Joe Asch ’79 remembered for passionate dedication to College

by Debora Hyemin Han | 10/12/18 2:30am

Joseph Asch ’79 was a “passionate, complicated son of Dartmouth,” said executive director of Chabad Rabbi Moshe Gray, a friend of Asch’s who last saw him the day before Asch passed away. He was 60.

An avid blogger and entrepreneur, Asch was found unconscious on the morning of Oct. 9, 2018 by first responders at his Hanover residence. A few hours later, a post on Dartblog.com — the blog with Asch’s commentary on the College and thoughts on higher education — indicated that his death was a suicide. While the Hanover Police Department has not yet commented further on the cause of death, a family friend, Sarah Rose, said that the cause of death was “depression.” Asch was in the midst of divorce proceedings with his wife at the time.

The post was later deleted at around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Asch came to Dartmouth from Montreal, Quebec, and graduated cum laude from the College with distinction in History, according to Asch’s Dean’s File, obtained by College archivist Peter Carini.

While at the College, Asch was active in the College radio station WDCR, was a Rassias drill instructor in French and Italian, taught skiing, played intramural sports and studied abroad in Germany and Italy. After earning a law degree from Yale Law School in 1983 and working as a management consultant for two years with Bain & Company, Asch began operating two businesses: Ballet Technologies Ltd., a medical products company he founded in 1987, and the River Valley Club, a fitness facility in Lebanon.

Asch lived in Paris from 1986 until 2004, but he spent many summers back in Hanover. During this time, he audited over 30 classes and discussion groups at the College.

Rose said that, to the best of her knowledge, Asch took at least one class every year. Rose added that she remembered him often talking about his classes and the dinners he would host for students in those classes.

“At the end of every summer, he would host a big dinner for his class — at his home, with his wine,” Rose said. “He loved having kids from the College over. He just found young minds very exciting.”

Jewish studies professor Susannah Heschel, whose classes Asch audited, said the dinners he hosted was how he got to know the community. In this respect, she said Asch provided an example for others that she wishes others would follow.

“If you’re an alumnus of Dartmouth, if you want to be in Hanover because of Dartmouth College, because you’re interested in ideas, why not invite faculty and students to have a discussion in your home?” Heschel said.

Rockefeller Center for Public Policy director and economics professor Andrew Samwick, who also taught a class that Asch audited, noted that Asch was a generous host.

Samwick added that Asch’s participation in undergraduate life through classes was what gave him credibility as a commentator on the College and helped create Asch’s extensive network of connections.

“If you’re an observer from afar and you see that he’s actually showing up to classes and establishing relationships with professors, that’s a natural way to gain credibility in the community,” Samwick said.

Both Heschel and Samwick noted that their first interaction with Asch was through his writing. It was perhaps through his experiences at the College, and the transfer of his experiences and perspectives to his audience online, that Asch contributed most directly to the Dartmouth community.

Asch wrote columns for The Dartmouth between 2001 and 2009, voicing his opinions about the direction of the College and his perspective as an alumnus who had seen Dartmouth in different times. Many of his concerns with the College were imbued with the concern that the administration was attempting to radically transform the College “from an excellent undergraduate-centered college, coexisting with a small town, into a research university dominating its surroundings.” Asch’s articles offered everything from a “by the numbers” analysis of the College to his recommendations about Greek activity on campus.

In August 2009, Asch transitioned these writings to Dartblog.com, which had been founded in 2004 by Joe Malchow ’08.

According to Andrew Newman ’74, an Islamic Studies professor at the University of Edinburgh, Asch’s writing was underpinned by his belief that many administrators who had been coming into the College in the last 10 to 15 years had “forgotten what it was like to be a student.”

Newman, who taught a religion class at Dartmouth this past summer, stayed with Asch at his home and said he and Asch would frequently discuss matters of the College over dinner.

In 2010, Asch hoped to influence the administration directly by running for alumni trustee when Jim Yong Kim was president, putting forth the platforms of “ensuring fiscal prudence,” re-committing the College to “undergraduate excellence” and “restoring board parity.” Asch eventually lost after receiving pushback from community members.

Gray said that while this loss for the position of alumni trustee disheartened Asch and prompted him to stop writing for the blog for a few months, this hiatus “did not last long” and Asch resumed writing with even more vigor than before.

Asch’s columns on Dartblog.com were notorious and were oftentimes incendiary. In 2017, Asch wrote that Native American studies professor N. Bruce Duthu ’80 had a “manifest lack of qualification” for the position of dean of the faculty, a position to which Duthu had been appointed at the time, citing Duthu’s support for the boycott, divestment and sanction campaign against Israeli universities. Other posts indicated skepticism about the trend of mental health resources for students at the College, about the experiences of women and minorities at Dartmouth, and about certain forms of student activism.

Many who knew Asch said that though they had fundamental disagreements with some of his opinions, they think Asch believed he was doing what was best for the College.

Class of 1979 president Mark Winkler ’79 wrote in an email that Asch “has served as a beacon of information for Dartmouth, seeking to improve [the College] and impart his wisdom.”

Rose, noting that almost every conversation with Asch involved Dartmouth “in one way or another,” said that Asch wanted Dartmouth to always improve.

“I would characterize him as a provocateur — he wanted the best for the [College] and felt that he was always encouraging it to its highest ideal,” Rose said.

Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens ’79 said that he took issue with some of Asch’s positions, but believed that Asch’s writing stemmed from his beliefs of what would most benefit the College.

“Some of the people may dispute it, but he was loyal to the institution as he saw it and what he felt was the best interest in the College’s future,” Teevens said.

This past summer, when the College was discussing options for the implementation of a new 350-bed dormitory on campus, Asch engaged in discussions with the community and the College administration, even coming up with his own plan to address housing concerns, according to Newman.

“[Asch] did the figures, he did the math, and it came out right in the same week that these series of meetings were being held across the campus,” Newman said.

Samwick echoed the level of scrutiny and detail with which Asch analyzed the College, simply based on what he could find from published sources and what he could “glean from his networks.”

“The thing that was really amazing about [Asch] is that his level of scrutiny of Dartmouth based on its published findings, just what he could glean from his network and from what Dartmouth has to publish about itself or what its leaders say about it, was at the level of what you would expect in a for-profit entity by someone who had a deep ownership stake in it,” Samwick said.

According to Samwick, Asch will be missed for his dedication to the College.

“It’s as if the person who is the external inspector of the place has just stepped down from the position, and there’s no viable candidate for that,” he said.

Gray added that Asch’s service to the community as a source of information was invaluable to alumni, who already seem to miss his online presence.

“I think for a lot of alums this was one of the first stops in the morning on the Internet,” Gray said. “Dartblog — what does Joe have to say? I think it’s valuable — information is valuable to people.”

Newman said that he would always save the Dartblog.com email for last when he went through his inbox, because the time difference in Edinburgh meant that he would get it right as it was going live in New Hampshire, at around 4:30 a.m. in the morning.

Many described Asch as an early riser — someone who was always working and very efficient.

Malchow said that he believes what motivated Asch as an individual was the fact that he was interested in creating “beautiful, nearly perfect things, whether large or small.”

Asch is survived by his parents, his two brothers, his wife, his son and his daughter.

A memorial service will be held for Asch on Saturday from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Dartmouth Outing Club by the golf course. In lieu of flowers, Asch’s family has asked that community members donate to the Dartmouth Political Economy Project.

Counseling resources for students, faculty and staff are available through the Office of Counseling and Human Development, the College chaplain’s office, the dean on call and the Faculty/Employee Assistance Program. Assistance can be obtained by calling Safety and Security at 603-646-4000.

Correction appended (Oct. 12, 2018): This article has been updated to correctly identify Asch’s family friend as Sarah Rose, not Sarah Roberts. It has also been updated to provide the correct title for executive director of Chabad Rabbi Moshe Gray.