Late November Councilor News

Gentlemen of the Class of ’60:

Classmate George Potts brought to my attention the following letter to Dartmouth alumni, posted on Dartblog, from two members of the Board of Trustees who have not always seen eye to eye with the College’s Administration nor their fellow trustees. It is in some ways a remarkable letter and, I think, a very encouraging one. I wanted to make sure that you have an opportunity to read it.

Axel


 

 

A Letter to Dartmouth Alumni—Especially Readers of Dartblog From T. J. Rodgers ’70 and Peter Robinson ’79

For several years after being elected to the Board of Trustees—T.J. won as a petition candidate in 2004, Peter as a petition candidate the following year—we felt compelled to share our concerns about the future of the College with our fellow alumni. In mailings, in letters to The Dartmouth and other publications, and even, on a couple of occasions, in columns in the Wall Street Journal, we raised issues that ranged from the quality of undergraduate education to the strength of the athletic program. Often, we asked for your support. Each of these communications received extensive coverage here on Dartblog, which, we quickly learned, enjoys contributors and readers who feel especially deeply about the College—many of whom have become good friends.

Now months have passed since we last got in touch. After proving so vocal, some alumni have asked, why have we piped down? We'd like to answer that question—and make one last request for your support.

First, a word of background.

In running for the Board, we discussed a few simple, central issues. Permit us a brief overview of each.

Undergraduate education

As T.J. often explained, he ran for the Board to ensure that Dartmouth College remained the finest undergraduate institution in the world. The College, we believed, should remain a college, not become “a university in all but name.”

In recent years, however, Dartmouth has made clear its abiding commitment to excellence in teaching, worked to ensure that students receive most of their instruction in small classes, and addressed oversubscribed courses by hiring more faculty in popular departments such as Government and Economics. Research opportunities, class loads, the growth of graduate programs—all have been reexamined with an eye to making certain they enrich the entire institution, including the undergraduate program.

Perhaps most important, we have no doubt that our new president, Jim Yong Kim, remains committed to Dartmouth as the finest undergraduate institution in the world. President Kim has already introduced opportunities for undergraduates to receive instruction at Tuck, implementing a plan devised under President Wright, and expanded such opportunities at Thayer and the Medical School.

The budget

As candidates for the Board, we both stressed the need for the College to reduce overhead, devoting money to the faculty. Even before the financial crisis that began in 2008, we learned after joining the Board, Dartmouth was spending at a rate it couldn’t sustain.

When President Kim took office, spending was at record levels—yet the endowment had dropped by more than a quarter. Acting quickly—he insisted on dealing with the problems directly and promptly—President Kim has reduced the operating budget by some $80 million, eliminating the entire deficit for 2011 and 80 percent of the deficit for 2012. He has cut carefully, and humanely, producing far fewer layoffs than nearly anyone had thought possible. And—the critical point—he has protected the academic program. Today the proportion of the annual budget devoted to our faculty is higher than when President Kim took office.

Free speech

As candidates for the Board, we learned from faculty and students alike that those with the courage to dissent from majority views too often came under pressure to fall silent. Once we joined the Board, we ourselves experienced repeated pressures that were intended—and there really is no other way to put us—to intimidate us. Groupthink, shunning—call it what you will. It has no place whatsoever at an institution devoted to free inquiry and expression.

Since then, the College has made a thorough, good faith effort to address this problem. To his credit, President Wright removed from the Dartmouth website a document that many interpreted as a de facto speech code, then spoke repeatedly in public about the need for true freedom of speech. Responding to this effort, FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, upgraded Dartmouth from “red light,” the rating for institutions at which freedom of speech is in peril, to “green light,” the highest rating, which Dartmouth now shares with just a dozen other institutions in the country.

Here again, we have no reservations about President Kim. Indeed, during his first meeting with the Board of Trustees, Dr. Kim, still only a candidate for the presidency, mentioned that he had been reading The Dartmouth Review Pleads Innocent, a collection of essays from the Dartmouth Review. “I didn’t agree with a lot that was in there,” Dr. Kim said. “But you know what? It contained a lot of good writing.” Dr. Kim sees Dartmouth as an institution dedicated to educating leaders for every aspect of life, including every aspect of political and academic life, not to producing mere carriers of a certain received point of view. “If Dartmouth is going to be the greatest educational institution in the world,” as Dr. Kim remarked not long ago, “then we're going to have to have all the greatest debates right here in Hanover.”

Greek letter organizations and the athletic program

The history here is contentious, and we have no wish to reopen it. When we joined the Board, suffice it to say, we believed the athletic program was receiving too little support while Greek system was being treated with disregard if not hostility.

Hostility to the Greek system has ended. Alcohol abuse remains a problem, but the College is now more concerned with ensuring the safety of students than with meting out punishment. The athletic program? The College has refurbished Alumni Gymnasium while building, to provide only a partial list, a new varsity house, a new football field, a new baseball diamond, a new soccer facility, and a new field house for the rugby team. And this past autumn the College hired a new athletic director, Harry Sheehy, who by any measure represents one of the most accomplished ADs in the nation.

When he was running Partners in Health, President Kim told the Board not long ago, he hired many recent college graduates. He examined resumes not only for academic achievements but for evidence of collaborative skills. If he could hire someone who had been both a good student and president of her sorority or captain of his soccer team, President Kim eplained, then he knew he was hiring a young person who could bring a full complement of skills to the work. While the College's academic program must of course always come first, President Kim continued, “Athletics and the Greek letter system should serve as competitive advantages for Dartmouth students.”

Why, then, have we piped down? Because there's no longer much to pipe up about. The concerns we articulated as candidates for the Board have been addressed. The College remains dedicated to undergraduate instruction. Its finances are sound. It cherishes freedom of speech. It has renewed its support for the athletic program while encouraging vibrant fraternities and sororities. Work remains- while less frequent, for example, oversubscribed courses remain a concern, and some budget issues still need to be addressed. Yet under President Kim the College is poised to proceed from strength to strength.

Which leads to our final request for your support. President Kim, we believe, is a remarkably gifted, dedicated, and energetic man—a leader whose talents fit the needs and opportunities the College now faces. As the Dartmouth Review put it in an editorial earlier this year, “Here…is a man who appears to belong at the helm of this great institution.”

When alumni disagree with President Kim, they should say so—freely and without reservation. But let's make our criticisms of President Kim constructive. And let's extend to him the goodwill that a president who has already done a great deal for the College surely deserves. Not everyone possesses the skills to administer such a complicated institution—or would love the place enough to have left the comfort of his home on a dreary night this past weekend to join the freshman class in a sprint around the homecoming bonfire.