Wright Priorities

by Joe Asch | 4/7/03 5:00am

The debate over the College's budget difficulties has been off-target: the College community has focused on the details of recent cost cuts and entirely lost sight of the Wright administration's true priorities.

Jim Freedman began, and Jim Wright continues, an effort radically to transform Dartmouth from an excellent undergraduate-centered college, coexisting with a small town, into a research university dominating its surroundings.

The pursuit of this goal is the true reason for the ongoing demise of independent little libraries, the cutbacks in the number of courses being taught and the attempted eradication of entire sports teams. Meanwhile a burgeoning budget's millions go to mega-libraries, massive new dorms, increased graduate programs and an ever-growing bureaucracy. To this depressing list, add the recent enormous purchases of real estate in and around Hanover, the effort to buy the Hanover High School site and the overflow of College personnel into Centerra Park in Lebanon, because the Hanover campus can no longer accommodate the growing number of administrators and staff.

Think about this question for a moment: should the construction of dozens of new housing units for graduate students really be more important to Dartmouth than funding Sanborn Library and the swim team?

Am I the only person who cannot understand the skewed priorities of an administration that fires Art History reference librarians, yet can come up with the money to spend "millions" on diversity training, as reported in "The New York Times" in November?

These are wrong-headed choices and the Wright administration is making them every day. But don't kid yourself -- they are part of a well-planned, larger strategy. Jim Wright is seeking, unimaginatively and expensively, to turn the College into a second-tier research university, yet another Harvard wannabe.

The effort to create Dartmouth University is a strategy that will fail. It spreads the College's resources and the administration's attention far too thinly, rather than taking advantage of our natural strengths and leaving major universities to fund the research budgets that the College can never afford.

We are the smallest school in the Ivy League; why get bigger? We are a rural school; why turn away from sports and the outdoors? Our students have more contact with full professors than other schools; why expand our graduate programs? We have the most supportive student body according to "U.S. News and World Report;" do we need the Student Life Initiative?

Dartmouth should aim to be the finest undergraduate college in the nation, a goal that is well within reach. How about building on our strengths? Where are the initiatives to reduce the size of classes? Let's build additional small libraries in which dedicated reference librarians support student and faculty scholarship.

We need small dorms with live-in faculty to encourage richer intellectual and intramural athletic activities, and we should build enough of them to allow residential continuity and the development of dorms with their own traditions and identities.

I have no doubt that my fellow alumni will support generously a return to an undergraduate-oriented Dartmouth; after all, when we were here, the administration's focus really was on the College. Such steps will reverse the alumni's progressive abandonment of Dartmouth University. Two decades ago, more than 70 percent of alumni gave money each year; today, well below 50 percent contribute, and that percentage is dropping fast.

Dartmouth deserves better than an administration that simply follows the bigger-is-better conventional wisdom that motivates other institutions. We should be confident that the finest academic curriculum, the smallest classes, the friendliest and best-staffed libraries and the best-coached sports teams -- in short, the finest undergraduate liberal arts education in America -- will attract top students and faculty to Dartmouth.

The administration is trying to change the College to the core. Do not let it happen! We are not, and should never be, a university of huge buildings, large classes and distant professors.

Let Dartmouth be Dartmouth.