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Lifesaving or Facesaving?

Swim Dock July High.jpgLet’s wrap up the swim dock imbroglio by looking at its origins and its outcomes. When the budget cutting began in earnest, acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears faced a problem: the athletics area of her budget was off-limits on orders from President Kim, so if she was going to meet V.P. for Finance Stephen Kadish’s cost reduction targets, a little trimming here or there was not going to do the job. Whole activities would have to go.

Regrettably for the College, longtime staffers in the Dean of the College area — people with real knowledge of student life — were out of favor, and in fact, many were later laid off. The remaining tight little group of insiders (people like Dean Spears herself, April Thompson, and Kate Burke, whose combined administrative experience was less than minimal) took what was probably a facetious suggestion from the Director of the Outdoor Programs Office, Dan Nelson, and acted on it. So much for the swim dock.

As is the habit in so many areas of the College, one can envisage Spears and her cronies sitting around a conference table trying to come up with ways to justify the cost-saving move. “Why don’t we just say it was a safety decision?…” and so on. Back and fill, back and fill. It’s a way of life in Parkhurst.

When the entirely predictable blowback ensued, everyone went into CYA mode, starting with Jim Kim. “Safety, safety,” he opined, and a large riverfront project was whipped up to justify that position. Note that no actual safety data about river swimming was ever adduced by our supposedly data-hungry President; there is none to put forward.

As anyone who has been down to the new dock can attest, it is virtually identical to the old one, save for a $200,000 handicap access ramp (undoubtedly for wheel-chair-bound swimmers who want to enjoy the Connecticut River’s dangerously turbulent, turbid, log-filled waters. Ha. Ha.). What a waste of money, especially when academic resources are being cut right and left.

The other day I visited the dock to chat with the three lifeguards who now work there (up from the two who had successfully guarded the lives of Dartmouth students for the past 40 years). No student swimmers were present at the time.

The senior lifeguard, Athletics Department staffer Andy Forbes, a gentleman in his 60’s, showed me the flow meter, which he said would warn lifeguards if the river began moving too swiftly. In that event, the swim dock would be closed. “What is the maximum allowable speed?” I inquired. “Two feet per minute,” was his response. I wondered about that figure, and then watched for about ten seconds as a passing leaf floated two feet downstream right in front of me. “That can’t be right,” I commented. “The river has to be flowing at several times that speed right now. “That’s an international norm,” Mr. Forbes replied, “It’s widely recognized.”

Let’s do the math together: two feet per minute is 120 feet per hour. There are 5,280 feet in a mile, so 120 feet per hour is less than a fortieth of a mile per hour. Average walking speed on land is 3 mph. Mr. Forbes must be, shall we say, misinformed.

He went on to tell me that the river was only 11 feet deep in front of the new dock, as opposed to 15 feet in front of the old one. At 11 feet, a lifeguard can see students’ feet when they dive in (don’t quibble about the fact that diving is not allowed; everyone does it). If a College lifeguard loses sight of a diver, Forbes explained, that could signal a “recovery event.” I asked him how many “recovery events” had occurred to his knowledge over the previous few years. He did not know. Ugh. I bet zero.

To sum things up: The College just spent time, effort, and a prodigious amount of money to hide the fact that a stupid decision was made. From the blow-up onward President Kim was an integral part of the process. How sad that he could not have been a force for the adult supervision of his inexperienced underlings, rather than the enabler-in-chief for bureaucrats who could not admit that they had made a silly mistake.

One could look at this situation and laugh. But it is not funny, not when you consider that the paradigm is repeated on a regular basis all over the College: bad decisions; fevered cover-ups; sloppy implementation.

Note: Students continue to swim in large numbers from the Safety Dock and the Ledyard Canoe Club dock, as they (and I) have done without incident for many, many years. And they routinely swim well out into the river and across to the Vermont bank.


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