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A Critique of Phil’s Bloated Plan

Jack Nicholson ‘76 shares a thoughtful summary of his objections to Phil Hanlon’s plan to expand the College. Jack wrote his note to the members of the Enrollment Taskforce. I think that you should, too!

From: Jack Nicholson
Date: Fri, Nov 17, 2017 at 9:39 AM
Subject: Alumnus feedback
To: “”

Acting on the invitation from the Task Force on Enrollment Expansion, I’m writing to offer my opinion on the potential increase in undergraduate enrollment at Dartmouth.

First, I have heard from Christianne Wohlforth of the President’s Office that objections to this increase are reminiscent of doubts expressed about “the last time Dartmouth intentionally expanded its student body - in 1972 to accommodate coeducation.” I was there, an entering freshman in the first coeducational class to matriculate. According to “Some Twentieth-Century College Statistics” by Kenneth C. Cramer in Dartmouth’s Special Collections, Dartmouth’s enrollment that fall was 3,412.

Two years earlier, in September 1970, John Kemeny oversaw enrollment of 3,271 as he began his first year as President.

That increase of 4% was very different from what’s being contemplated today. Arguably, it was inevitable and overdue. It was accomplished without the need to expand the physical plant and staff through the introduction of the Dartmouth Plan and a boost in off-campus programming. Its only similarity to this proposed increase was that it represented a fundamental, qualitative transformation of the College, regarded today as constructive, if belated.

The arguments supporting coeducation were clear and powerful, even to those who disputed them. I have yet to hear any specific arguments of any kind for growing the College. So far, the imperative seems to be driven by squishy ideas like: our peer institutions have already done so; and there is an urgent need to leverage Dartmouth’s resources so that we make an even greater impact on the world. I’d simply argue that, first, Dartmouth has no peer in the Ivy League for its undergraduate focus in an intimate, natural setting. Second, if increasing impact can be achieved simply by increasing enrollment, let’s just expand our online offerings and grow the “enrollment” by a lot more.

Hanover is unlike any other location in the Ivies. Adding hundreds of students would necessarily aggravate the many stresses already present (and not being managed now). Ithaca is the closest setting to it, and they are four times our size. The rest of the Ivies are urban universities. We shouldn’t want to emulate them, even if we could.

I’m sure the Task Force exercise now under way will surface hundreds of ideas about how more good things could be accomplished: any time you ask stakeholders to suggest how a bigger budget could be spent, you’ll get at least a few good ideas. But I don’t detect a slightest whiff of a theme - the compelling, clear idea behind a bold idea to (pardon the expression) move Dartmouth forward.

Perhaps one of the reasons why “opportunities” are being solicited is because the Administration is having difficulty coming up with a stronger argument than the benefits to administrators of bigger budgets.

My alternative suggestion: address the following issues first, which might arrest or reverse the dramatic decline in the many evaluations of Dartmouth that place us below Cornell, Brown and Penn, when we used to be grouped with Harvard, Yale and Princeton:

  • The lagging compensation of faculty relative to peers;
  • The quality and capacity of student housing (the Choates and River Cluster were lousy places to live when I was an undergraduate!);
  • The bloat in non-faculty hiring;
  • What appears to me to be poor overall priority-setting in budgetary matters;
  • The collapsing breadth of alumni financial support;
  • Perhaps most alarming to me, the recent dramatic declines in the expressed confidence of graduating seniors in the Hanlon Administration (and in President Hanlon personally) in the last two years. This is a situation where alumni criticism tracks closely to undergraduate opinion, unlike the coeducation argument.

I will say, as an alumnus, that I don’t think Dartmouth has been well led in many years. My high hopes for President Hanlon’s ability to overcome the disastrous malpractice of Jim Kim and, to a lesser degree, Jim Wright, have been dashed. To seize on a scheme to transform the College seems similar to hoping that having a child will save a dysfunctional marriage. The risk is far higher that disaster will result than not.

At a minimum, the Administration needs to respond with the compelling, clear idea behind this proposal. If that can’t be expressed, it must be because it doesn’t really exist.


Jack Nicholson, ‘76

Addendum: Jack’s arguments reflect many of the points made by professors at a recent meeting of the faculty.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

Asking an administrator if he’d like a plan that increases the budget is like asking a guy with a chainsaw in his hand if he thinks that tree should come down.

Addendum: And another:

The Jack Nicholson ‘76 letter you published was striking in the cogency of its arguments and the reasonableness of its tone — a wonderfully succinct case for scrapping a truly bad idea. It led me to wonder: where are the similar arguments and case for the other side? Who can rebut Jack Nicholson effectively? We certainly haven’t seen it done yet… waiting….waiting…. [not holding my breath waiting for this to come from pheckless phil]


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