Verbum Ultimum: Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Dartmouth must think carefully before it increases student body size.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 9/15/17 12:45am

Last month, College President Phil Hanlon announced a working group that will “explore the opportunities and challenges of increasing the size of the undergraduate student body.” This occurs as the College faces a housing shortage, a low rate of faculty increase and a shortage of classroom space, not to mention increasingly crowded dining halls and study facilities. Before it even considers increasing the size of the student body, Dartmouth should first address existing concerns, since any increase in undergraduates should be accompanied by new extensive facilities and an equal or greater increase in faculty numbers.

Dartmouth has a unique character. Even the most uncharitable assessments of our school note its strong community and its distinctive ethos. The College on the Hill is not a research university first, like Princeton University, Harvard University or Yale University; it stands out from its Ivy League peers because it focuses on its undergraduate teaching and the liberal arts. Dartmouth’s students, for the most part, chose the College because it puts undergraduates first. If Dartmouth expands by 10 to 25 percent, the potential change — as many as 1,100 more students — risks stripping the College of its identity, even if facilities are also expanded. While Yale and Princeton have announced plans to increase their student bodies by 800 and 500 students, respectively, both schools are already larger than the College, making the percentile changes far smaller. Both schools have also announced extensive construction programs, something the College has yet to do.

This past spring foreshadows what may happen if the College does not engage in a large building scheme before increasing enrollment. The large size of the Class of 2021 forced the College to reassign graduate housing to undergraduates and increased housing uncertainty for many students. The faults of the River and Choate clusters are well known, but other dorms are also in need of renovations. Classroom space is increasingly at a premium. The College’s faculty has increased by fewer than 20 individuals since Hanlon became president in 2013, though the faculty grew regularly in the decade and a half before 2014. Perhaps an increase in students could be accompanied by facility and staffing increases, but those changes would need to be accomplished before new students came if we are to avoid even longer lines, larger classes and overstuffed dorms. Amherst College provides a sobering example of what occurs when a college over-admits: in 2002, the school began assigning students to live in temporary trailers due to renovations.

Announcing the task force to consider expanding the student body, Hanlon said he hopes to “amplify [Dartmouth’s] impact on the world.” Yet Dartmouth already holds an outsized presence in many walks of life. The four Dartmouth alumni serving in the United States Senate are a cohort as large as all but one other undergraduate program, Harvard’s, tying the College with Yale and Brigham Young University. From 2006 to 2013, the United States Treasury was run by Dartmouth alumni. Dartmouth has graduated more incumbent governors than any other school in the country, beating Harvard, Yale and Princeton (the latter has zero), not to mention every other college in the country. The creators of television shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Mindy Project” all graduated from the College. Any plan to increase student body size by roughly 430 to 1,100 new students must explain how these changes would actually be a boon to Dartmouth’s reputation and potential to impact the world.

Between 1998 and 2012, Dartmouth added 20 buildings, including student residences with around 650 beds for undergraduates, six major academic buildings, three athletic buildings, and the Berry Library. Between 2002 and 2012, the College’s undergraduate student body increased by just 2.67 percent. While some of these buildings replaced older ones, many did not. If 20 new buildings were needed for a 2.67 percent increase, how many new facilities — residential, academic and athletic — does the College plan to construct to accommodate a 10 to 25 percent increase? Physical space on campus is also at a premium, meaning the College could be hard pressed to find locations for the new buildings that would be required by a student body increase. When the College became coeducational in the 1970s, it instituted the D-Plan as “a way to put 4,000 students into 3,000 beds.” Perhaps the College will need a new version of the D-Plan — one that requires students to take multiple off-terms during the fall, winter and spring terms, rather than just one.

Currently, there is no finalized plan to increase undergraduate enrollment at Dartmouth, but the language utilized in the College’s announcement is telling. The actual job of the task force should not be to see if the increase is 10 to 25 percent, but zero to 25 percent. The working group could even consider reducing the student body in coming years. An increase should not be a foregone conclusion, but the College’s rhetoric makes it seem like one. The group — which is expected to have an initial proposal by October and a finalized plan by next March — must be transparent and inclusive if it is to be successful, drawing in voices from across the Dartmouth community, particularly those of students. It is still early in the process, and there is a wide variation in the task force’s potential outcomes. It is imperative that the eventual plan be one that honors Dartmouth’s unique culture and character and puts the needs of current students before any plan for wide-ranging expansion.

Dartmouth needs to consider the needs of its current students, including its stretched housing capacity, tight dining hall space and the need for further academic facilities and faculty, before it thinks about adding more undergraduates. As an institution, we must also consider the costs of expansion, and what would be lost. Everyone in the Dartmouth community wants to see the College thrive. But would Dartmouth still be the undergraduate-focused liberal arts college that its students love if it enlarges?

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