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Freshmen, There Will Be Lies

To the Class of 2016,

As you prepare to deal with the Dartmouth administration over the next four years, leave yourself open in each and every situation to one important possibility: you are being lied to. Not small lies, or white lies, or inadvertent ones, but straight-out lies that help the administration gain the goals that it seeks at your expense.

Both Sides.pngI know that this is a hard idea to accept. You’ve come to a noble institution of higher learning, a place renowned for fine teaching and rigorous research. You expect not only honesty from the deans you deal with here, but, if you are like I was, honor. Forget it. You are dealing with flesh and blood human beings — bureaucrats, ambitious ones — who have goals to achieve, and who work in an environment where lying has been part of the modus operandi for many years.

I am not asking you to believe me today. But keep the idea in your head the next time you are told something incongruous by someone like the Dean of the College or the the Interim President. When every part of your intellect and intuition reacts with one message: “This can’t be right!”, well, more often than you want to believe right now, your thought and your instinct will be correct. It ain’t right. And someone is benefiting from the mistruth. Be prepared.

The past months and years have seen endless examples of what the modern world might call spinning or dissembling — lies, in short, that you should call by their correct name. Here are a few examples:

● You will be paying the highest amount of money for your meal plans in the history of the College, after an especially huge jump in price last year. And unlike the graduating classes before you, you will not have the opportunity to simply buy your food à la carte at Thayer. Why? This past year’s classes were told that the College needed to save money on dining. Wrong. The truth of the matter is that DDS has been profitable for several years; the new meal plans will just make it a lot more profitable, so that money is available for other parts of the College (hint: not faculty).

● After 40 years of allowing summertime swimming at a lifeguard supervised dock in the Connecticut, with not a single fatality (or even an accident as far as I know), the College shut down the facility in 2010. Why? The ostensible reason was safety: turbulent water, the current, and submerged obstacles. Piffle. The only reason was over-zealous cost-cutting by bureaucrats unaware of the importance to sophomore summer students of a cooling dip in the river. Everyone from the President on down tried to cover up a stupid decision. The new swim dock that finally replaced the old one is just the old dock moved to a less convenient, face-saving place.

● When you find that on a regular basis you are unable to get into the classes that you want — the dreaded oversubscription problem — you will be told that this situation has always been a feature of Dartmouth life. IP Folt told me this directly. (An earlier administration PR strategy had been to deny the existence of the problem.) This is an unacceptable response for two reasons. Firstly, a problem should not be justified by the statement that it has always existed. Secondly, and much more importantly, that response is a lie. But again, don’t take my word for it. Each time you meet alumni from before the class of, say, 1998, ask them how often they were shut out of a class. At first they won’t quite understand your question, and they will look at you with perplexity. After that, they will tell you that with the very rarest of exceptions (say a seminar with a visiting star) they always got into the classes for which they signed up. Before the turn of the century, students were not even required to suggest an alternative class. They virtually always got their first three choices.

● The College trumpets that 60% or more of your classes have fewer than 20 students in them. This figure is true as far as it goes, but in fact this is a textbook example of a misleading statistic. While there are many small classes at Dartmouth (mostly language classes and freshman writing courses and seminars), in the last academic year a student had less than a one in three chance of actually being in a small class.

● The administration repeatedly cites efforts to cut Dartmouth’s budget. That’s hogwash. The Trustees have failed to face up to and admit the College’s weak financial situation — the result of utter mismanagement over the past decade. Dartmouth had the fastest growing endowment in the Ivy League in the 1990’s; in this century, our endowment grew the slowest — and by a wide margin. The endowment grew from $2.41 billion in 2001 to $3.449 billion in fiscal 2012 (a nominal increase of 43%, but only a 14% increase over those eleven years after taking inflation into account). In addition, the College is straining to carry its debt load: total indebtedness in the same period grew from $288.4 million to $1.13 billion. These figures alone are justification for severely trimming Dartmouth’s bloated workforce and inflated wage structure. Look at the College’s accounts here.

I could go on with this list — and, in fact, a great deal of the content of this site is an elucidation of the truth behind administrators’ slippery words — but let’s leave it at that right now. Look to the future. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, you certainly will come across other examples of administrative lying soon enough. Feel free to send your favorites in to me in whatever manner you wish.

Welcome to Dartmouth.

Addendum: A longtime College insider observes that administrators’ legerdemain is not limited to financial issues:

I think you hit the right notes in a clear, respectful way. It is a sorry fact of life in bureaucracies as well as academia — perhaps especially in academia, where an earnest and idealistic commitment to seeking and teaching the truth is assumed. But contemporary academia is driven by progressive ideologies and preferred “interpretive frameworks.” In such a milieu, the ends of supporting, propagating and enforcing those allowable beliefs and opinions frequently justifies ignoble means.

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