Misplaced power

A little over two years ago, the administration of the school’s finances was under the purview of the provost, a faculty position then and now held by Professor of Philosophy William Dudley ’89. That job was split between Dudley and the vice president of finance, currently Fred Puddester. The Office of Student Life used to report to the dean of students, but now Benjamin Lamb, assistant director for student involvement and student organizations, reports to Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass. The power remains fundamentally in the hands of the trustees, but I will leave that bucket of worms to someone braver than myself. The day-to-day operations of the College are in the hands of a group of professional administrators.

I have nothing against any individual administrators, and I have no reason to believe that the individuals doing these jobs are anything but wonderful people, but this is a problem. The rise in non-faculty professional administrators as the authorities in charge of the school has terrible consequences, here and elsewhere, for three primary reasons. The first is the most obvious: It costs a lot of money, both in terms of the size of salaries these administrators draw and in terms of the quantity of salaries being paid. The second is that the priorities of non-faculty administrators inevitably shift away from education and toward other metrics that make them (and on the surface, the school) look good. The third is that the transparency and interactivity of a faculty-run administration is much higher than that of the current variety.

The direct financial costs of additional administrators are obvious, but should not be understated. The fact that higher education tuitions across the country have skyrocketed across the last couple of decades is no secret, but the extent to which it can be attributed to administrative costs is. The highest paid public officials in the rare states where they are not sports coaches are university administrators, and that premium applies to private institutions as well. I was unable to find any nationwide data on hiring by quantity, but the increased hiring at Williams and elsewhere is obvious. For example, The Wall Street Journal reported last winter that the number of administrators at the University of Minnesota has grown at almost double the rate of the number of both students and faculty (“Deans List: Hiring Spree Fattens College Bureaucracy – And Tuition,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 28, 2012). If these duties were returned to faculty administrators, whose positions still exist and require salaries at Williams, perhaps the school would have the funds to come closer to its actual goal: educating the very best students in the country.

Not only would the College have more money to put toward that goal, one would imagine it would also be better able to prioritize it. Certainly, there are ways in which the incentives for professors do not align exactly with the goal of educating students, but they are less perverse than those faced by administrators. An administrator is personally most benefited by things that make him look good to potential employers, and that essentially means increases in the rankings of the College. Certainly, those do not exclude academic outcomes and methods, but as Kate Flanagan ’14 argued in her article “Off the charts” (Sept. 11) much of the criteria are completely unrelated. A faculty administrator who intends to one day return to teaching has little incentive to allocate extra funds to fancier dorm rooms or a sparkly new library; even if they believe, correctly, that the old library is ugly, they would have to believe that that ugliness inhibits learning.

Faculty administrators are also likely to be more connected to student experiences. Certainly, not every student has regular opportunities or causes to interact with them, but the deans’ office is much more accessible than other administrative wings, and many of these administrators were professors recently enough that some students know them from classes. At the very least, they are likely to be in contact with former colleagues who work with many students on a day-to-day basis, resulting in greater transparency. I may seem to contradict myself because things like new buildings are often as popular with students as with indexers, but the knowledge of what the students would like can still be helpful when paired with the goal of improving outcomes. For example, the decision at the end of last year to replace Baxter Fellows with an essentially identical unpaid position was questionable on the face of it to students, who predicted correctly that the positions would not be filled by the end of the year. Finally, even if student input didn’t improve decision-making, it would hopefully produce transparency in those decisions. This summer, in the middle of July, the administration announced through a daily message its Residential Sector Plan Report, a broad guideline for the next few years of dormitory construction and renovation. The report claims to have included a large amount of student input, but it was released with very little fanfare in a way that allowed the administration to avoid debate. A faculty-led administration, dealing with students on a day-to-day basis, would have a much harder time hiding its decisions from students.

Many of the new non-faculty positions involve issues important to me and many other students, such as the recently announced director of sexual assault prevention and response. I don’t call for this position to be canceled; instead, I ask that non-faculty positions be limited to cases where the professional in question exists for the sake of students and whose purpose cannot be fully carried out by a member of the faculty. Changing who is in charge of the College would not completely fix the problems it faces regarding costs or goals on its own. It could, however, help.

Chris Huffaker ’15 is a math and French double major from Calgary, Alberta. He is studying abroad at Oxford.

Comments (4)

  1. Keeping up appearances also won out over the needs of students when it came to the closing of Ephporium. I hope that something better takes its place but whatever Williams does to support that new store, it could have done to keep Ephporium going.

    President Falk has left the running of the administration to the professionals, a luxury that didn’t exist prior to the reshuffling to which you cite. On his first visit to my former store for lunch, President Falk commented to Michael Reed (one of my regulars) how nice Chocolate Springs (the upscale cafe/bakery in Lenox) is. I had to visit it after hearing this and I must admit that I concur. Ephporium was a lot of things to a lot of people but upscale was not one of them. It isn’t that President Falk isn’t a nice person or that he misunderstands small business. He is a nice guy and his parents were small business owners in a college town. It is just that his focus is less about the inner workings and the culture of Williams and more about acquiring the resources that can be brought to improve Williams. An upscale downtown is less favorable to students but better for fundraising.

    When I announced Ephporium’s closing on graduation weekend, President Falk had ample requests and opportunities to step in and change the outcome. Instead he chose to support his top administrator and former colleague at Johns Hopkins, Fred Puddester, over the loud cries of foul from faculty. I, and others, were dumbfounded when Mr. Puddester offered to jack up the rent from $1282/mo to $3089/mo for any potential buyers of the business after several promises to the contrary by his subordinate. I had been trying to sell it for six months and I suspect the summer timing of the rent increase was meant to lessen the bad publicity upon rendering it unprofitable. This new administrative leaning and modus operandi is dangerous. There now seems to be more of an effort to collect input but I wonder if that input will change any outcomes. I can’t help thinking that the deck is stacked with too many outsiders and not enough diversity.

    I believe that the closing of Ephporium is just another example of a slow and steady creation of a new culture that is less of a meritocracy and more based on cronyism and career advancement. I am not convinced that this is purposeful but the further down this path it goes, the less likely it will reverse. Most organizational structure failures can be traced back to cultural issues and as great as this college is, it is not immune from this principle. Ask anyone who works for Williams and they will tell you that the culture has changed, and not for the better. Unfortunately, this corporatization of colleges is happening all over but the advantage of being number one is that you don’t have to follow the crowd. When it comes to following trends, maybe the purple bubble that shields Williams is also the thing that protects it.

    Huff Templeton III
    Former Owner, Ephporium

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  4. Well, it sounds all nice and good —faculty running the show, after all, it is an academic institution! But the kind of financial and legal acumen now needed in the jobs to run a place like Williams is way beyond faculty…and not what faculty would want to learn to do. It would take a good amount of time to understand the nuances of what it takes to run Williams and though it might reek of corportatism, having capably, non-faculty administrators is the only way to go these days. Engage your faculty and see how willing they are to take on the roles you suggest that should go back to faculty oversight. This is not the 1980s or 1990s or even the pre-2009 recession days. Title IX and other compliance issues (including financial accountability) make the running of academic institutions no longer possible with what faculty are good at and what they wish to do.

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