Commencement 2013: From Failure to Fiasco


Dear Willard College Faculty and Administrators,

Over the past month, I’ve been deluged with letters about next week’s commencement speaker. Who is it? “It” is complicated.

Through the Office of Media Processing, we surveyed campus groups to get a sense of what sorts of speakers might be of interest. The top categories for speaker included “someone who has worked to improve the lives of people in Africa or Latin America” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu was mentioned several times), “someone engaged in social entrepreneurship,” “an actor/actress who has made important contributions to the arts” (Sean Penn and John Stewart were top choices), and “someone in the U.S. who has fought for social justice.”

I then appointed a task force of my top administrators, including Dr. Horatio Eichmann, to develop a working list. We thought the list balanced student interest with cost, and each of the invited speakers would have brought significant press to the college.

Top of the list was President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, international legal complexities rendered a visit to the United States quite difficult. We also came to understand that despite his early success as an anti-colonial revolutionary, his reputation of late is problematic.

Our second choice was Efraín Rios Montt, former president of Guatemala. It seemed to us that Willard College should tap into the whole “Latino thing,” and his presence on campus promised to bolster our somewhat anemic enrollment by students of color. The same day that the invitation was issued, news reports emerged that he was about to be convicted of genocide. We crossed him off the list, and I asked Eichmann to dig deeply into the collective wisdom of the assembled and to please go light.

Kim Kardashian, whose youngest half-sister applied to Willard, was accepted, but declined to enroll, initially expressed interest. When we learned of the actress’ speaker fee, we had to back out. We faced similar problems with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Senator John Edwards, and former congressman Anthony Weiner.

The next morning, he came back with Gerald P. Boyle, an attorney known for his defense work in difficult cases. Everyone loves the dedicated and courageous attorney fighting to exonerate the innocent. One of those clients was Jeffrey Dahmer.

At this point, we were running out of options when the Dean of Business, Larry Madoff, suggested Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch. Jeffries’ work with A&F has been an inspiration not only to many of our students, but has of late inspired Willard’s Office of Marketing, Sales, and Promotion. The last three years of capital campaign and student recruitment were modeled on A&F. Jeffries’ 2006 interview where he laid out A&F’s philosophy was instrumental in some major changes at Willard.

“[Sex is] almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that. In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told the site. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Discussions ensued, and Mr. Jeffries expressed interest in reaching out to young people who wanted to hear the A&F message. He even agreed to waive his speaker’s fee. And then last week, a small problem developed. Apparently, A&F’s marketing has upset some communities. Especially problematic was the Day after Mother’s Day protest in Chicago.

At this point, Commencement is in two weeks, and we have no one. I’ve directed my office, therefore, to work through Speakers, Inc. One of their speakers, Matt Foley, comes highly recommended and we hope to have a signed contract by the end of the day.


President Henry Cotton

P.S. The good news is that we did not invite AIG’s CEO, Robert Benmosche. No one needs that sort of speech.

Faculty must attend all meetings

office bunker

Dear Faculty and Administration,

Over the past several years, Willard College has been engaged in a re-visioning of our campus, its mission, and its future. As we take on some of the exciting challenges of 21st century higher education, as outlined in previous notes (see micro-credits, televised classrooms, etc.), the campus community has been asked to come to together to “put the pieces together,” “stretch out and then close the loop,” and to “build a cyber-campus,” that goes beyond the traditional “brick and mortar” learning space.

Of late, however, the president’s office has been receiving troubling reports concerning a precipitous drop in faculty participation in the face-time meetings. Excessive absenteeism led me to take the extreme measure of sending my nine assistant and associate provosts out to find the 20 missing faculty. While five of the faculty were in their offices, the other fifteen could not initially. We knew they were on campus because Parking Services had determined that their vehicles had entered the faculty parking lot. (Our recent improvement in the gating of that facility has allowed us to better monitor who is on campus).

The members of the Provost’s office then called in officers from Public Safety to determine the whereabouts of these faculty members. Within 24 hours, Public Safety had investigated the matter and gave my office a thorough report. What follows are the main highlights of the Public Safety assessment.

“Twenty officers were assigned to the case. Working in teams of two, with sound and heat detection systems, we worked our way through the office buildings where the missing faculty work. Our devices picked up signals from previously searched, and apparently empty, offices. Officers entered the offices of faculty, with permission of department chairs. Our detection equipment continued to register sounds and evidence of live bodies. A summary inspection revealed that said faculty had built a variety of hiding spaces. Several professors in English had rigged hammock like structures under their desks. Six members of Biology and Chemistry had removed ceiling tiles and constructed a network of inter-locking safe-rooms in the crawl-space  between the sub-ceiling and the structural ceiling. Finally, two members of Computer Science had built “Committee Shelters” in hollowed out spaces behind book shelves. All of these shelters were provisioned so that the subjects could remain in hiding for long periods of time. In addition to food and water, the ceiling and wall shelters had portable toilet devices, wifi, etc. We also located a faculty blog called where faculty shared advice on design and construction of the shelters. The blog also contained a clearing center where faculty could provide plausible excuses. This appears to be modeled on websites devoted to helping cheating spouses with alibis and excuses.”

The report runs to 10 pages. A culture of pervasive lawlessness has come to dominate our faculty. The behavior outlined above suggests that faculty may be engaged in other actions that are destructive to the physical plant of the college, to the morale of our employees, and to the ability to focus on the work of the college. My administration pledges to continue to investigate the so-called “committee shelter” practice. We will continue to search, locate, and destroy these shelters and also review committee assignment practices to determine the best mode of controlling attendance and reducing absenteeism.


President Henry Cotton

P.S In the course of the investigation described above, Public Safety determined that the student organization “Willard College Community Support Agriculture Club,” in addition to providing shares of fruits and vegetable , has also been selling “Malverde shares.” We had assumed that ‘malverde’ was in the tomatillo family, but have recently determined that this is in fact cannabis. Several club members are on suspension pending investigation. As of yet, no faculty or staff appear to have been involved.

Assessing Assessment

Dear Faculty,

As I mentioned at our last all-College retreat, my administration is contemplating ways to render more efficient and meaningful student evaluations. There are many ways to measure faculty effectiveness; enrollments and their correlation to the cost of the course to the college, student statements about specific faculty, law suits by disgruntled parents, and even police reports in the local paper concerning recent events covered at an executive session with the provost last month.

What is clear is that the traditional end of semester paper evaluation is from an era long gone. The forms are problematic on several levels. First, the college is moving away from paper for reasons of sustainability and efficiency. Second, we are asking the students to synthesize and analyze 16 weeks of class into a single statement. All of the data shows that the average 18 year old is neither interested nor equipped to do this sort of long-term reflection. We also believe that our students have the right to have their voices heard with greater immediacy and frequency. The Facebook-generation does not wait 16 weeks to make their voices heard.

Therefore, Willard College will soon be transitioning to a system that is up-to-date, timely, efficient, and will give us a more holistic picture of faculty performance. Our newly appointed Vice President for Faculty Development and Evaluation, Dr. Horacio Eichmann, will overhaul the old evaluation system and revolutionize our credit delivery system. I have authorized Dr. Eichmann to take whatever steps necessary quickly execute these changes throughout campus. is a website where college students post anonymous assessments of their professors using four categories: Overall Quality, Helpfulness, Clarity, and Easiness. Beyond the quantitative rubric, students are invited to post qualitative statements. This technology is open sourced and there is no cost to Willard College.

The use of has the benefit of immediacy. A student can leave class and immediately post a review to the website. Ideally, students would post ratings from their laptop during class. Unfortunately, many Willard faculty continue to forbid lap tops or other electronic devices in the classroom. Dr. Eichmann will be addressing this bottleneck in the coming weeks.

At present, we are uncertain how to assess ratemyprofessors’ fifth category of “Hotness.” The existence of this category, however, suggests that the old model of the frumpy, fatigued, and poorly dressed faculty simply does not reflect the Willard brand. Moreover, it runs counter to the media-rich environment that young people experience on an hourly basis throughout their lives. As education moves closer into alignment with mass media, entertainment, and digitalia, we must be sensitive to the appearance of our content providers.

The second technological adaptation is clickers. Across the United States, professors have begun to employ clickers as way to quiz large classes during the instruction time. The answers are instantly tabulated and feed directly into the instructor’s grade-book. The Office for Assessment of Assessment Measures, which as you will recall was created three months prior to the Office of the Vice President for Faculty Development and Evaluation, is assessing if clickers can be used to also provide minute by minute evaluation of instruction. Clicker feedback could be graphed out to show how content providers are performing, not during the course of a semester, but over the course of fifty minutes. Faculty would receive at the end of each instruction day, a print out of each student’s assessment, and the average and mean assessments of the entire class. They would also receive a six page analysis of how their performance compares with all of the previous days’ assessments, and also compared with all faculty on campus, as well as faculty at other participating institutions.

Shortening the time between content-delivery and student assessment can only be implemented by flexibilizing credit hour allocation. Starting this fall, Willard College will be the first college to introduce the .25 credit course. Where the typical college student takes 120 credits, or 40 or so courses, Willard students will take between 80-160 courses. Most classes will only last two weeks. Students can construct a curriculum, and even self-designed majors, from more flexible instructional blocks.

The changes outlined above will to insure that my administration has a thick and rich flow of faculty assessment data which we can apply to the ongoing departmental assessment process. And rest assured, as the college continues to restructure, we will be mindful to continue to build the administrative apparatus necessary to analyze and apply this data.


Henry Cotton


Confidential: Willard College’s new international recruitment strategy!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/stjohns4n-2-web.jpg


To: Willard College Administrators

From: President Cotton

Re: Confidential news concerning Willard College Study Abroad and Foreign Student Recruitment

Dear Colleagues,

As I mentioned in our previous all-college administrator meeting, the financial future of Willard College lies overseas. While much of this is driven by U.S. college students’ desire to study abroad, the more immediate objective of getting the Willard brand overseas is to recruit high-yield foreign students who are interested in receiving an undergraduate degree in the United States. Our dilemma, however, is that the countries and regions with the highest density of full-tuition paying students are not the same places where the typical U.S. college student wants to spend a semester. Students flock to the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, etc. Willard’s brand, by contrast, needs to develop name-recognition in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, India, China, and other places with booming economies and sub-18 population growth.

Another challenge to attracting foreign students is the proliferation of institutes in places like China that offer college credits that can be applied back to US colleges for a fraction of the State-side cost. Put another way, getting the students to our campus is one thing, getting them to fulfill credits here is a whole different problem.

Having laid out the scenario of information that is fairly widely known, I now turn to a project that must remain entirely outside of public view. As our Director of Admissions began to search for promising tuition markets abroad, he was approached with an unusual, and to our thinking, quite interesting proposition. While visiting select high schools in Southeast Asia, our director was approached by an individual representing a foreign diplomatic mission. Over the course of dinner, the unnamed individual inquired about Willard’s tuition and admissions standards. With that basic information, he excused himself, returning ten minutes later to ask how many slots the director could offer to his clients. When the director explained that normally slots are not reserved for even a single student, much less a cohort, until they have been admitted and paid a deposit, the representative asked what could be done to reserve slots that cannot be reserved. Before the director could answer, the stranger leaned forward, and quietly explained “Let me be more candid.”

The individual in question was in fact a representative of the Democratic Republic of North Korea. For reasons obvious to anyone who reads the papers, the children of Party functionaries, from factory managers to the president, have a great deal of difficulty getting their off-spring admitted to foreign universities. From time to time, a particularly high placed individual has arranged for their son (rarely daughters) to be admitted to exclusive boarding schools in neutral countries.

The bottom line is that Willard College has been offered the rare opportunity to admit 300 students whose government will sponsor their tuition. Because of currency controls, tuition would be transferred in full to our bursar office, via North Korean accounts in Barbados and Singapore. Because of the added responsibility and risk, the College tacked on a 15% surcharge to settle any unforeseen problems associated with visas, health insurance, and defections.

One issue that was raised during the negotiations was the presence on Willard College campus of 50 South Korean nationals and an equal number of students of South Korean origin. Obviously, we will avoid having any roommate pairings that may result in problems. Specifically, any North Korean student who defects represents a lost tuition.

Another concern is that the incoming North Koreans have lived in isolation not only from the world, but from 99% of North Korea. As children of party officials, they have never washed a dish, washed their cloths, and in the case of several in the family of the president, brushed their own teeth.

The other problem is that we believe that the representative of the NK parents understood that our campus was in New York City. Given that the students will be here on third party passports and visas, our relative isolation may be an asset. Still, we anticipate that as the bus ride from La Guardia moves into hour three, and urban landscape turns surburban, and then rural, some will begin to plan their escape. Many of these students will be sent to the U.S. with fairly substantial amounts of cash, which may render it difficult to prevent them from leaving campus and the area.

Despite the numerous challenges to bringing North Korean students to Willard, the whole process has allowed us to imagine a new way to recruit foreign students. While traditionally, students are recruited, apply, and are admitted on an individual basis, Willard is hoping to start to begin the wholesaling of students. Just as stores buy in bulk, Willard hopes to begin to recruit, process applications, and admit students in batches from select overseas student cohorts. By a radical reimagining of the process, we envision diversifying the countries of origin of our students, and to recruit in untapped markets where clients cover tuition on a cash and carry basis. To be more specific, let us imagine families whose assets are in some manner completely liquid but also non-reportable.

Sincerely, Henry Cotton

P.S. Please remember to remind your department chairs and program directors that students on work-study must perform their designated work on campus. I have received reports of faculty telling students that their work study obliges them to perform domestic tasks in the homes and gardens of faculty. This practice dates back to Willard’s early years as a psychiatric hospital, but current federal student aid regulations prohibit these activities. Washing cars, delivering pets to groomers, and serving cocktails at dinner parties are not tasks covered by current work study regulations. The recent problems at St. Johns University should give all of us pause to reflect on what are tasks proper to our students.

A Letter from the President of Willard College

Dear Faculty, Staff, and Administrators,

Willard College is pleased to announce a series of initiatives designed to bring our educational mission into alignment with the financial constraints faced by the College. Willard finds itself in the demographic “Bermuda Triangle” called upstate New York. When we take the total number of high school graduates in our cachement area (a three hundred mile radius from campus) and we divide it by the number of institutions with whom we compete for high yield students (defined as students not requiring or requesting tuition discounting), we confront an ever shrinking potential student body. And like all private colleges in this day and age, we must consider that our annual price point has risen at a faster rate than inflation for the past two decades.

Despite this grim forecast, I’m encouraged by Willard College’s century and a half of keeping the dormitories full and the books balanced. Remember that we are the only institution of higher education in North America that began as a psychiatric hospital. When the college, then known as Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane, was founded just after the Civil War, few thought that the hospital could ever reach capacity. The region had never had such an institution, and no one could imagine that it would succeed. The predictions proved to be wrong and the institution quickly filled to overcapacity. While the fee paying residents were always a minority, administrators balanced the books through payments from counties and the state and the work of residents. Early annual reports from the asylum read like quarterly corporate reports with most of the pages devoted to the number of pigs raised, corn harvested, and timber cut. Willard College has much to learn from its storied past.

There are many possible solutions, but it is clear that we need to move toward consolidation and modernization of departments and their operating procedures. Are all of these academic departments necessary? Can we identify function overlaps that can be trimmed out? Can certain departments, upon consolidation, enjoy further savings through outsourcing of costly non-essential activities? Can we make these changes without compromising the high quality educational product that we provide? Finally, can all of this be achieved while satisfying the requirements of the accrediting body that grants us the right to confer degrees?

Let’s start with a popular major at Willard, history, not because it is on the proverbially chopping block. On the contrary, our consultants have suggested that this department can be transformed from a resource drain to a revenue generator with modest investment.

The paradox is that while history is wildly popular in the US and books and movies on select historical topics sell, students find college history courses to be tiresome. As is clear from student evaluations on, a major problem is that faculty, instead of teaching history, teach writing and reading. As one anonymous student eloquently noted: “Dr. _____ thinks she is teaching English. And we didn’t get to watch movies about World War Two, witch is my favorite subject.” Worse, while humanities professors claim that “chalk and talk” is cheap, it is in fact costly.

The immediate response to the problem of cost and the tedium of in-class learning is on-line learning. From Willard’s perspective, we need to move beyond on-line learning. Again, history can teach us much.

In 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson cut the ribbon on the world’s inaugural “teleteachers” program. With support from the World Bank and UNESCO, El Salvador led the way in transitioning away from teacher-directed classrooms.  The plan was to replace teachers with lessons and lectures transmitted remotely and broadcasted to participating middle schools through the national television station. Johnson famously remarked that El Salvador would soon be “the first nation in all the world with a complete educational television system. Some day we hope the United States can catch up to you.” Although the program eventually collapsed, the potential savings by eliminating teaching staff, as well as the expensive programs to train teachers, was a missed opportunity.

Remarkably, Johnson’s call was not heeded, until today. We propose that the History Department begin to transition to a “History Channel” centered pedagogy. Courses and areas of study will be organized around what the History Channel is showing. We can imagine courses such as “World War Two,” “Genocide,” “The Nazis,” “Vietnam War,” and “The Top Ten Tank Battles” as selling well to our customer base.

Their programing would align with a related proposal; to require all assigned readings must have sold over a ½ million copies. The books that sell best tend to cover subject matter that History Channel covers. If at least a ½ million people have not bought the book, we will not require our students to read it. If the bookstore can purchase these books in bulk, we can also pass on considerable margins to the college’s financial balance.

Moreover, we will capitalize on the second biggest sector of the computer industry: gaming. All classes will have video games incorporated into the pedagogy. The bookstore will purchase the games in bulk and thereby pass on wider sales margins to the college. Students won’t just watch the history of D-Day. They will be inside a virtual landing craft at Omaha Beach. Or they will be cybernetically with Eisenhower as he decides how to proceed after the initial landings.  Research suggests that many students spend more money, and time, on video games than homework, so this pedagogical innovation will effectively channel student spending into Willard College’s revenue stream.

In conclusion, Willard College has a long history of enduring the vagaries of the Finger Lake’s economic and demographic shifts. No one thought the hospitals would make it when it first opened. And when deinstitutionalization hit in the 1970s, along with Department of Labor requirements to pay patients for their work, everyone thought Willard would vanish.   We will survive.

In my next letter, we will turn to the question of how to improve our track record in attracting premium students and also a series of proposals to improve teacher evaluations systems while enjoying some cost savings.


Henry Cotton, President of Willard College

P.s. The Director of Sustainability reports that custodial staff has been seen collecting redeemable cans and bottles from campus recycling bins. In the future, I will devote a full letter to this question, for the moment, please remember that all refuse brought or produced on campus remains property of Willard College. Moreover, the sight of custodians digging through bins sends the wrong message to students about the wage-scale of this sector of our staff.