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For a Re-building President

Vision.jpgBefore we hire a President with an imaginative vision for Dartmouth’s future in higher education, as Brian Solomon suggested on Tuesday, the College requires a modest, effective leader who can rebuild Dartmouth’s foundational strengths. Two decades of drift and mismanagement have not only left us with uncertain finances and a bloated staff, but the core competencies of the institution have grown shaky. We need a President devoted to restoring America’s finest residential academic institution. A few first steps:

— End class oversubscriptions: More easily recommended than done, I know. To bring back students’ ability to be admitted to the courses that they want — a given at Dartmouth until the late 1990’s — faculty in some departments will have to be trimmed to the benefit of other disciplines. There will be howls, but there is no more pressing need at the College today than this one.

— Attract additional engaging teachers. We can’t just double the size of the Economics department to satisfy student wishes; students should be attracted to departments outside their usual areas of interest by the arrival in Hanover of exciting young teacher/scholars. An active President can be directly involved in this effort.

— Revamp foreign study programs so that they are challenging and rewarding for students (no more “LSPlay”), and make participation in a Dartmouth foreign program mandatory for all undergraduates. With the right emphasis and teaching, studying abroad with 16 other students and a devoted faculty member can be immensely rewarding — especially if students are assigned enough real work so that they aren’t tempted to use their EurRail pass each weekend from Friday evening after class until dawn on Monday.

— Rethink sophomore summer. In typical doddering fashion, various administrations have been talking about this problem for years, but nothing has been done. It’s time to get serious. Jim Wright spoke repeatedly about the opportunity, with no result, and Jim Kim often suggested a new Dickey-style Great Issues course for the sophomore class. That’s a good idea, but to date, other than a speaker series for the benefit of Hanover residents and a single small undergraduate course, nothing at all has been achieved. There are plenty of good proposals out there, but the will to do something has been absent, as in so many other areas.

— Dedicate the institution at all levels to producing students who are polished writers and engaging public speakers (and you might throw in some familiarity with basic accounting, too). Critical thinking is of little use if students can’t communicate effectively; and any professor can tell you that we graduate far too few students who are strong in these areas.

— Re-establish the dormitories as social centers by allowing students, if they wish, to return to a home dorm for all four years. The creation of cohesive residential communities should be a top priority at Dartmouth, where the D Plan fragments student relationships like no other system of academic organization. Dorms can and should be a counterweight and complement to the Greek system, but they can’t fulfill this role if a third or more students leave a dorm every term never to return.

— Ask the faculty to devote more time to interactions with students. Where will they get that time, you ask? Easy. Give our professors exclusive parking privileges in the central campus; 9-5 administrators and staffers should park in the satellite lots and take the College’s shuttle buses from there. They have different schedules than professors. In awarding this privilege to the faculty, you’ll free up an extra 2-3 new hours per week of their time. They should use it for students.

— Encourage innovation in course creation. For the last 15 years, the Provost and Dean of the Faculty has done nothing to support interdisciplinary work, though they sure talk about it a lot. (This means you, Carol.) Creative, imaginative people in the Provost and Dean of the Faculty positions could encourage exciting programs like the immensely popular Humanitates Vitae course that was cancelled due to budget cuts in 2003.

There are plenty more ways to improve students’ experience at the College, if only the administration would devote itself to this effort. A first step: listen to the faculty. Once the above list and a few other good ideas are put in place, we can move on to more imaginative endeavors. But for the time being, let’s find a President who will stick to the knitting.

Addendum: The Search Committee should look closely at any candidate’s ability to recruit energetic, able administrators. Wright/Folt/Kim were notable for their predilection for lesser lights — the better to stand out themselves. Talented Presidents understand that the people they hire are a critical factor in the quality of any administration.

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