Like Drunken Sailors

by Chris Curran | 11/13/02 6:00am

I could accuse the College of spending money like drunken sailors, but that wouldn't be fair to drunken sailors: they spend their own money. Forgive me for paraphrasing words of a former president, but I think they are appropriate in characterizing the budget shortfall Dartmouth is experiencing.

Due to fiscally irresponsible leadership, Dartmouth is now forced to trim its budget. Despite a 4.5 percent increase in tuition last year, substantially greater than was the rate of inflation, Dartmouth will have to lay off employees. This situation is especially unfortunate because more prudent fiscal planning by the administration would have prevented it.

Up to 30 people will be laid off and another 40 to 50 positions will not be filled. The administration blames our recent financial problems on the sluggish stock market, but this is a scapegoat for their lack of restraint in setting spending priorities during the booming '90s. The endowment shrunk by 0.4 percent during fiscal year 2001, but it grew 47 percent in 2000 and 15.4 percent in 1999. That works out to an 18.5 percent average rate of return, many times greater than the rate of inflation. Yet under the current administration's priorities, we have been forced to lay off employees. Responsibility for their departure rests not with the market but with unrealistic management. We have benefited from a building boom, but if the cost of these new buildings is cuts to academic programs and people at the heart of the institution, then it will have been contrary to the goal of our college: to educate students.

Where did all the money go? The newly renovated Fuel night club and numerous TVs in Collis immediately come to mind, but these boondoggles are superficial symbols of larger waste. Over the past four years, Dartmouth has increased its budget for social activities by $2,575,000. This money has gone to such notable academic pursuits as a sword-swallower in Collis and subsidizing a similar performer called "The Regurgitator." What do these events have to do with education? That Dartmouth has chosen to underwrite these events, which are not popular enough to be viable without a substantial subsidy from the College, is particularly galling while Dartmouth is raising tuition by $1,500 a year.

Funding for non-academic social events isn't the only area in which the administration spent recklessly. There number of deans has increased over the past few years, with new positions such as the dean of pluralism. Were these new deans necessary because prior deans were not adequately advising students? If so, why is almost all the old guard still there? I won't be so crass to hazard a guess about how much money the College is spending on these new employees, but with the accompanying support staff it must be a substantial amount. Will new deans add more value to Parkhurst than their salaries will take from the overall budget? This kind of question should have been asked before they were hired.

Our attention turns to ways in which we can alleviate this budget shortfall. An obvious target might be College President James Wright's salary of $351,390 per year, but I think such criticism is misplaced. I don't begrudge Wright his salary, which is in line with other presidents. He was an accomplished academic and by many accounts, a prodigious fund raiser. But we need to demand more fiscal responsibility from him and the administration. When there was a choice between expanding and saving money, Wright chose the former. Now we have the soulless Tree House dorms but must make budget cutbacks while increasing tuition. Was it a sensible trade-off? No. Imprudent leadership like this was common among some businessmen of the booming '90s. Many of them made the same mistakes of excessive growth and have now been relieved of their command. I don't wish to suggest that Mr. Wright's leadership has been so bad that he should be replaced, but a little pressure for fiscal responsibility would go a long way.

Where should we create savings to bridge the deficit? Eliminating redundancy in campus construction would be a good start. Last spring new sidewalks were built and grass planted on the east edge of Baker Library. These sidewalks were recently replaced. The grass was also re-seeded. This kind of duplication needs to stop.

We could also reduce administrative costs by consolidating the structure of deans. According to the latest financial report (FY 2001), Dartmouth spent 52 percent of its budget on academic and student programs while spending about 10 percent on administrative support. We cannot justify such an expense on administration while Sanborn is being closed and classes are being cancelled. It is understandable that those who benefit from the distribution status quo will remain silent, so it falls upon those who are hurt by it -- students and faculty -- to challenge this allocation of resources.

Fundamentally, our decisions about where to cut money from the budget are a reflection of our values. Construction of new dorms is important, but not a first priority. Neither should funding for unpopular social events nor hiring new deans. Our primary purpose is education. It is time education came first in our budget priorities.