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Is There Hope for Dartmouth?

Three-legged_stool.jpgYes. But I think that things are going to have to get worse before they get better. You see, the College is like a corporation that has gotten flabby and lost direction. Think of Apple Computer after Steve Jobs got booted out, and before he came back. Poor leaders in Cupertino lost sight of what had made the company great: Apple’s newest products lacked excitement or even failed (remember the Newton?), and more importantly, the bureaucracy ballooned, and the quality of the people in it declined. Apple came close to bankruptcy, which finally focused the minds of the feckless Board of Directors.

In Hanover, the administration hasn’t presented a single initiative that one could call bold or successful in two decades. For all the talk about interdisciplinary studies, departments show little overlap (except when faculty members take steps themselves), and the College had not attracted any star professors in years, people who might invigorate moribund academic areas, and who might excite students to possibilities that were not there for them previously. As for the rest of the school within the purview of the administration, negative developments are everywhere: the rise in tuition and the plethora of fees, the growth in the headcount of the bureaucracy, the awful evolution of dining services — I could go on and on, but regular readers of this space know the sad story only too well.

But when we go beyond the financial/administrative side of thing, we can begin to build the idea of a Dartmouth renaissance. The faculty, for the most part, still takes teaching seriously. That’s an old tradition that hasn’t failed, even if professors themselves are hardly rewarded by the academic deanery for the efforts that are still our claim to fame in U.S. News. If the administration were to support fine teachers with more than lip service, the College could improve further in this critical area.

As for the students, even though we are losing out on head-to-head battles with other Ivies, and the Admissions department has been manipulating acceptances to keep our yield up, fine students come to Hanover every year. I’d like to see fewer mismatched students, the people accepted for their race despite their insufficient preparation; and Admissions should place a special emphasis on students who have the moral fiber to stand up to many of the negative aspects of the prevailing night-time culture, but, by and large, the student body is first rate.

We can hold hope for progress, maybe sooner than we think. Perhaps the cathartic moment will come when U.S. News drops our ranking by several places in September. Will that be the shot heard round the Board that signals to even the most obtuse Trustee that real change is needed? My sense is that Phil now only has a mandate to sort out our enduring social problems, but his Band-aid solutions aren’t going to do the trick. Doing no more than reacting to scandals will get us nowhere — for example, by giving the time of day to the ragtag band of pseudo-radicals who invaded his office, Phil only encouraged the whiners to keep on whining. Presidential hand-wringing (“I met with these students yesterday and again today, and I deeply empathize with them.”) is not what the world needs now. Dartmouth requires action.

Fortunately for the College, beyond the fundamental strengths of fine teachers and good students, we have the fourth-best endowment per student in the Ivies. While our wealth has been a mixed blessing — it has allowed us to waste money prodigiously — it should be easy, if the Trustees give Phil clear marching orders, to slash the bureaucracy to drop our cost per student down to Brown’s level. If we can cut the $200+ million excess that is the sum of the per capita difference between the College and Brown, then we can take some serious steps to improve the College. First off, drumroll please, cut tuition in half. That decision alone will get Dartmouth on newspaper front pages around the country for something other than hazing, alcohol, racism and rape.

Such savings will allow us to do a great deal more than cut the cost of attending the College. We can then enact fundamental changes to the daily life of the institution: hire a cadre of star professors; rebuild certain slum-like dorms; construct new local sororities to provide honest competition to the frats; revamp sophomore summer to make it a term that is unique in the nation; extend the number of Dartmouth-professor-supervised foreign study programs so that everyone can/must benefit from one of these unique experiences.

Of course, that’s only my personal wishlist. The faculty has plenty of other ideas, too, but creative professors’ voices have been bottled up for years. Rather than reaching out for new ideas, past administrations have communicated the message that any proposals for change will be treated as criticisms of the top dogs’ performance, and will be punished accordingly. That posture has to change.

Strong faculty and high-quality students are the two legs of a stool that are the toughest ones to create. We should feel great hope for Dartmouth that we already have them. But a stool that does not have three legs still falls down. Phil still needs to cut out a huge chunk of the cancerous bureaucracy; doing so is the only way to free resources for the projects that the College urgently needs. If he can do so, then in short order the College will be ready for progress into uncharted territories of academic quality. If Phil and the Trustees have the will, we can all see the way out of the current mess. Do they have the courage to take that road? In doing so, Dartmouth will revive — and even lead the reform of all of higher education?

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