Tension Between Williams School, College Invites Questions for Future Policy
by William Rhyne and Sam Cochran
In October of 2015, The Economist published their first-ever college rankings, placing Washington and Lee in their number one slot. The magazine based its rankings on how different universities impact economic outcomes for their students. In essence, they measured the expected difference in salary between two identical people, one of whom attends the university while the other is accepted but declines the offer. Based on this method of valuation, Washington and Lee ranked first in the nation. The Economist writes,
“W&L organises regular trips to New York from its home in rural Virginia, so that students can be interviewed at banks and professional firms. No other college combines the intimate academic setting and broad curriculum of a LAC with a potent old-boy network.”
While their reasoning for W&L’s ranking may feel somewhat blunt-edged and dismissive, anyone who has spent significant time in the Washington and Lee community can probably find some degree of truth behind these statements. Washington and Lee has always been first and foremost a Liberal Arts institution, but would we be as selective and competitive if it ended there? Does our reputation as a feeder school for Wall Street increase the quality of our applicant pool? These are some of the questions being asked by our students and faculty as W&L continues to appear at the top of these “best value” college rankings. The answers we find to these questions appear to divert into two schools of thought: the first in favor of honoring the university’s historical identity as a liberal arts school, by emphasizing the individual quest for knowledge as the appropriate measure of “value added,” while the other embraces our relatively newer image as a powerhouse in the finance world, measuring value added in more concrete terms.
Unfortunately, it seems, the tension between the College and the Williams School may be reaching an all time high, a phenomenon traceable in part through the hiring freeze placed on obtaining new Professors. This freeze, coupled with demand swings in student class preference, has created problems across all areas of academia at Washington and Lee, begging questions that include: will there be enough students to fill sparse classes? How can we create enough sections to enable all students that need a class to take it? Already, departments within the Williams School have begun experimenting with ways to alleviate these problems, with varied degrees of success. However, with almost 25% of the rising senior class carrying a Business major (a startling number considering W&L offers 37 majors; however, this statistic does not account for variance caused by double or triple majors), a permanent fix will be needed soon. Thus, the elephant in the room remains: will Washington and Lee need a separate admissions process for the College and the Williams School?
We ask this question without the intention of providing the correct answer, because quite frankly there is no simple solution to this problem. It is not only a matter of conflicting administrative policies, but it also has a lot to do with shifting attitudes towards college education that emphasize a more utilitarian view of college as an investment. When asked “what’s your major?” by friends and family, many of these people will follow up your answer by asking “what are you going to do with that?” At W&L, there are many Liberal Arts graduates making similar or higher salaries than their Williams School counterparts, yet the stigma remains: Williams School majors will be more financially successful; whereas, the reality is that college major will generally have little bearing on an individual’s success, and often very little impact beyond a recent graduate’s first job.
Fortunately, the school has recognized this problem and plans to move towards change. The Board of Trustees has begun to shift overall class sizes from upwards of 480 students down to around 460 students. By enacting this “steady state enrollment,” the Board hopes to help ease strains caused by varying class sizes. Yet, class size is ultimately determined through the admissions process, one that too may change in the short term with new Director Sally Stone Richmond. The biggest question here is, will W&L end its major blind admissions process in favor of bolstering the College?
On the subject of the hiring freeze, things get even trickier. New professorships can cost upwards of $4 million to create, a substantial financial obstacle currently only overcomable in the form of grants - like the recent, anonymous endowment of a Professor of Entrepreneurship. Temporary professors remain an option as well, but it is difficult to perform quality checks on these hires - a must when high academic performance is W&L’s most cherished value. Thus, overtime, faculty size will remain fixed alongside student body size.
Indeed, the popularity of Williams School majors could even be a fad: Business major enrollment dropped from 110 rising seniors to 80 rising juniors - a stark contrast. But the future will remain impossible to predict; the university will need a solution to its College - Williams School tension. Ultimately, this solution will tear at W&L’s core differentiators: the importance of FDRs, of small class sizes, and of a well-rounded education. Which way forward will Washington and Lee choose? With a host of new faces in the University’s most powerful offices, this new direction may thankfully come sooner rather than later.