Economizing for the fundamentals

We commend President Schapiro and the trustees for an honest and alert response to the probable effects of the ongoing financial crisis on the College. Schapiro made the case clearly in the e-mail he sent to the campus this Saturday: in the short term, at least, College investments are likely to underperform, alumni will be less able to give, and students will need more financial help to come to Williams than they have previously.
We are glad to see the President engaging with students about an issue that is likely to affect every one of us. This is obviously a time in which it will be necessary to make hard calls about the priorities of the College to determine what Williams stands for. Whatever sacrifices must be made, the institutional culture that prioritizes our intellectual life must remain of primary importance. Of the proposals Schapiro suggested on Saturday, the changes in faculty hiring policy and the enrollment hike risk jeopardizing that goal.

While no one can predict the future, at this moment it would not be entirely unreasonable to expect the College endowment to decline by three or four hundred million dollars this fiscal year. The College needs to plan for the worst as it hopes for the best, and planning for the worst means having a long and serious institutional conversation about what it is we value as a college and as a community. This sort of question has understandably taken a back seat at Williams over the past decade – after all, when the endowment is comfortably near two billion, you can have your $47 million student center, and your Arabic department, too.

The proposal to raise enrolments at the College is an unwise response, unworthy of the level-headedness that has characterized so much of the crisis planning to this point. While it is true that Schapiro has claimed this decision is a move Williams was already considering, we believe a shift that will affect something as basic as the number of students at the College needs to make sense for the College as a whole, not merely for its bottom line.

We are sceptical of Dick Nesbitt’s claim that a “financially significant” number of students can be added without substantially changing life at the College. Williams is a delicate eco-system, and any student who has ever been in a seminar with just three or four students too many can attest to this fact. Furthermore, we are suspicious of how much this scheme will actually benefit the College if Williams is to continue its commitment to financial diversity and financial aid. Even if official policy remains the same, we fear that a plan centered on raising revenue from students will inevitably lead to pressure on the Office of Admission to dig deeper into its largely more affluent, less diverse Early Decision pool. Of all possible concessions, even appearing to compromise the integrity of our admission process is simply the wrong one to make. This plan seems to us a textbook example of something that could endanger the core experience of what it means to be at Williams, and at dubious benefit.

In particular, this seems exactly the wrong sort of proposal to combine with the reduction in hiring that is also currently on the table. It is beyond obvious to say that the essential role faculty play in the intellectual life of Williams. New hires – from classical archaeology to cognitive science, from number theory to postcolonial art – are essential to building and maintaining strong programs. Furthermore, if Williams is to maintain its reputation of academic excellence, it must be able to continue hiring in emerging fields that are on the cutting edge of academic inquiry.

We understand that tenure-track commitments are by nature irrevocable, so it makes sense to be cautious about committing to these hires while economic uncertainty prevails. However, cost savings – which are estimated at around $700,000 – at the expense of top-notch academic departments is unacceptable, especially not as a long-term solution.

Despite these reservations, we also saw a lot to like about the proposals Schapiro outlined in his email, a number of the measures seem characterized by discretion and good sense. We support the decision to postpone work on the Weston Field project and the Stetson-Sawyer renovation, as painful as that may be. That being said, we encourage the College to work with the campus on this issue – particularly with regard to Stetson-Sawyer. The Chapin Rare Books Library in particular is one of the true treasures of Williams College. The smaller number of available rare books at the Southworth Schoolhouse is a tolerable temporary solution, but the administration should remember Chapin’s plight if the Stetson-Sawyer project is to be stuck in limbo for an extended period of time.

We look to Schapiro and the trustees to take measured steps toward reducing our expenses, and to avoid panicky measures that would injure the fundamental Williams experience. Tonight, President Schapiro will be addressing students at an open forum in Paresky, and we look forward to hearing how he intends to develop and refine his plans.
In many ways, a return to reality will only be made more difficult by the fact that students here have had it very good for a very long time. We have come to expect a new decamillion dollar construction project year in and year out, along with a lobster in every pot. It can become easy to confuse these privileges, when enjoyed over a long period of time, with entitlements. While the individual decisions will be difficult, our priorities ought to be obvious. What a Williams student is always entitled to is the best education available for purchase with U.S. dollars, and that should not change.