Three’s a crowd: Why communicating between departments should not require a new dean

The College’s creation of a new administrative position to oversee the Offices of Admission and Financial Aid, though well-meaning, is a misguided attempt to solve a problem that could be addressed in a much more efficient manner. An old joke asks how many mechanics/academics/psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb. We pose a similar query: How many administrators does it take to oversee two offices?

At present, the activities of the Office of Admission are run by Director of Admission Richard Nesbitt ’74, and those of the Office of Financial Aid by Director of Financial Aid Paul Boyer ’77. Both directors report to the provost, who reports to the president. The new dean, whose official title would be the dean of admission and financial aid, would supervise the activities of both offices, serving as an intermediary between the department directors and the provost. The College says that this change would help mitigate coordination issues between the two offices and is necessary to ensure that they can work together effectively.

There are potential reasons why the two offices would need to coordinate. The new dean would evaluate the College’s admission and financial aid practices as a whole. This would ensure that students continue to receive the financial aid they need for each of their four years at the College. Another goal would be to attract more applicants from low-income backgrounds and admit as many as the College can support financially.

These are undoubtedly admirable goals. The College should always strive to be more inclusive in its admission processes, and a qualified applicant’s financial situation should never keep them from attending the College. Indeed, it is easy to argue that there ought to be someone overseeing both admissions and financial aid to ensure that these two important offices are not just working well, but working well together.

Still, we have to ask whether this proposed addition of yet another dean to the College’s institutional hierarchy is truly the best way of addressing this problem. There is a tendency in higher education to solve all problems top-down, to answer every issue by expanding the administrative nexus. This is not always a bad thing, of course. Deans play an important role at the College. But not all problems are best addressed in this manner.

In this case we ought to question whether having another link in the communication chain — another middle manager — will truly solve the coordination issues it purports to solve. After all, to some extent, there are already people to oversee the activities of these two departments: the provost and the president. It is possible that, in addressing the very particular activities of admission and financial aid, someone with more specific expertise would be required. But presumably, the staff of these offices, who are already engaged with this sort of work, would best address these issues. The notion that coordination between admission and financial aid can be best facilitated by instituting another supervising power is suspect.

For any major change in institutional framework, there is an opportunity cost. A new dean means a new salary — money the College could use for other important interests. We can put these funds to better use, namely funding expanded financial aid programs. Though many peer institutes have a similar position, expansion of administrative staff has been endemic in higher education, perhaps unnecessarily so,  and contributes to the rising cost of college. The College should rethink hiring a dean to fix two departments that are not broken, even if there are ways for them to improve.

The College has a responsibility to make sure that its Offices of Admission and Financial Aid run as smoothly, effectively and fairly as possible. It has an obligation, too, to ensure that the education it offers is broadly accessible regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. But adding yet another dean to supervise these activities is not necessarily the best way to these goals.

Correction: Sept. 29, 2016, 7:36 p.m.

A previous version of this article made reference to a financial aid budget. The article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Office of Financial Aid does not have a set budget.

  • The Other Michael Bolton

    The administrative bloat at Williams (like many of its peers) was already out of hand, but this is insane. At this rate there will soon be a separate Dean overseeing each academic department. It’s like the college needs to invent creative ways to needlessly spend more money. Instead, just lower tuition or increase financial aid. Or Williams could reopen Greylock Dining Hall which cryptically remains dormant. Or create another fellowship or two for graduates. Or bring in a few more transfers from disadvantaged backgrounds like (gasp) Amherst does. Anything but this. This is what immediately comes to mind: