Verbum Ultimum: Resurrect the Liberal Arts

Dartmouth must return to its roots as a liberal arts college if it is to succeed.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/7/17 12:45am

Unlike its Ivy League peers, Dartmouth is not situated in the great northeastern cities or suburbs. Yet, it is in this setting that we can best embody the spirit of those who have come before us: that of a small liberal arts college, with an undergraduate focus, where faculty and students work closely together and where learning is pursued for its own sake.

It is time for administrators and students alike to focus on the undergraduate liberal arts, not on graduate programs or a research-first focus. We need a return to what Dartmouth does best, and that is the simple act of being a college. First and foremost, we are an institution of the liberal arts and sciences, designed not for professional education or mass research output but to transform students into rounded citizens with a wide breadth of knowledge and a boundless curiosity that shall continue throughout our lives.

Dartmouth’s students are less happy with the College today than they have been at any point in the recent past. In 2010, the year before former College President Jim Yong Kim took over in Parkhurst, 55 percent of graduating seniors said they were “very satisfied” with Dartmouth while 40 percent were “generally satisfied.” Last year’s survey found the former number at 38 percent, the latter at 49. Indeed, senior satisfaction has dropped with each biennial senior survey since 2010. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of graduating seniors who would “definitely” recommend Dartmouth to high schoolers clocked in between 59 and 64 percent. Last year, that figure stood at just 44 percent. While satisfaction with academic experiences remains high, small declines since 2010 are still visible. Just 31 percent of the Class of 2016 contributed to the senior class gift last spring, down from 61 percent for the Class of 2015, 80 percent for the Class of 2012 and 99 percent for the Class of 2010.

It is not just Dartmouth’s newest alumni who are expressing disappointment in the College’s direction. Dartmouth’s application numbers have dropped over the past half-decade, not precipitously but nonetheless highly telling. Last week, the College selected students for the Class of 2021 out of a pool of 20,034 applicants. This is a far cry from the 23,109 applicants for the Class of 2016, a peak for the College. Applications to the Class of 2018 represented a low point, at 19,297, before slight increases the following two years, then another decrease this year. This comes while our Ivy League peers have seen their application numbers soar. Cornell University, for instance, had 37,812 apply for its Class of 2016 and 47,038 apply for its Class of 2021. The University of Pennsylvania saw an increase from 31,216 applications to 40,413 over the same period.

The Dartmouth’s own 2016 senior survey shows that students, at least, have found the culprit for the worsening of the Dartmouth experience: the College’s administration. More than 77 percent of the Class of 2016 had an unfavorable view of the College’s administrators as a whole, and 60 percent viewed College President Phil Hanlon unfavorably. Today, as Dartmouth increases its non-academic staff size and develops an energy institute backed by big oil as well as a new graduate school, appears clear that the College is attempting to play a game of “big university” alongside its Ivy League peers. Instead, the College should focus on being an undergraduate-first institution where the liberal arts and sciences are held in high esteem.

Dartmouth will not win an arms race with Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University. Nor do its students wish to fight that battle. We prefer a future as the premier liberal arts college in America and the world. We wish to be a place where undergraduate education is held sacrosanct and where those who want a strong community, high rates of faculty interaction and the breadth of true, classical study in the liberal arts and sciences can find their academic haven. Becoming “Dartmouth University” is antithetical to the values for which Dartmouth has long stood and will ultimately harm not only the College’s students but also its reputation both nationally and internationally. We need an administration that will do better by this school, focusing on making Dartmouth the best version of itself.

If Dartmouth is the best in its category — the most well-financed and resource-rich liberal arts college with the best faculty — then applicants will respond, selecting an undergraduate-focused institution over those that put their doctoral candidates and professional schools first. We should compare ourselves to liberal arts colleges in the same breath as other Ivy League schools, and we should aspire to be the true home of liberal arts within the Ancient Eight.

Let us return our focus to the Dartmouth we love: the College on the Hill, the small school beloved by its alumni, the epitome, as former President Dwight Eisenhower said, of “what a college is supposed to look like.” The liberal arts are not merely a way for our graduates to appear more rounded on job applications. Those who are looking for business majors or other pre-professional programs may go elsewhere. The liberal arts represent a different style of learning, one based upon creating a lifelong love of knowledge. It is, in the final sense, about the education of strong citizens.

The College should put money into recruiting top-tier teaching faculty, pay them competitive salaries and allow them to refocus on mentoring undergraduates. If Dartmouth takes these critical steps, it can again embody its one-time promise. As Daniel Webster famously told the United States Supreme Court: “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.” But until then, students accepted into the Class of 2021 should examine their priorities. If they want a pure research university, there are many schools that fulfill that role, while those who want a pure liberal arts college should vocalize that desire.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the opinion staff, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.