WNY report faces criticism

The report released by the Williams in New York (WNY) Review Committee on April 25 has sparked a ripple of contention, as alumni of the Program react with shock and dismay, arguing that the report misstates information, overlooks critical aspects of the Program and fails to capture the favorable experiences of its participants.

The Committee unanimously decided that the Program should not be continued in its present form, and was split six to three on whether it should be completely terminated or not. The fate of the Program will be voted on at the faculty meeting this afternoon.

While WNY participants acknowledge that room for improvement exists, they stress the strides the Program has made and continues to make. Though the report criticizes uneven fieldwork placements and mediocre adjunct professors, students assert that the quality of both is high and has risen significantly. “The Committee completely ignores the fact that everything about the Program is going in an upward trajectory – they just want to cut it off,” said Sayd Randle ’08, a fall 2006 participant.

Students added that some of the limitations of the Program exist only because of its pilot-status. “It’s only been around for three years and there isn’t an established list of professors yet,” said Ben Sykes ’08, another fall 2006 participant. “It’s much harder to recruit faculty since it is a pilot, but were it to get approved, interest in the Program would rise.”

While the report notes the upward trajectory, it questions whether the improvements warrant going forward. Its recommendations for the Program include expanding it from eight to 16 students a semester, but it questions whether WNY can attract enough student interest. Twenty-six students applied for the 16 spots in the 2008-2009 year, compared with 24 and 22 for 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, respectively. “We do note that the number of who applied this year is higher, but we can’t say whether that is a blip or a long-term trend,” said Chris Waters, professor of history and chair of the Committee.

Students urged a comparison with the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford, which had some difficulty attracting students in its first few years, as reported in “Oxford program takes all applicants” – Record, Mar. 11, 1986. Its applicant numbers still vary from year to year, with 36 students applying for 26 spots for 2008-2009, a significant drop from past years. “Once [Williams in New York] becomes part of Williams’ institutional memory, once it becomes part of the Williams vernacular, there will higher demand to join,” said Lauren Bloch ’09, a fall 2007 participant.

Sykes added that the report fails to do justice to the intellectual rigor of the fieldwork placements. “The fieldwork placements were outstanding for the vast majority of us, and the tutorial program really provided us with a framework,” he said. “In our testimonials, student alumni shared the amazing opportunities for intellectual growth that our fieldwork and classes presented – such information was disregarded in the report.” Sykes said that he thought the report reflected neither his own comments nor other students’.
Waters said he believes the report encompasses the favorable responses of WNY participants. “A lot of students have said in their reflections that they had very positive experiences and we tried to convey that,” he said.

The report also notes a “lack of curricular coherence” in the Program, questioning “whether the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts or if there are just parts.” Waters explained that the Committee wondered whether WNY had or even needed such coherence between fieldwork and other courses, and he compared the Program with Williams-Mystic, where “all the bits fit together,” he said.

Students responded by questioning what kind of curricular coherence exists at the College, given the wide variety of classes taken by a student even within a semester. “Isn’t the idea of a liberal arts institution to take a broad array of classes?” Sykes asked, adding that, if anything, WNY enabled its students to develop a framework to explore the working city in all of its components.

While listing the costs of the Program, the report includes tuition to NYU, which is a new component of the Program that will begin next year and require students to take one course at the university. Some question the fairness of the cost estimates, given that the NYU component may not carry over to the Program if it moves beyond its pilot phase. The report notes that the Program demands a subsidy of $31,679 per student, which would fall to $10,698 were 16 students enrolled each semester. It doesn’t provide comparative figures for WEPO or Williams-Mystic, though Waters stated that the costs of both programs are lower.

Given its status as a pilot program, WNY cannot receive outside funding, which several alumni say it would receive if it could. “There are a ton of alumni who have said that they would love to donate,” said Nicole Beiner ’09, a fall 2007 participant.

Student interviews and testimonials considered

In a strongly written critique of the report, WNY Founder and Co-Director Robert Jackall, professor of sociology and public affairs, reveals that the report misstates the extent to which it consulted WNY participants. In listing the documents the Committee employed, the report cites summaries of student interviews conducted by non-Committee members, summaries of two interviews with students conducted by the Committee before they went on the Program and written testimonials provided by more than three quarters of all students ever enrolled in WNY.

The 16 students from the fall 2007 and spring 2008 Program, however, state that they were never interviewed after their semesters in New York ended, nor ever asked for written testimonials. Given that 38 students have participated in the Program thus far, the 16 students that were never asked for written reflections comprise 42 percent of participants, while the report claims to have received testimonials from over 75 percent.

In his response to the report, Jackall questions why the most recent WNY experiences were barely taken into consideration. “Thus, the entire third year of the pilot program – a full 40 percent of the program to date (two of five semesters) – remains unevaluated, except for Student Course Survey scores, brief pre-participation interviews conducted by the associate dean of faculty and the director of experiential education, and the two interviews conducted by the chairman of the review committee,” he wrote. “It is particularly difficult to understand why the eight students from fall 2007, all of whom have been on campus for all of spring 2008, were not interviewed.”

Beiner explained that she was only interviewed before and during the Program. “They told me they would follow up with me and never did – that’s part of the reason I’m so upset with the report,” she said. “They claimed to have done the interviews but they don’t say that they did them before and not afterwards.” She added that her interview during the Program barely asked her about her experience and focused on why she thought she fit WNY. “I didn’t really understand why they used interviews from beforehand, especially when a lot of us didn’t fully understand the Program before actually arriving in New York,” she said. “Once you get there it’s really amazing, but they’re just twisting our interviews to make it seem that students on the Program are confused.”

Waters explained that summaries of interviews conducted by non-Committee members comprised 40 to 50 pages of material, all of which the Committee took into consideration. “I requested a personal reflection on the Program from everybody who had been in it,” he said. “I said we might follow up with interviews, but we didn’t because the written reflections we got were so thorough and good from all students who had ever been in the Program.”

In response to the criticism that the report leaves out too many details, Waters explained that the Committee believes it touches on the most significant points and didn’t want to compromise readership for length. He stressed that it was impossible to split the Committee into those who were for the continuing the Program and those that weren’t. “We say that those of us who have reservations about going forward see many strengths in the Program, and those who feel we ought to [go on] also have many anxieties,” he said.

Continuing efforts, approaching vote

After reading the report, alumni started a petition in favor of continuing WNY and have collected 750 signatures from students, faculty and several notable alumni. Sykes noted that most students have been shocked to hear that the Program may be discontinued. “They cannot believe that there is even a consideration of getting rid of what they had taken as a future Williams institution,” he said. He added that many underclassmen spoke of WNY as a factor while considering attending the College, and that tour guides report WNY as holding strong appeal to prospective students.

Though students’ request to speak at the faculty meeting was denied due to time constraints, alumni of the Program intend to distribute a letter for faculty to read before the vote. Alumni questioned whether their petition will hold weight with faculty and have urged students in favor of WNY to speak with their professors. “Ultimately, it’s the faculty who decide, but very few of them have a personal stake in the Program,” Sykes explained. “The Committee’s report will have a significant role, so we have to convince them that the report is not wholly accurate.”

Beiner added that had it not been for Jackall, WNY participants would have never been told about the report or the imminent vote. “If one committee can do this and produce such a biased report, it shows it clearly doesn’t have the students’ best concern in mind.”

While the final vote is set for this afternoon, President Schapiro or Dean of the Faculty Bill Wagner hold the authority to postpone a vote if they feel the debate has been insufficient. Waters noted the need for a prompt decision, given the time and effort required to arrange new directors and plan other details for the Program.

If the faculty votes to continue WNY, Wagner will appoint a new committee to design the reforms needed to improve the Program. “If we’re going to invest the money to make it permanent, it’ll have to work,” Waters said. “People will have to think about these issues, and the President would appoint a new director and work with the formed group to make changes.”

Schapiro said he did not know which outcome to expect. “I think we are ready to have a very interesting and serious, informed discussion on what is on the board,” he said. “I myself have mixed feelings about it.”