Human Biology denied funding

by Richard Lazarus | 5/12/03 5:00am

The College recently decided not to provide further funding to the Human Biology Program, an initiative designed to integrate hard sciences and the humanities that featured a small but popular group of classes that met the College's interdisciplinary course requirement.

"I think it's a terrible decision," said Lee Witters, the director and co-founder of the program and a professor both in the biology department and the Dartmouth Medical School. "The quality of a Dartmouth education is now worse."

The final decision not to fund the program was presented to Witters in a private meeting with Dean of the College Barry Scherr, Dean of the Faculty Michael Gazzaniga and Dean of the Medical School Ethan Dmitrovsky Friday, May 2.

The program is actually named Humanitates Vitae, Latin for "humanities of life." Witters said the goal of the program was to "make everything that touches on biology accessible to everyone."

"There's a number of ironies to [the decision.] At a time when SARS and AIDS are sweeping the planet, when we are deciding whether to continue the space program, when global poverty is at an all-time high, when global warming is emerging as the biggest problem of our age, we've decided to cut all Dartmouth programs" dealing with these issues, Witters said.

"This is the only formal program trying to blend humanism and science, that could bring humanists and scientists together to the same place so they could teach each other," he continued. "It's a tough budget time for the College, I'm not diminishing that;. I'm not arguing that this program should have any special status. I'm just arguing that if you looked at the overall vision of what you'd want in your curriculum in 2003, you'd want this in it."

The program began with funding from the Hewlett Foundation and a matching grant from the College, Witters said.

Scherr cited the expiration of the Hewlett funding as the primary reason for the end of the program.

He saw the end of the program as the result of the program not having from its inception a clear source of funding set for after the Hewlett funding would expire. Finding a secure set of funds from the inception of the program would have made it harder to plan or begin, Scherr said.

"I would have liked to have seen this one continue ... but none of that was done," Scherr said. "There are two competing issues. One is we really want people to take advantage [when outside funds are provided.] But it's equally important for people to get around the table and decide if they really would want to support this in the long run."

From the beginning, the program was so successful that the Hewlett Foundation actually approached Witters about continuing funding for another year. Usually, funding works the other way around -- programs ask for money from foundations.

However, Witters said the Hewlett Foundation had a policy against funding a program more than twice, and as early as nine months ago Scherr called a series of meetings with Witters, Gazzaniga, Dmitrovsky to discuss the fate of the program.

Witters looked both inside and outside the College for funds.

"I talked to pretty much everyone in leadership, except for the president," Witters said.

However, outside foundations do not generally fund courses that already exist, he said, seeing that as the responsibility of the college where they are being taught, and Dartmouth is dealing with budget woes of its own.

The upshot of the decision is that some of the courses offered under the program will not be offered next year, although some will continue for exactly one more year as a college course.

No institutional support will be provided to the courses, even if faculty decide to continue to teach the same or similar courses. In effect, that means the program will have no office.

Other program efforts will also end, including science congresses that have dealt with current issues like the spread of AIDS in Africa, the space program and, just last weekend, global warming.

"I think it was entirely a financial decision. I don't think it was based on merit," said Witters. By "merit," Witters said he meant student satisfaction and interest as well as what the program contributed to the College overall.

"If a major factor in making these decisions was merit, it's hard for me to believe we wouldn't have done very well." Witters felt the end of the program showed a lack of vision by decision-makers.

Dmitrovsky was unable to comment when contacted by The Dartmouth. Gazzaniga refused to comment on the decision when reached at home yesterday evening.

The College's decision comes at a time when "cut" -- as in "budget cuts" -- is increasingly becoming a dirty word.

"I don't think you should use the word 'cut,'" Scherr said. He presented the program as an unfortunate victim of its budget shortfalls, but stopped short of blaming Witters for its fate.

"All I'm interested in is being a teacher. I'm not interested in being an administrator," Witters said.

"I think the costs were actually rather modest." Witters, however said he was "not privy" to the budget decisions. "A series of budgets were proposed over nine months that could have led to the continuation of the program, at least on a short-term basis. I will say it would have cost a lot less than the swim team."

Just don't expect the same kind of student outcry for the human biology program as met the swim team cut, said Prof. Bill Roebuck, who taught a course in the program. "I actually don't think there's a parallel," he said. Unlike athletic teams, buildings and student life issues, "I don't think there's an advocate group for courses."

Despite that the environmental health course he teaches will no longer be able to boast a physician from the medical school when he goes back to teaching it in the environmental science department, Roebuck supported the College's decision in the face of its current budget shortfalls.

"My life will go on, courses will go on," he said. "But it was a wonderful opportunity."