'For the College on the Hill'

by Alex Fredman | 10/6/17 1:55am

homecomingdartmouthhall_hannahmcgrath
by Hannah McGrath / The Dartmouth

This article was featured in the 2017 Homecoming Issue.

If asked about Dartmouth’s reputation as a small college, many students and alumni will coyly repeat Daniel Webster’s famous 1819 quote: “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.”

Alexander Agadjanian
Alexander Agadjanian
Alexander Agadjanian
Alexander Agadjanian

It’s a moving quote, no doubt, spoken before the U.S. Supreme Court by one of Dartmouth’s most esteemed alumni. As counsel for the College in the case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Webster was said to have brought the courtroom to tears with his speech. The case was won, and students back in Hanover celebrated, appropriately, by shooting off a cannon.

Of course, the case itself, which focused on whether the New Hampshire government had the power to effectively make the College a public institution, had little to do with the fact that Dartmouth was a small college. In fact, historians consider the case a landmark decision that spurred the growth of the free-enterprise economic system in the United States.

Not bad for a small college, you might say. Then again, Webster’s oft-quoted phrase was a sentimental appeal; the case was really won on the legal issues at stake. Yet Webster said it anyway, and his quote reverberates through time as Dartmouth maintains its status as the smallest college in the Ivy League.

But as important as traditions and history are to an institution like Dartmouth, so is keeping up with the times. With peer institutions like Princeton, Stanford and Yale Universities increasing their class sizes in recent years, Dartmouth has taken a possible step in that direction by forming a task force to consider the pros and cons of raising the College’s student body by 10 to 25 percent.

This new task force may find itself dealing with a number of fundamental questions about the College’s identity: Should Dartmouth maintain its status as a small college with an undergraduate focus? Should Dartmouth be considered a university, not a college, if roughly a third of its population is composed of graduate students? For our “College on the Hill,” is there actually enough room on this hill for more college?

Dean of the College and task force co-chair Rebecca Biron said she believes the task force will give relevant stakeholders a forum to answer these questions.

“One of the tasks of the task force is to organize ways for students, faculty, staff and the broader community to provide their perspectives … on what it would take for Dartmouth to grow its undergraduate student population and maintain the special, distinctive quality of the education it offers,” Biron said.

Rick Mills, the College’s executive vice president, said that the College has not been as intentional regarding class sizes as it should be, and that the task force represents an opportunity to more thoughtfully make that decision.

“There should be moments when we reflect on: Are we the size we are because it’s what we chose, or are we the size we are because we simply aren’t paying attention?” Mills said.

Mills added that the task force will have to consider a number of circumstances that would accompany a hypothetical class size increase, including dorm space, classrooms, dining facilities and health services. He said that the task force has been charged with making sure any plans break even financially, although the current cost of educating a Dartmouth student is double the sticker-price tuition.

“If you could just add new students without any new incremental costs then clearly… it helps the numbers,” Mills said. “But nobody thinks that’s the case.”

Mills said that considerations of two issues in particular — housing and classroom space — are being debated by the College regardless of the decisions made by the task force. He said that the College’s decision to consider building new undergraduate housing in College Park predates creation of the task force, and that classroom changes are essential either way.

“Whether we grow or we don’t grow, I think we all know that we need to refresh our classroom space,” Mills said.

Mark McPeek, a biology professor and a member of the task force, also said that Dartmouth’s current stock of classrooms needs improvement.

“The classrooms we’ve got — a lot of them are, frankly, horrible,” McPeek said.

He added that a student body increase would require both an expansion of classroom space and of faculty size to maintain low class sizes.

“If you maintain the number of classes that are given and increase the number of people taking classes, class sizes go up,” McPeek said. “So increasing the number of faculty teaching undergraduate classes is just a necessity if you’re going to maintain class sizes.”

McPeek noted that while hiring more faculty may be needed to accompany a growth in students, this should not detract from Dartmouth’s focus on undergraduate education or research opportunities.

“Faculty [at Dartmouth] are held to the highest standards on both teaching and research,” McPeek said. “And there’s literally no other place in the world that does that.”

This dual expectation of teaching and research that McPeek mentions speaks to a larger, more fundamental question — should Dartmouth be considered a college or a university? While it calls itself a college and in many ways resembles a liberal arts institution, Dartmouth also has graduate programs and research opportunities as well — more in line with a research university.

Bev Taylor, founder of the college admissions consulting firm Ivy Coach, said that Dartmouth is undoubtedly a university, but it calls itself a college because of tradition.

“If people don’t get that Dartmouth College is a university, well so be it,” Taylor said.

She added that students looking for a really small college setting would probably not choose Dartmouth one way or the other.

Mills called the college versus university debate “an existential question for Dartmouth,” but one that may be more semantical than meaningful.

“If we can get past that name question, what we really should be talking about is, ‘How do we want to educate students, what’s the environment we provide, what is it that makes Dartmouth distinct and unique?’” Mills said.

Biron said that Dartmouth’s small size and undergraduate focus are significant aspects of its identity.

“Dartmouth is justifiably very proud of its undergraduate education,” Biron said. “We are highly ranked in that area externally; but also internally, that’s what the teacher-scholar model is based on. Students come to Dartmouth because it’s a distinctive size.”

Biron noted, however, that a population increase does not by definition have to portend major changes to the school.

“I don’t think we have to assume that growing would necessarily harm the distinctiveness that we have,” Biron said. “It could, in which case, we have to be very, very careful in providing complete information to the Board of Trustees.”

In a recent poll of students conducted by The Dartmouth from Sept. 24 to Sept. 28, 58 percent of the 677 respondents identified Dartmouth as a liberal arts college, while another 40 percent described it as both a liberal arts college and a research university. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they considered Dartmouth to be either “very unique” or “somewhat unique” relative to other Ivy League schools.

Matthew Goldstein ’18, president of the 2018 Class Council , said that while Dartmouth is by definition a university, there are benefits of calling itself and functioning as a college, such as helping students build stronger interpersonal relationships.

“This experience that we have — small class sizes, being a college in the classical sense — is what we should continue to do for as long as we can,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein agreed that Dartmouth’s smaller student population is an important part of its identity, and he noted that using the word “college” connotes things like a smaller size and liberal arts focus. He also commented that the current state of facilities on campus should cause the College to take pause before considering adding students.

“We have dining facilities that are consistently overcrowded and consistently complained about,” Goldstein said. “And I would look to fixing that before you try to push students in here, the bulk of [whom] will inevitably be disappointed in the same ways that the students now are disappointed by those things.”

Brandon Yu ’20, a 2020 Class Council executive, said that if the College expands class sizes, it should do so gradually to avoid problems like overcrowding. In his opinion, however, he said that increasing class sizes may be a misguided decision.

“I want us to keep the size that we have right now … it’s been like this for quite some time now,” Yu said. “And I think there’s a reason why Dartmouth holds a special place in students’ hearts.”

Yu said that he believes Dartmouth intentionally markets itself as a small, liberal arts college with an intimate community, and that, for better or for worse, it would not be the same if a student body expansion occurred.

Goldstein and Yu are not alone among Dartmouth students in their skepticism of expanding class sizes. The poll conducted by The Dartmouth found that 76 percent of students believe Dartmouth should stay the same size, while 16 percent believe Dartmouth should decrease and only 6 percent believe it should increase in size.

Yu also expressed disappointment that no students sit in on the task force considering the matter.

“To me, it would make sense that there would be a student member to provide input on whether their experience would be positively or negatively affected by an increase in student body,” Yu said.

Goldstein said he finds it upsetting, but not surprising, that no students are on the task force, and he questioned the purpose of considering a class size increase at this time.

“I think the administration has a bad habit of trying to create these short-term fixes that ostensibly plug holes, but only serve to exacerbate problems or create different problems that will end up coming up in the future,” Goldstein said. “And I think this is another example of that.”

Mills, on the other hand, said that the potential for larger class sizes may represent an effort by the College to improve its effect on the world.

“Dartmouth has this tax-exempt status from the government, and the reason we have a tax-exempt status is that it is viewed we are doing a public good, that we’re delivering a public good,” Mills said. “And I think the public good is pretty clearly the teaching and research we do. And I think in that regard, we have an obligation to say, ‘Is there some way to deliver more public good?’”

Taylor said that Dartmouth’s choice to consider increasing class sizes is a matter of keeping up with the times, as peer institutions like Princeton, Stanford and Yale have recently done so, and that it offers an opportunity for the College to accept a better group of students.

“Accepting a larger class, accepting more students, will add to the diversity of the College,” Taylor said. “And I believe that this is a primary goal for all of these colleges that are considering this move.”

She added that highly selective schools like Dartmouth often claim after admissions seasons that they regret not being able to accept more talented students.

Biron said that the task force will be interviewing people from peer institutions to gain perspective on their class size increase efforts.

“We’re asking them a series of very pointed questions: ‘Why did you want to [increase size], what were your goals, what obstacles did you come across, where did you stumble and how did you go about it?’” Biron said.

Mills said that while it is clear the College’s trustees are considering whether to expand the student population in light of the recent changes at peer institutions, the question remains one that the College on the Hill has always faced.

“If Dartmouth had stayed the size of the school that Eleazar Wheelock had established, we wouldn’t be what we are,” Mills said.

Goldstein is a member of The Dartmouth staff.