Verbum Ultimum: Hindsight is 20/20

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 10/1/15 8:09pm

This week, College President Phil Hanlon announced that the Geisel School of Medicine will restructure in response to budgetary problems. Administrators aim to reduce the medical school’s $26 to 28 million annual deficit by diverting funds from the medical school’s weaker programs to its stronger ones.

Though some of our undergraduate readers might think that this news is irrelevant or unremarkable, we think students should know that this is not the case — and we call upon all to take more of an active interest in the College’s finances.

In part, the present budgetary constraints stem from national trends that have left the College and its peers with fewer dollars for medical research. Administrators have been quick to blame Geisel’s current situation on such national factors, such as the decline in federal funding from sources like the National Institute of Health. Last November, for example, Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier launched a fundraising campaign to garner $750 million against this backdrop of stagnant federal funding.

Geisel’s troubles, however, were not entirely beyond the College’s control. Administrators have also distanced themselves from the Geisel 2020 Strategic Plan for Excellence, which set 2020 as a target year to place Geisel within the nation’s top 20 medical schools. Meanwhile, this past year Geisel dropped in the U.S. News and World Report rankings from 34th in research and 18th in primary care to 37th and 29th, respectively. Considering the medical school’s difficulty remaining in the top 30, such an ambitious goal in such a short period of time was unrealistic, and all the College has to show for it is a financial quandary.

It is clear that an initiative to raise Geisel’s ranking across the board was not an effective method of improving the school. Specific programs within the school, like health care delivery science, are stronger than the school’s overall ranking would suggest. Striving for excellence in those areas is the most promising way to build a name for Geisel, and the College is right to shift priorities thus under the new budget plan.

Yet the underlying assumption of the 2020 plan — that Geisel is not quite where it should be — lingers, and presumably still deserves attention. We are anxious to see if the new trajectory can deliver where the 2020 plan did not. Hanlon has stated the College’s commitment to making Geisel “an academically successful and excellent place,” but talk is cheap. Paying for Geisel, on the other hand, is not.

The medical school budget accounts for roughly 30 percent of the College’s expenses, but Geisel students compose just over seven percent of the total student population. To be certain, funding medical research is an expensive undertaking, and it is an investment that may never fully return its original financial investment. Yet this should not mean that the College should continue to spend a disproportionate amount on Geisel, as it exists now, no matter the cost.

If we were to allot the present annual deficit run by Geisel — about $28 million — among its student population — reported in 2014 as 422 — the number would be about $66,351 per student. This is just shy of the College’s undergraduate sticker price. As this new budget plan will reduce, not eliminate, this deficit, Geisel will continue to be a significant expense for the College — and thus buoy the College’s high cost of attendance.

More broadly, the Geisel announcement has left us concerned about inefficiencies in the College’s budget. Hanlon has sought to control costs, but annual tuition hikes continue to outpace inflation. That is to say, the College collects ample revenue from students. All that money should allow the College to be what we expect it to be — a world-class institution — provided it spends that money well. Students should be confident that their tuition will fund fields where Dartmouth can realistically excel.