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Do the Trustees Want Expansion? Yup!

A student describes an interaction with the College’s Trustees wherein the idea of expanding the undergraduate population was discussed. A number of student leaders met with the Board in November:

Trustee Invitation.jpg

A report:

The meeting was pretty informal. About 10-15 students were invited to meet the Trustees as representatives of various student organizations. Apparently the College has information about the presidents, vice presidents, and treasurers of student organizations that cater to specific groups of the student body.

We grouped around a couple of cocktail tables and had snacks while waiting for the Trustees’ presentation to end. The Trustees then joined us, and we introduced ourselves. The more casual conversation took a bit of a surveying tone when we were asked about one thing that we loved about the College (and thus wouldn’t want to change) and one thing that we would change. President Hanlon was coincidentally at our table, and I hesitated to answer. I then said that the College’s size was near-perfect (although a bit too large due to the ’21s). I added that any more students would really damage the community at Dartmouth. As for things to change, I said that Thayer should be more integrated to the main campus as it is a great resource for majors and non-majors alike.

Naturally, we then started discussing the expansion and the mega-dorm (which had just been announced). My major takeaways from those conversations were:

1- The Trustees believe that expansion will allow for more academic diversity. Granted, economics, government, engineering, biology, psychology, and history are the most popular majors at Dartmouth, and majors like English and physics are becoming more and more unpopular. The Trustees said that accepting students of more varying academic interests will help departments like English and physics to grow while alleviating some of the pressure and strain on the economics and government departments. At first, this seems like a good idea in terms of supply and demand. Yet, the same can be achieved by continuing to enrol 1100 students a class while adjusting for academic interest. I found this argument to be a weak attempt at justifying the need for expansion.

2- The mega-dorm will allow for the allocation of 750 students from the Choates and River Cluster to College Park. The Trustees told me that this allocation would result in the demolition of those clusters. This argument was more interesting as it opens up a new discussion. What do they plan to build on the land where the Choates and River Clusters stood? More dorms? A new gym? Maybe a nice library? Or a new dining facility? Parking space for the faculty?

3- The following argument was not explicitly stated but strongly implied: Enhancing Dartmouth’s global reputation (as a “university”?) and taking back our 7th place in the U.S. News rankings (while obviously sacrificing undergraduate teaching). This was probably the most problematic point. It points to an inferiority complex that the Trustees have had about their alma mater, probably for years. They are unable to remember what makes Dartmouth special: its unparalleled undergraduate education that rivals other leading liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst, but with the resources and faculty of a great university. They forget that students are attracted to Dartmouth because of its unique place as a liberal arts college in the Ivy League. I certainly came here because I knew that Dartmouth would be a catalyst for personal growth and learning unlike any other institution. President Hanlon uses this inferiority complex, and he entices the support of the Trustees by promising them a Dartmouth that is bigger, better, and more respected. It is distressing to see how enthusiastic the Trustees are to buy into Hanlon’s vision of a Dartmouth that has perhaps gained more international recognition, but at the cost of its soul.

I expected the meeting to be more of a dialogue but was disappointed when I realized that it would be a monologue about Hanlon’s vision and why expansion was necessary for Dartmouth’s future. I thought that the Trustees would be surveying student leaders about our opinions and about the opinions of the students we represent. I was mislead. The invitation didn’t mention that we would be lectured to — to such an extent that any kind of debate would be impossible.

After the meeting, I left with a mix of questions. Yet, one quote from the Senior Survey was now clearer to me than ever:

Fifty-six percent agree that because of campus controversies and actions by the administration during their time at Dartmouth, they have become less likely to donate to the school after graduation, while 25 percent disagree.

There has been a significant backlash from alumni of all years on every social media platform I’ve used, and there will clearly be more from recently graduating classes…

The idea of growing our way out of financial and infrastructure difficulties seems, at best, poorly thought out. We could well end up with the same budget problems, an ugly, crowded campus, and a diluted undergraduate experience. Basement of the Ivies, here we come.

Addendum: A Professor of Economics writes in:

I’ve been wondering how the Trustees are planning on dealing with the expansion of the Economics dept. that would be needed if the student body grows by 1000+ people. My colleagues and I are absolutely against the idea.

Let’s assume we would need another net 15 faculty. First, where would we put them? Second, how could we possibly hire them in less than a decade? Third, I am unclear a department of more than fifty faculty members makes any sense. Fourth, presumably the cost of housing and child care in the upper valley would rise.

The whole idea is nuts!

Addendum: A Professor of Government writes in:

I’m glad to hear that my colleagues in the Economics department believe that a significant expansion of the undergrad population is a terrible idea. Based on conversations with my colleagues in the Government department, I think most of us agree.

Regarding the Trustees’ assertion that the expansion would bring in many more undergraduates to focus on the humanities: how will the admissions office find all those stellar, humanities-seeking undergraduates? Will they award many admissions “points” to applications that indicate such an interest? Might that create some bad incentives? And aren’t the first two years of college about exploring the world of ideas to discover one’s interests? If that’s what the extra 1,000 undergrads do, why wouldn’t we expect them to end up pouring into Econ, Govy, History, and PBS classes, just like our current students?

The College has made decisions before with which I disagreed. But this one is truly baffling.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

Great article.

“Granted, economics, government, engineering, biology, psychology, and history are the most popular majors at Dartmouth, and majors like English and physics are becoming more and more unpopular. The Trustees said that accepting students of more varying academic interests will help departments like English and physics to grow while alleviating some of the pressure and strain on the economics and government departments.”

The first thought that came to my mind: if you want to increase academic diversity, reduce costs.

This was one of the most reliable findings from some statistics projects / surveys that I and some fellow students conducted while we were at Dartmouth. First generation college students, or those from low-income families, were almost uniformly clustered in the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and to a lesser extent the fields of economics and history. The social sciences were mixed. The humanities, especially things like Art History, were almost entirely the province of wealthy students.

No doubt there are some cultural components here. Many poorer families would be proud of a son or daughter who is studying to become a doctor/lawyer/engineer, but may be less sanguine about the pursuit of creative or unstable careers in the arts or media. Likewise, children of the wealthy might have more knowledge and affinity for art and literature. *shrug*

I do believe that if Dartmouth was low cost (say, inflation adjusted 1980 tuition) then more students would take a chance on academic fields like english or physics. The higher the price of tuition, the more the liberal arts is mortgaged to that which leads to a high $ ROI. These departments still may not equal the popularity of say, Econ, but they would have an easier time attracting students if they didn’t have to overcome the “does this pay off my loans and get me a high-paying job so I can repay my parents?” calculus. Not sure if any data exists to back up my hypothesis…

Reminds me of John Adams’ famous letter:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”


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