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River Swimming: What’s Going On Here?

Conn Dock.jpgThe entire river swimming imbroglio remains opaque. After close to 40 years of incident-free swimming at the sophomore dock, the College announced last spring that swimming there was no longer allowed, due to the risks posed by murky water, floating debris and unpredictable currents (the river flows at changing speeds because of the varying amounts of water drawn by the Wilder hydroelectric dam a few miles downstream). No explanation was ever provided by the Dean of the College’s office as to why these factors — which had been present for decades — all of a sudden posed an unacceptable danger to Dartmouth students.

Now comes the College with a new project that will once again allow swimming. According to The D’s story, the only safety-related changes to the previous facility will be the addition of an extra lifeguard and the presence of a sensor for bacteria (which has never once been cited as a problem in the recent discussions about swimming in the Connecticut). If that is the end result of the entire affair, one really has to wonder what the College was thinking here, or if anyone in the Dean’s office was thinking clearly at all?

Beyond these de minimis (that’s Latin for “face-saving”) safety changes, the bulk of the $200,000 cost of the new project seems destined to be spent on an elaborate handicap-access ramp from the Ledyard parking lot down to the new dock. As anyone familiar with the steep river bank at the site can attest, construction of the ramp shown in the above drawing will entail considerable earth moving and landscape work. What a sad end to a silly and wasteful controversy.

Note: The Town of Hanover has informed Dartblog that the College has applied for a Wetlands/Waterbody Special Exception for the new swim dock. A hearing on the new dock/location is tentatively set for March 24th at 7pm. A decision on that application could be made in early April, though these matters can drag on for a while. After that, the College must file for a building permit and line up contractors to do the work. All in all, I would not place any money on the new facility opening during the summer of 2011.

Addendum: In a recent issue of the Review, acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears was quoted as follows:

Spears also frankly discussed instances in which her communication with students broke down. She was willing to admit that the closing of the Connecticut River docks could have been better handled.

“Regretfully…information comes to us in a time that’s not convenient …and we’re in a position where we have to make a decision,” she said, referring to the abruptness of the announcement of the River’s closing. She expressed hope that some “good news” could be announced for the 13’s prior to their own sophomore summer, but unfortunately left it at that. [Emphasis added]

What the heck did she mean? What information? In short, if there is a solid, defensible reason for closing the sophomore dock after 40 years, there is no need for Dean Spears to be so coy.

Note: Word has come to us that the College Counsel, Bob Donin, opined a while back that the sophomore docks should be closed, undoubtedly due to liability issues. Lest you think that this is the end of the story, any experienced manager knows that a lawyer’s opinions are always skewed towards caution. An executive is free to disregard counsel’s advice when it conflicts with an institution’s other interests. For example, Donin would undoubtedly be able to describe chapter and verse the liability risk to Dartmouth of having a football program or of allowing female undergraduates to be alone in the offices of male professors. The list of such real risks is as long as the list of litigators in Martindale-Hubbell. However, a president can pick and choose which risks to assume. In this instance, President Kim and Dean Spears clearly made the wrong choice — which they tacitly admit now by allowing the above-described project to go forward.

At least they didn’t blame the whole thing on the College’s insurance carrier.

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