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Why Can’t Dartmouth?

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Over the past few years, we’ve seen countless examples of Provost Carolyn Dever and President Phil Hanlon’s bloviating verbiage. What we have not seen is any real leadership or vision beyond the buzzwords (diversity and inclusion, experiential learning, what have you). With a capital campaign in crisis, our leaders are now looking to shore up their own budgetary mismanagement by diluting the student experience in expanding the College by as much as 25% and closing prized assets like the Hanover Country Club.

Let’s turn to an institution that, in contrast to fair Dartmouth, seems to be doing a good number of things right: the University of Chicago.

This space has pointed out NYU social psychologist Jon Haidt’s excellent work before, but his perspective on the state of higher education is particularly instructive here. He uses the analytical framework of telos, or evaluating something with respect to its core purpose, surmising that the modern American university must choose between two conflicting teloses: truth and social justice.

Chicago always comes down on the side of truth. The university made headlines last year for reaffirming its commitment to free speech, with Dean of Students Jay Ellison slamming “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in a letter to incoming freshmen. And consider the following, comparable language in the university’s letter to the Class of 2021:

During your first week at the College we will engage you in discussions about the University and its history, our standards and expectations. You will find that an unwavering commitment to academic freedom and free expression is one of the University’s defining characteristics. In our time, challenges to academic freedom and free expression are both internal and external, from the world of mass politics and media and sometimes from voices within universities themselves. At the University of Chicago, we insist that all faculty and students are free to debate, disagree, and argue, without fear of being silenced, all the while learning from each other and examining and testing their own views, assumptions, and commitments. We expect this to happen in the College community, which welcomes people with a diversity of backgrounds and extremely diverse perspectives.

Take note, Phil and Carolyn; in this lengthy paragraph the words diversity and diverse only appear once each.

Chicago’s commitment to the freedom of expression is long-standing, with the “Chicago Principles” firmly staking out the university’s position in these turbulent times. In fact, Haidt holds up Chicago as the paragon of truth (with Brown serving as the poster child for social justice). His Heterodox Academy, an organization dedicated to viewpoint diversity, ranks Chicago first.

To my mind, the contrast with Dartmouth couldn’t be more stark. Under President Hanlon, the College seems to be having trouble deciding what it wants to be. Our institutional vision is somewhere between muddled and nonexistent. We don’t need to have the same telos as Chicago, nor should we, given our status as a smaller, undergraduate-focused institution. But we need a telos nonetheless.

With its clarion vision, Chicago has been on a meteoric rise in the U.S. News rankings, even as Dartmouth’s standing has slipped. All in all, not a bad performance for a place where fun goes to die. We can debate the value of rankings all we want, but this data point says something about the relative trajectories of these two institutions:

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As summer turns to fall, it’s time to welcome to the Class of 2021 to Dartmouth. What will Dean Biron, Provost Dever, and President Hanlon say to the incoming class? What should they? They might take a look at Chicago’s winning strategy.

Addendum: According to Heterodox Academy — where we rank #43 in respecting free speech — Dartmouth has not endorsed the Chicago Principles. We should.

Addendum: Even as a resolute Chicago soars in the rankings, the University of Missouri — now chiefly known for Professor Melissa Click’s outburst of threats towards a student journalist/photographer — has seen freshman enrollment drop by 35%.

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