Colleges spending wisely? Discuss.

WASHINGTON — In the oak-paneled room on Monday, 25 of the best and brightest minds from all over the country assembled around a large square table and took turns giving their two cents on the topic of the day. They jostled for attention, hands shooting up in the air, when they wanted to make a point. They squirmed and fidgeted when their peers droned on.

It amounted to a veritable discussion section — except one held not in the basement of William L. Harkness Hall but in the gilded, two-story hearing room of the Senate Finance Committee.

Instead of undergraduates, of course, Monday’s students were the presidents of some of America’s leading universities and other dignitaries from academia. And instead of vying for the attention of a 20-something doctoral student, they showed off for a 61-year-old congressman, Peter Welch of Vermont.

Welch, like any good TA, began the session with an introduction of its purpose: to discuss whether America’s universities are spending enough of their endowments. Then he suggested a first topic of discussion, about the rising costs universities face.

“Does anyone want to weigh in on that?” he asked.

The response should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever gone to section.

Silence.

“For academic leaders, you’re awful shy!” Welch teased. “I’m sure you’ll get over it.”

Eventually, the panelists opened up — or, as with section in real life, the type-A personalities did. Over the course of the three-hour roundtable, there emerged the talkative students (like Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, who spoke up perhaps a dozen times) and the reserved ones (like Yale Law School Professor Henry Hansmann, who spoke only twice).

Discussions eventually grew excited enough that some of the professors and assembled dignitaries would race to thrust their hands in the air after a participant would finish speaking, hoping to catch Welch’s attention and get to make the next comment. It was an oddly congenial event to be held in a Congressional hearing room, where formality usually reigns.

Of course, beneath the friendly discussion, it was clear that the topic at hand — that perhaps America’s universities aren’t spending their money wisely enough — was no laughing matter to many of the participants.

But there were still laughs to be found. At one point, Amherst College President Anthony Marx ’81 tried to explain that for an elite college focused on undergraduate teaching, pushing for increased efficiency — as Welch had inquired about — is easier said than done.

“Amherst,” he said, “is a liberal-arts college. We have an eight-to-one faculty ratio. We sit in rooms, we talk for hours. That’s what we do.”

Welch wasted no time with a response. “Sounds familiar,” he quipped. Now the room, echoing with laughter, did not look much like a Yale discussion section. People were smiling.

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