectual richness that the Program should afford its participants – a point made by virtually every student who has been interviewed or offered written testimony to the committee.”

The Committee recommends that if the Program is to continue, it should do so with 16 students per semester, in which case the College should fully acquire the Williams Club and renovate its upper floors to be used by the Program – a costly endeavor, one made more complicated by the uncertainty of whether the Program would attract 16 qualified students each semester, the report states. Twenty-six students applied for the 16 spaces over two semesters next year, slightly higher than numbers in the past.

The report also notes that the intellectual approach of the Program most lends itself to the social sciences, which could potentially limit faculty interest in directing. “While the Program has benefited from faculty directors whose talents lend themselves to this pedagogy, we worry about whether it is realistic to expect from among the Williams faculty the regular availability of future directors with similar training or skills,” the report states.

Given these concerns, along with the costly expenses it calculated, the Committee concluded that “continuation and expansion of the Program would be a gamble,” one that only a third of the Committee sees as worth making.

Waters stressed that extensive student input was acquired during the assessment process. He explained that Committee members interviewed many students before or while they were in New York, and Waters interviewed all but one of the students who studied at WNY last fall, though those interviews were conducted before the students attended the Program. He added that the Committee asked every student who had participated in WNY to reflect on his or her experience, and three quarters of them wrote back with lengthy responses. “Many had good things to say about the Program; some had negative things to say; some had good ideas for modifications,” Waters said. “When assembled, placed in small font and single-spaced, those reflections make up another twenty-six pages of the material the Committee considered,” Waters wrote in an e-mail. “This material was very important to us as we reflected on the history of the program.”

Ben Sykes ’08, who participated in WNY in fall 2006, recalled that within a matter of hours of receiving a copy of the Committee’s report, a vast majority of the Program alumni responded strongly with shock and disagreement. “Many of us – I would say 20 out of the 38 [WNY participants] – are actively involved in trying to better inform the faculty of the greatness of this program and keep it from termination.”

He added that while the Committee contacted students for written testimonials, the report failed to properly reflect many of their experiences. “The Committee told us that we would be interviewed either individually or in groups. Not one student was then interviewed,” he said, referring to a group of Program alumni.

Sykes asked to speak at the May 7 meeting along with several other students, but his request was denied due to time constraints by Wagner and Tiku Majumder, professor of physics and head of the Steering Committee. WNY alumni have also asked to distribute a letter at the faculty meeting before the vote and are waiting to hear back from Wagner and Majumder.

On Monday night, several alumni drafted a petition in favor of the Program and began collecting signatures online. As of last night, 134 students and alumni had signed the petition, and students will soon begin tabling at Paresky.

Professor of sociology and public affairs Robert Jackall, the founding director of WNY, declined to comment on the Committee’s findings, explaining that he wished to wait until he speaks at the faculty meeting. He did comment, however, on the short span of time between the report’s release on April 25 and the voting date, May 7. “The timing is troublesome,” he said. “Faculty are being asked to vote on an important curricular issue that several colleagues have spent years working on with little time to thrash out the problematic aspects of this report.”