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What to Make of the Brooks Letter?

Brooks Hanlon.jpgLet’s cut to the chase. As we saw in yesterday’s letter, and as I have observed over the years, Government Professor Stephen Brooks is a person who wants to get things done: he identifies a problem; he gather information and tries to develop a solution in cooperation with the relevant players; and he then presents a plan to Phil for approval.

And Phil? Phil the Plodder? The last thing that he wants is to have to decide on ideas developed by others. In fact, he doesn’t want to decide hard questions.

So, in response to Brooks’ displays of initiative, what did Phil do? He tried to cut Brooks off from the people who might creatively help him identify solutions to problems. And then he sought to prevent Brooks from approaching him directly with solutions. Dean of the Faculty Elizabeth Smith would be interposed between Phil and Brooks: her job was to communicate one message over and over, “Phil says no” — leaving Brooks with neither the possibility of debate nor the right of appeal.

Do you see the difference in their characters? A man of action. And a man of inaction.

If you have ever wondered why Phil Hanlon, after almost five years in Hanover, has done so little, it is because he really does not want to do much of anything. He just seems befuddled by change. In my two lunches with him (three or four of us around a table), he seemed unable to grapple with new ideas in a supple way. When I told him at our first meeting, about six months after he had arrived in Hanover, that he had a great opportunity to cut costs at the College, he responded, “Joe, I am going to raise so much money for this school.” We all know how that worked out.

Where do we go from here? Brooks’ letter has made the rounds of the faculty, eliciting only knowing nods and shrugged shoulders. ‘Did you expect anything different?,’ the already-chastened say.

So the next question is: are there two people on the faculty with the courage to present a no-confidence motion at the next faculty meeting on May 7 at 3pm in Alumni Hall? As I have already written, there is safety in numbers: fifty professors should put the motion forward in writing more than two weeks before the vote; fifty more should announce that they will second it.

The final result of such a vote has to be clear to everyone now. Phil Hanlon has no support, and he is congenitally incapable of improving his performance as our leader. Will he just plod onward (and will the College continue to spiral downward?) because nobody on the faculty has the courage to do the right and necessary thing for Dartmouth?

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

Does anyone even see the rapidly accelerating slide into complete chaos that has engulfed “Castle” Parkhurst? How can the Board stand idly by for even one more day? This is incompetence beyond imagination. Crisis is the next descriptive noun that comes to mind.

Something must be done before Dartmouth becomes the laughing stock of higher education. Actually, it may already be too late to prevent that sorry state of affairs.

Perhaps Phil has now resorted to the classic behavior of a mad king who feels the world is closing in on him and that he must set up defensive barriers that are designed to offer, at least in his mind, some misguided sense of security in his self-imposed isolation as supreme leader. Oh, the price we pay for the all too common result of the unholy combination of unbridled ego and ambition, a lack of ability and experience, and deeply ingrained insecurities.

Declaring himself to be the one who controls everything can only lead to many lonely nights spent talking to the pictures of past Dartmouth Presidents on the walls of the balcony in Rauner. Do the unbridled ambitions of Macbeth and his erroneous sense of personal invincibility come too quickly to mind here? Game of Thrones may also offer some insight into what is happening in the Castle called Parkhurst.

Leadership requires just the opposite reaction to events as Professor Brooks’ eloquent resignation letter points out. Far better we see Phil leave than to witness a steady stream of great teachers deserting the hallowed halls of Dartmouth for greener and saner pastures. The time for debate is quickly fading into the past. Action is now required.

Addendum: And another:

The question about why the Trustees do nothing is a good one. With regard to governance, it is helpful to separate the institution of Dartmouth from the presidency of Dartmouth. Phil, too, shall pass. But I know that a number of my peer alums who have shut off or drastically reduced their financial support have done so not just because they have lost faith in its president, but — more important and telling — because they no longer have confidence in the ability of the institution (aka the Trustees) to rationally govern itself. And the longer the Trustees dilly-dally, the greater the chance that these lost dollars will never return.

Addendum: And yet another:

The most telling point in all of this turmoil is that Phil has assumed that the President of the College is the one essential person in the governance equation and treats the faculty as mere employees there to do his bidding. He clearly misunderstands that the faculty, a great faculty, is the heart and soul of Dartmouth and that he, as president, is the employee.

Without a world class faculty Dartmouth would not attract first rate students and without first rate students great faculty would cease to arrive in Hanover. The combination of these two elements are the only reason Dartmouth exists. All of us came to Dartmouth to learn and to grow as thinkers and leaders and to become respected adults capable of making a real difference in the world.

It is clearly the first responsibility of the Trustees to protect this dynamic in a responsible and financially secure way. The question remains…do they fully understand this trust that they have been given? Are they capable of showing the type of leadership that Dartmouth prepared many of them to exercise?

The words of Ernest Martin Hopkins, spoken in 1964, ring true to this day, “There is a lot of difference between a college presidency as a profession and as a mission.”

…and William Jewett Tucker once exclaimed: “Many members of faculties are interested in administration to the degree of criticism; few, very few to the degree of responsibility.”

Perhaps today we need more commitment to both the true mission of Dartmouth and greater responsibility by the faculty in its governance.

P.S. One could do worse than spend a few precious hours rereading Ralph Nading Hill’s splendid book, The College On The Hill, A Dartmouth Chronicle, published in 1964. It will renew your sense of what a great college Dartmouth has always been and, hopefully, will always be.

Addendum: One more:

Hill’s book was commissioned as part of the lead up to the Bicentennial. That was when Presidents actually did something. What a blown opportunity. 250 years and Phil can’t count that high.


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