My Application, President of Williams

Wick Sloane's previous offers to lead Harvard, the University of Iowa and the U.S. Education Department have been for naught. This time his alma mater has an opening, and he lays out his ideas for running the prestigious liberal arts college.

February 6, 2009

All in one column, let’s nail educational quality, cap presidential pay and create a few more seats at top colleges for veterans and the poor. What is an excellent education for, but to tackle real problems? Here goes. Williams College, my alma mater, is looking for a new president. I’m a nominee. Let’s move the discussion forward by declaring my platform here.

“Own Up To Excellence” is my theme. Effective immediately, Williams will grant not a bachelor’s but a master’s degree. Students who write a successful honors thesis will receive a Ph.D. I am not ashamed to put a rational valuation on the excellence of the Williams faculty and the accomplishments of outgoing president Morton Owen Schapiro.

Students arrive at Williams, and other self-described most highly selective elite institutions, already juiced with a portfolio of Advanced Placement credits, plus civic achievements worthy of a U.S. Senate seat. Should such a cohort, after four more years of education as superb as Williams, earn only a bachelor’s degree? Absurd. Let’s bring some data to the table. Last spring, I witnessed undergraduate honors presentations by International Relations majors at Brown University. My data test? Put any thesis by any of these students against any random, not just elite, sample of doctoral theses. The faculties of Williams and Brown know the outcome. I’m proud to back the Williams faculty here.

Capping Presidential Pay: Limits on salaries and benefits for college and university presidents has to be coming up soon on the agenda for President Obama. Why? Higher education receives more federal aid already than even the most-slobbering investment banker or Wall Street titan would dare to imagine. My lowest-qualified-bidder bid for the University of Iowa presidency went nowhere. Those were different economic times. I’ll take the Williams job for the lower of whatever is on the table or, say, $125,000 and skip the house. I don’t mind if faculty or others are paid more. I collected paychecks and paid my way with jobs ranging from antimony-ore shoveling, to corporate-jet-to-Washington-riding, to teaching expository writing at Bunker Hill Community College. For a job you love, and that’s what a college presidency must be, $125,000, house or not, is an awful lot of money. I disagree that colleges will only attract able presidents by offering vast salaries and benefits. Today, high salaries may attract exactly the wrong candidates.

Education in general: At the start of each semester, we all will read (and reread) Uncommon Genius -- How Great Ideas Are Born by Denise Shekerjian and Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale. Shekerjian investigates how curiosity, imagination, industry and discipline combine to make things happen, across many fields. (The late Kirk Varnedoe, a Williams alumnus and a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is one example from the book.) Evidence of a great education is not what we know, but the problems we see and solve. Hale inspires us to use English with a lot less weariness and a lot more joy. Especially in times of material scarcity, skilled use of language may be the most powerful tool we have.

Admissions policy: Legacy admits? Of course my presidency will continue to favor qualified alumni children. I respect tradition. But, the world today requires a modest shift here. We will weight these applicants by the civic leadership and service of their alumni parents. Highest weightings will go to the children of alumni who have served on a board of education for a public school system. Works for symphonies and art museums are fine, with outreach to the broader community. The Detroit Institute of the Arts is the gold standard for such work.

Financial Management: Effective immediately, trustees will assume personal liability for the college finances. This would include, at the end of each fiscal year, topping off any endowment losses, like a margin call. I borrow this model from Lloyd’s of London. At Lloyd’s, in return for the chance of substantial profits, investors (or Names) assume total personal liability for what they underwrite. Trustees of wealthy colleges today have substantial upside -- access to opportunities, parties, information and networks closed to the rest of us. Fair enough. The National Association of College and University Business Officers reports that college and university endowments have dropped 22%. Have any trustee endowment committees resigned? As president, I would assume the same liabilities as the trustees. What president can achieve excellence for the faculty and students with endowment investment policies closer to betting on the ponies?

The evidence that the Williams endowment was way overboard in risky investments? Moments after the September market crash, Williams issued a panic announcement of immediate fiscal freezes and canceled plans. Endowment 101, especially for already-wealthy institutions, teaches us to keep expenditures for the next three to five years in cash and bonds, to avoid abrupt shifts in spending.

Own Up to Excellence, Phase II: As to leadership, effective immediately, Williams will resign from the Consortium on Financing Higher Education. COFHE is the Skull & Bones-style outfit with membership restricted to many Ivies and smaller, self-described elite institutions “to examine how selective, private colleges and universities could discuss their commitment to providing exceptional educational opportunities for highly talented students as well as best practices in fiscal management.” (Who wrote that? Sin and Syntax! Help!) COFHE’s exclusivity and secrecy (click the FAQs and see for yourself) defy the purpose of a first-rate education in the 21st century. Moreover, with Andrew Cuomo back in the saddle as New York Attorney General, COFHE membership is too risky. One day, Cuomo may ask why for decades these elite institutions, with differing missions and wide-ranging endowments per student, always list nearly the same sticker price.

Own Up To Excellence, Phase III: Williams will, however, invite these same institutions to create the Consortium for Distribution of Excellence in Higher Education. Our records will be public, our meetings Webcast live and available to C-Span. Our first project -- to investigate the sorry state of the world today and ask, “We claim to educate the leaders. In all sectors, our graduates are in charge. Where did we go wrong? What course of study could have prevented SUV’s, global warming, the financial meltdown, two wars, and the total decay of healthcare and education for the poor in the U.S.?” This study will be the basis of developing a great education for the 21st Century and beyond. Open Source tools will enable anyone to use and improve our work.

Team building, listening and cooperation: At commencement, we will issue no diplomas at all unless all members of the class have landed their dream jobs. These students learned before Williams about the importance of solo performance and doing the homework on their own. Success in the world arises from helping and transforming not just yourself, but entire situations. Making the class responsible for the success of the whole class is a good start.

The president’s house: Taking a leadership page from Dartmouth, we’ll use the house for veterans, including wounded veterans, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taking a page from Smith College, we’ll also use the house for older students, including those with children. These are a few of the millions in the U.S. who are just as smart but were not as lucky as most of us privileged to go to Williams the first time around in our education.


Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


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