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Prager: In Favor of More Students

My classmate and all around good guy, Tim Prager ‘79, believes that the College would be stronger with more students. Here is the note (later slightly edited by him) that he sent to Deans Smith and Biron:

Tim Prager letter.jpg

In summary, Tim believes that the College’s present student culture is almost toxic. Among his worries and wishes:

  • One where the student body did not reflect the demographic mix of the wider community? [i.e. lilly white New Hampshire]

  • One which had limited space for people of differing backgrounds, points of view, nationalities?

  • … mean-spirited misogynistic behaviour, a lack of empathy, an inability to treat people of different ethnic backgrounds and sexual persuasions with the respect they deserve and should expect?

Then, he asks a rhetorical question: “If I wanted Dartmouth to evolve, move forward, retain the qualities I valued but rid itself of the attitudes I reviled, how could it be done without alienating the traditional core of white American Alumni?”

Finally Tim conveys an uncertainty:if the ethos of the College as a place of exceptional teaching and learning is preserved…” If this initiative increases the rate of change at Dartmouth it must be a good thing. If it helps Dartmouth evolve and allows its students to experience a broader community of people who bring different ideas and experiences with them to the College it must be positive.” [Emphasis added]

Tim seems to think that increasing the size of the student body by 10-25% with students who disproportionately contribute to a diverse campus will change the daily life of undergrads. He evokes the example of co-education.

But is there any reason to believe in Tim’s sense of cause and effect here? Will a thousand more students lead to a more harmonious campus (let’s leave aside the accuracy of Tim’s depiction of present-day Dartmouth)? I am not convinced. Certainly co-education did not serve to tame the supposedly savage Dartmouth man. The litany of Lohsian scandals over the past decade are testimony to that assertion. The truth seems to be that women have adopted the College’s hard-charging ethos rather than calming down the men.

I have little sympathy for Tim’s utopianism. The expansion of the student body could well lead to no change at all in the student culture, yet we can be sure that the College’s faculty and infrastructural resources will be stretched. We can be sure that there will be less money per student as the endowment’s bounty is spread over more people. And we can be sure, as Professor Stephen Brooks said at a recent faculty meeting, that a Hanlon administration that has been unsuccessful in meeting the challenges facing the College today is equally ill-equipped to confront the innumerable additional problems that large scale growth will present.

In short, if all of Tim’s assumptions for success are fulfilled, he is willing to bet on Phil Hanlon’s plan to grow the number of students in Hanover. But what are the odds of that? Those of us in Hanover are not betting on Phil Hanlon at all.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

An extra ration of Kool-Aid for Mr. Prager.

Addendum: And another:

While Tim Prager’s aspirations for the College may be admirable, they are off base. Students today are flocking to big urban universities in record numbers (see Penn, Columbia, NYU, Berkeley and Boston University). I would contend that the “diverse” students that Tim Prager seeks to attract are much more likely to select one of those universities over Dartmouth. There is a self-selection process as to who will apply to a rural school like Dartmouth and (unlike co-education which opened the College to 50% of the population) there is absolutely no evidence that more students will apply to Dartmouth if we increase the size of the undergraduate population.

In fact, Dartmouth has struggled to reach 20,000 applicants for the past 5 years while all of the other Ivies have seen record applications in excess of 30,000. Expanding the student body will only make the College less selective, thereby impacting its US News ranking and resulting in a further decline in reputation and desirability. This will have a spiraling effect that the College can ill afford.

The College is at full capacity now and cannot accommodate additional students without a major expansion of facilities which will change the special character of the school forever. We need to focus on the qualities that make Dartmouth unique among the Ivies, which starts with our small size, close-knit community and strong emphasis on undergraduate education.

If we lose that focus, then we will become a middling university with no particular appeal to prospective students, diverse or otherwise.

Addendum: A close observer of the campus writes in:

I am not convinced that making a campus population larger so you can incorporate ever more “diverse” identities adds significantly to young people’s ability to understand and empathize with others. Those are primarily character qualities, not automatic byproducts of exposure.

Research shows that increased diversity can actually produce the opposite effect. Since “birds of a feather tend to flock together,” heightening the cacophony of perspectives and expectations naturally sends subgroups to their respective “corners”, where their subculture’s idiosyncrasies define the social ecosystem. That’s where people feel most at-home and relationships flourish most freely, especially when the social environment gets very complex.

Your classmate Tim appears to have a more current PC sensibility about these things, which is his prerogative. I am more of a classic “melting pot” guy, vs. the more current ideal of a “salad bowl” — where everyone is mixed together but retains a separate identity. That has its virtues, but you risk driving people into isolated enclaves and ghettos rather than bringing true unity out of diversity.

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