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A Referendum: Let the People Speak

Dr. Larry Johnson ‘75 writes in to suggest that the question of expanding the College be put to a referendum:

From: Lawrence Johnson
Date: Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 6:25 PM
Subject: College Expansion Plans

Hi Joe,

Glad you are enjoying the cold hillwinds and waters of Norway. I’ve always felt that the true Dartmouth person has or should have a deep attraction to the far North. I have had the great fortune of hiking the glaciers of Iceland and when I did so, I felt that I was proudly carrying the Dartmouth flag within.

It’s great to see that the young New Zealand tennis star has chosen Dartmouth, all for the right reasons. No doubt that Hanlon and crew should take note that strongly influencing her decision was Dartmouth’s emphasis on undergraduate education.

The recent letter by your esteemed classmate Timothy Prager (Dartblog 12/1/17) rightly underlines the need for Dartmouth to be evolving with the times especially in terms of demographics. He lauded the mid-70’s administration for propelling co-education at Dartmouth, as do I — thank you President Kemeny. (Ahh-just seeing his name makes me happy!) Had Dartmouth not gone co-ed, Timothy notes that he and many others would have gone elsewhere.

Here it is critical to remember that the 1972 co-education decision did follow an undergraduate referendum which heavily endorsed bringing in women. (This was most strongly supported by the lower classmen, like me, whose girlfriends were far, far away and less so by upper classmen).

So I ask: why doesn’t this administration hold an undergraduate referendum regarding the proposed enlargement?

This would require the administration to articulate the plan for all to see; transparency is in everyone’s interest.

Undergrads’ ears are closest to the ground, and I would likely listen and likely follow their wishes, as they are the ones that would have to live longest with the consequences of the decision, whichever way it goes.

For that matter, why not an alumni referendum as well?

Best wishes and enjoy the Aurora Borealis,

Larry Johnson ‘75

A fine idea, to my mind.

Did you know that there had been a referendum on co-education? I didn’t.

Addendum: A member of the faculty writes in:

The proposal for a student referendum on the issue of the College’s expansion is a terrific idea. Here’s a twist:

Rather than the students waiting (in vain) for the Administration to ask them to vote on this issue, why doesn’t the Student Assembly organize a student referendum on the issue to take place on, say, January 31?

The SA could request that the Administration delay any formal decision on the matter until the students have had a chance to deliberate and vote. Of course, the vote would simply be advisory, but it would put the Administration in a tough position. Announcing a decision prior to the student vote would explicitly reject their input and views, which would be awkward. But if the referendum were strongly against, moving forward would also be painful for the Administration.

At a minimum, it would force the Administration to do a better job articulating the case for expansion. Smart suggestion by Mr. Johnson.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

Upon reflection, I couldn’t help but feel his proposal was a bad idea. The issue is too momentous to be put in the hands of the undergraduate body exclusively. I’m reminded of James O. Freedman’s lament that too many applicants to the College were choosing Harvard or Princeton instead, implicitly granting power over policy to a cadre of 18-year-olds with zero experience of higher education.

I wasn’t aware of the ‘co-education referendum’ (if indeed it took place), but I did know of polls of the undergraduate body that showed strong support for the cause. At the time, I was only six years removed from Hanover. My reaction was simply: Of course. Any young, testosterone-driven male forced to spend four years in quarantine from female companionship, and further, in a very remote location, would naturally favor relief from that condition. The outcome was the same as you’d expect from a proposal to replace mystery meat with filet mignon at Thayer hall (perhaps a bad analogy in the current environment).

The College, collectively, has four main constituencies (I leave out, perhaps unfairly, the parents shouldering very large tuition burdens): the Trustees and the administration they oversee; the faculty; the alumni; and the student body present in Hanover. All are affected by the issues and their outcomes that must be grappled with; therefore, all should be invested in those outcomes. Dr. Johnson’s contention that “undergrads’ ears are closest to the ground” is a rather thin reed on which to carry a question of this magnitude. As I said, they are the least experienced, and also the least exposed to a long view of the College and its well-being, which only comes with the passage of time. I’m not saying they should be excluded from weighing in, but they are only one of the stakeholders, with decidedly the least gravitas in the collective.

The most important task in organizing to oppose this execrable idea is to leverage the power of all three constituencies which are against it. The campaign to have alumni express their opposition in writing and the accompanying drying up of donations are both admirable and effective means to this end. By all means, give the undergrads a say as well, but only as one voice in the chorus.

It all comes back to the question: who will oversee the overseers? Pheckless phil would do well to hearken back to Gandhi’s apocryphal admonition: “There go my people; I must hurry to catch up with them, for I am their leader.”


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