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We Can’t Run Dartmouth Like a Business

Scrooge No1.jpgThe above headline is a mantra that comes from certain quarters with boring regularity. President Kim made this exact statement when my wife and I met with him 18 months ago. What possibly can this comment mean?

I run my own businesses with one consideration in mind: making a profit. But lest you envision Ebeneezer Scrooge oppressing his workers, keep in mind that this goal can best be achieved by providing great service to customers and doing what one can to give employees a happy, fulfilling work environment at wages and benefits that are at or slightly above the alternatives open to them in the market.

Dartmouth has never been run with the goal of making a profit, so in that sense it is not a business, but in at least a few areas it is administered with a different, yet similarly single-minded goal: providing the best education possible. Three groups of employees are subject to this uncompromising philosophy: tenure-track faculty, adjunct professors, and graduate student researchers.

In the case of the latter two groups, if funding is not available either in the College’s main budget or via grants, they are out of a job. Period. And for the former group — tenure-track faculty — if they don’t make the grade after a certain length of time, they are denied tenure and told to seek work elsewhere.

Imagine for a moment the life of a tenure-track faculty member at the College. Newly minted Ph.D’s are thrilled to find work in a tight job market. But, after three years at Dartmouth, if their teaching and scholarship are not up to snuff, many are sent packing. Others are given an additional three-year contract during which time they can seek to publish books or articles, or distinguish themselves in some way that would allow them to merit tenure. If they are not successful, after six, or perhaps seven years if personal circumstances warrant an extension, they are fired, too.

Curiously, there is no Students Stand with Young Faculty group out there insisting that the College be more charitable. There would be a logic to this, given the difficult fate of passed-over-for-tenure professors; after all, if young professors are not given tenure at Dartmouth, they are unlikely ever to get a tenured posting at a top-notch school. The College’s negative decision condemns many young academics to second-rate careers. That’s harsh, no?

And yet we accept this system, because the cost of giving tenure to less-than-stellar professors is too high. To do so would lead to mediocrity on the faculty, especially given our competition with other institutions that are as or more rigorous than we presently are.

Should we have a different set of standards for non-academic employees: janitors, carpenters, cooks and their helpers, administrative assistants, junior deans, etc.? Tenure for plumbers? Of course not. But surprisingly, many people seem to think that once hired, these folks should have jobs for life. What are they thinking?

If the College over-hired under the Wright administration, it is not the end of the world for dismissed employees if Dartmouth corrects its past mistakes. To lay off people in these categories is not to set them adrift — despite what some people may believe. Prior to coming to work at the College, all of them had many different jobs over the course of their careers. They know what it is to look for another job and find one. In fact, according to the Department of Labor’s Employee Tenure Summary, the median average time on a job for American workers is only 4.4 years.

Why do certain people distinguish between the way Dartmouth treats junior faculty/grad students and its staff workforce? I can only think that some type of guilt mixed with condescension motivates ostensibly well-meaning groups like Students Stand with Staff. Those poor, hopeless workers! What will they do without Dartmouth? What will they do without our help? We can’t ever lay anyone off! Do our caring students really have that little respect for the abilities of workers to survive in a modern economy?

If Dartmouth needs to lay off staffers in order to balance its budget and provide its students with the finest education possible, the administration should do so. The people laid off will find other jobs, in exactly the same way that their families and friends do all over the country. To think otherwise is to disrespect the working class. And such thoughts will prevent the College from becoming a better institution, too.

Note: The task facing the College is more wrenching than it need be. At a conference for academic Chief Investment Officers held at Cambridge Associates in June 2009, a speaker referred to Dartmouth as “the poster child for over-spending.” While the administration might gloss over the errors of the last decade, knowledgeable insiders in the academy know where we stand. As Dartblog has documented in the past, non-faculty payroll ballooned from 2,408 employees in 1999 to 3,417 staffers in 2008. In addition, salaries and benefits skyrocketed, so that average College staffers are earning close to twice the compensation that they would receive in the Upper Valley job market. No wonder Dartmouth employees plead to keep their sinecures.


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