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Perhaps we’ll never know

The Dartmouth Trustee Election season is heating up. In anticipation, I asked Dartblog readers to come up with a list of questions that I’d send to each candidate. Here are the questions we developed together:

1. Last year saw much debate over the writing program at Dartmouth. The debate, especially, concerned who is teaching Dartmouth freshmen to write at the College standard. At present, students are largely taught by adjunct instructors outside the tenure system. Editing services are performed by upperclass students. Please assess the state of student writing at Dartmouth.

2. Are you in favor of the emphasis placed on research in what President Wright has stated is the College’s mission €œto solve the world’s problems €? If so, are you concerned that this would create a rift between the sciences and the humanities?

3. On average, would you consider Dartmouth ‘s faculty to be overworked or underutilized in the classroom €“ or has the correct balance been struck?

4. Suggest one radically innovative change —or one innovative policy or program —that would make Dartmouth a better college and which, to the best of your knowledge, no competitor college is doing.

5. We often hear about Dartmouth ‘s €œdisaffected alumni. € Some also claim that this body is growing in size. Why do you think such a contingent exists? How can the College win back its support?

6. Please assess the state of Dartmouth ‘s fundraising efforts.

7. Imagine that a new dollar is added to Dartmouth ‘s budget and you have decided to author a memo to President Wright and the rest of the Board setting out principles for dividing and spending that dollar. How might it go?

8. How did you vote last fall on the proposed constitution? After answering this, please explain your rationale for voting the way you did.

9. Official Dartmouth publications have begun referring to a North versus a South campus. Describe your feelings about this €œBalkanization € and note if you think there should be geographic limits on Dartmouth ‘s growth.

10. Relatedly, Dartmouth currently has a limit on the size of the undergraduate body, and no similar cap on the size of the Arts and Sciences graduate body. Does this comport with your philosophy about what Dartmouth should be? If not, why?

And finally €¦

11. What, in your view, is the proper role of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees? And how would you balance recommendations from the administration with a) independent, personal thinking and b) recommendations from students and alumni?

I would posit that any fair observer would consider these questions more penetrating than the five pablum-inviting questions asked on Dartmouth’s “official” election site. Those five questions:
I. Dartmouth is a rich, tightly-knit community of inclusiveness, diversity, and intellectual exploration. How can campus life at Dartmouth best continue to provide, nurture, and grow this unique community going forward, given the rapid global changes taking place today that inevitably affect College life?

II. When Dartmouth ‘s financial and staff resources come under pressure, what should be the College ‘s top priorities for investment (academic, residential, physical plant or otherwise)

III. What is your vision for Dartmouth ‘s place in the community of higher education?

IV. What do you believe are the most important issues facing Dartmouth in the next five years and how would you deal with those issues as a trustee?

V. What personal qualities do you have and what life experiences have you had that you believe make you uniquely qualified to serve on the board? Which will most enhance the board?

Too easy, I think, to waffle on those overbroad questions. Alas, I have bad news to report: Alumni Council-nominated candidate John Wolf, Alumni Council-nominated candidate Sandy Alderson, and Alumni Council-nominated candidate Sherri Oberg have not answered these questions. John Wolf sent me a diplomatic e-mail saying: “I’ve thought seriously about your offer, and regret that I will not be providing responses to your thoughtful questions…It’s not that I am old-fashioned; I’ve been swept up in the IT revolution - though with the periodic e-glitches. Still, I don’t agree that, like national candidates, we need to campaign everywhere all the time.”

Sandy Alderson, another official candidate, called me about a month ago to express reservations—to put it lightly—about answering these questions. He did not flatly say no, but I have not heard from him in the intervening month. Sherri Oberg did not respond to my offer at all. Petition candidate Stephen Smith has said that he will be happy to answer the questions and to have me post his responses.

* * *

This is not a new phenomenon. For decades, the system whereby a small group of alumni “officially” anoint a few nominees has produced a Trustee election process where no one ever takes tough stands on the issues. Petition candidates, quite literally, changed everything. The small group of alumni dedicated to ensuring that the most potent channels of communication—the Alumni Association and the Board—are cut off to all but a few have complained about divisive campaigning in recent elections. That is a legitimate complaint, although it is a massively hypocritical one for this particular clique to make, since in their effort to pass a constitution that would render impotent the petition candidacy process, they used the slickest Washington pollsters to try and get the constitution passed. (The constitution was rejected by eighteen points.)

As I say, the complaint against overcampaigning is legitimate. But let us not confuse campaigning with talking straight on the issues facing Dartmouth. Candidate Wolf says, “I don’t agree that, like national candidates, we need to campaign everywhere all the time.” I agree with him. But I was just asking for answers to serious, considered questions. Not for a colorful television advertisement.

Petition candidates have the ability to—and do—set the terms of debate. As a student recently noticed in The Dartmouth, officially-nominated candidates don’t start talking about things, and don’t take hard stances on issues, until a petition candidate sticks his neck out and does it first. That’s the unfortunate situation of Dartmouth politics, and it is even more unfortunate that the official candidates will not stick their necks out and answer a simple set of questions.


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