Verbum Ultimum: A Vote for the Future

Students and faculty deserve a say on any enrollment increase.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 2/2/18 1:00am

The Dartmouth that students enter in half a decade may look very different from the College we know today. Last fall, the College’s leadership announced the creation of a task force to consider increasing the number of undergraduates on the campus by as much as 25 percent, or roughly 1,000 students. The task force’s final proposal is due in mid-March. If implemented, such a change would represent a shift at the College that would likely necessitate large-scale faculty hiring, massive building initiatives and a fundamental change in campus culture. Both proponents and opponents of the proposal deserve a chance to weigh in before any final decisions are made.

The College and its task force should not cherry-pick Dartmouth community members who they want to have a say in the proposal, nor should they collect feedback that is not publicly shared. Instead, to solicit comprehensive input on the proposal from all affected parties, the College should hold referendums for students, faculty and possibly even staff that would take place in the weeks following the release of the task force’s final proposal. The implications of this issue stretch too far into the College’s future to all for anything less than a full, transparent gathering and consideration of opinions from all of those who may be affected. If the College does not itself facilitate these referendums, then the arts and sciences faculty should bring its own vote during its termly meeting. Students should also host their own vote, and the results of both should be made available to the Board of Trustees and relevant College administrators.

The College has solicited the views of some of its students and faculty, but a larger survey is needed. Giving students, faculty and alumni more opportunities to weigh in would be both a strong show of faith on the part of the College’s administration and a necessary step before such a significant change. While the College has made some efforts to solicit opinions — most notably requesting community input on Dec. 4, 2017 (results have yet to be publicly released) — more is needed. A quality proposal from the task force would likely generate more public support, with those already interested in potential opportunities from expansion expressing that view even more loudly at the ballot box. Conversely, those who value Dartmouth’s small size should have the chance to make their case, again through their ballots. Without at least a modicum of popular approval from within the community, the proposed expansion will surely be resisted.

We do not necessarily recommend that any student vote be binding. Students understand certain elements of Dartmouth life more than administrators or faculty; as such, all student voices deserve the opportunity to be heard before this proposal moves forward. However, students are on campus for only a few years; administrators and faculty bring different views to the table and may have a better longer-term perspective. Yet the perspective of current students is still invaluable. If the College does not take student voices into account before it substantially increases its undergraduate population, it will do a disservice not only to its current students but also to the goal of creating a better Dartmouth in the long term. A student vote, if instituted either by the College or by an outside body, would likely see high turnout and encourage passionate debate between students on all sides of the issue. The result of such a vote would be of immense value to the trustees and administrators as they consider the task force’s proposal.

A faculty vote, in contrast, could be made binding, due to the faculty’s longer stay at the College and the necessity of their support if the College is to function properly. Some faculty members have studied the expansion closely. Some professors could believe that an enrollment increase would bring valuable new resources to the College, while others might fear that it would de-emphasize undergraduate teaching and engage Dartmouth in an academic arms race against its Ivy League peers. All these perspectives should be heard in debates open to all community members, and faculty should join students in openly weighing in on this issue. Some faculty members have already expressed views on the issue publicly, and a October 2017 The Dartmouth survey considered student views on expansion.

If the College chooses not to hold referendums, students and faculty could take matters into their own hands. Student referendums on major administrative issues are uncommon, but not unheard of. Last year, students at the University of Mississippi voted on the school’s branding strategy, and University of Massachusetts students voted on funding sources for a proposed $50 million expansion. At Dartmouth, student groups like Student Assembly or Palaeopitus Senior Society could organize a vote. Although turnout for Assembly elections is typically below 50 percent, passions on both sides of the expansion question could fuel a stronger showing, particularly if the vote followed on the heels of an exhaustive public debate on the merits of the proposal. The results could be brought before the Board of Trustees, College President Phil Hanlon and dean of the faculty Elizabeth Smith, among others.

For faculty, holding a vote on the matter would be even easier. A vote could be taken at the termly meeting of the faculty of arts and sciences and the Thayer School of Engineering, the two schools that serve largely undergraduate students. The faculty’s ability to hold non-binding votes of no confidence in administrators is an important example of the its power to hold the administration in check that has been used in the past, notably in the case of the Committee of Chairs’s vote of no confidence in former dean of the faculty Michael Gazzaniga ’61 in 2004. Faculty at Dartmouth’s peer institutions have held similar votes.

Dartmouth is not alone in considering student body expansions. Princeton University and Yale University have both begun the process of expanding their own undergraduate populations. The College should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of Yale, where administrators have been heavily criticized for failing to consider student and faculty views. One Yale Daily News columnist wrote that “Yale President Richard Levin and the university administration have never really cared what students thought,” while Yale professors have been extensively quoted in the paper questioning the 800-student growth spurt. Princeton’s substantially smaller expansion — of just 500 students — has been less controversial, but has still attracted criticism.

Students and faculty are closely in tune with many of the needs of the College — often in ways administrators are not. Students understand that many campus resources are already stretched to their breaking point. Faculty understand their own research needs and appreciate how those could be changed by a student body expansion. Both faculty and students understand the College’s strength in the liberal arts and undergraduate teaching. This is not to say that administrators do not also have valuable viewpoints, but rather that they must reach beyond their own offices and solicit widespread community input before they finalize any plan for student body expansion. The College needs as many perspectives as it can get on this issue of critical import, and it should aggressively solicit those views. All students and faculty, not just a chosen few, should have the chance to weigh in. A good proposal will be rewarded at the ballot box. A poor one will not be.

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