Our well-being and the endowment

Since coming to Williams, I have been overwhelmed by curves. Convex curves. Kinky curves. Curves that form concentric circles with tiny bliss points in the center. Curves whose tangencies I desperately try to, satisfy . . .

My encounters with curves are the happy consequence of taking microeconomics with Professor Rai, whose class, I declare, has the best curves on campus. Since classes started, we happy few in the course have been looking at curves of all shapes and slopes that model utility (econ-speak for happiness) as a function of two variables.

Some nights ago at Schow, the combination of an imminently due econ problem set, a copy of last week’s issue of the Record and complaints on WSO about PaperCut’s new printing limit led me to wonder if Williams students’ happiness could be written as a function of the performance of the College’s endowment.

Granted, most of the things that make Williams wonderful – a beautiful campus, a strong alumni network, an enthusiastic student body and an equally enthusiastic faculty – have little to do with money. And it is tempting to believe that our large endowment is a byproduct of our sheer awesomeness in these respects, and not the other way around.

These same elements that make Williams great are not absent at Amherst. Yet, Amherst has not been spared the frisson of negative vibes stemming from her pecuniary woes. Recently, 60 out of 190 faculty at Amherst signed a letter proposing to end need-blind admission for international students in the name of cost-cutting, triggering an ugly “us vs. them” debate between students and faculty. While it is hard to feel no schadenfreude over Amherst’s misfortunes, they should remind us of the precariousness of our own comparatively happy state of affairs.

Though some might take comfort in the fact that the financial crisis dwindled Amherst’s family jewels more than it did ours, it remains that our endowment is slightly smaller than Amherst’s on a per-capita basis, as it has been for several years. A quick calculation, using the most recent endowment figures from Williams’ and Amherst’s websites, along with enrollment numbers from U.S. News, yields $689,000 per student for Williams and $736,000 for Amherst.

Thankfully, our smaller endowment-to-student ratio notwithstanding, there have been no signs that the College is giving up its commitment to need-blind admission. As an international student, I can confirm that what little popularity Williams does enjoy abroad is two parts need-blind admission and one part Wang Lee Hom. Devastating effects on campus diversity aside, abolishing need-blind admission would deal a deep blow to Williams’ ability to attract foreign applicants.

While need-blind admission seems safe for now, the same can’t be said for other areas. The denial of a well-regarded professor’s appeal for tenure (of which financial necessity is the most innocuous explanation and the one we most hope to be true); the consequent shuttering of the unarguably popular department he runs (the author tried to sign up for LING 230, but the class was over-enrolled); the new printing limits on PaperCut and the attendant protests against all three suggest that the Williams community has started feeling the pain of a shrinking endowment.

The facts, then, seem to point to the conclusion that our experiences at college are, for better or for worse, correlated to the wealth of the institution we attend. However, the romantic in me still hopes that Williams is an exception to the general rule that more funding is always better. Part of me still hopes that, somehow, Williams’ unique context and intangible qualities frame students’ experiences in such a way that they would get remarkable educations regardless of the College’s wealth or poverty. In other words, I still hope that Williams’ endowment is a function of its awesomeness and not the other way around.

The only way to find out for sure, of course, is to test both cases empirically. A reasonably wealthy Williams, as the past decade can attest, is a terrific place to be. What awaits testing, however, is the inverse. For once, I’m not itching to know, and, hopefully, if the endowment office, the Budget & Finance committee and the trustees continue their good stewardship, hopefully we never will.

Nai Chien Yeat’13 is from Ipoh Perak, Malaysia. He lives in Pratt.