Faculty clashed with McLaughlin early on

by Colin Barry | 8/26/04 5:00am

The selection of David T. McLaughlin '54 as the 14th president of the College came at a special Feb. 23, 1981 faculty meeting after a weekend of secret trustee deliberations in Hanover and Boston. Only hours later, the College's professors began to question the businessman's academic qualifications -- the first signs of a problem that would last throughout his tumultuous six-and-one-half-year tenure.

Although then-Dean of the Faculty Hans Penner praised McLaughlin as sharing "great interests with the faculty," other professors were quick to express dissatisfaction with the trustees' choice.

"There is a feeling among a significant number of faculty that faculty opinion was not listened to" in the search process, philosophy professor Bernard Gert said at the time.

The College's professors specifically leveled criticism over McLaughlin's perceived lack of academic experience, questioning his "interest in a second career" in education in a question-and-answer period soon after the announcement of his appointment.

For his part, McLaughlin aimed to dispel worries that his business background was ill-suited for his new post.

"The system of governance in a college is much flatter than most corporations, but the whole management system I'm used to is listening and consulting, not autocracy," McLaughlin told The Dartmouth in a February 1981 interview. "I feel very strongly about the need to preserve the academic system at the College, with particular emphasis on the undergraduate liberal arts education."

The non-traditional circumstances surrounding the new president's election also cast a shadow on his early days in office.

McLaughlin was sitting chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time of his election as College president, and thereby the head of the body that elected him. Though he did not participate in the trustees' deliberations, McLaughlin came under fire for the potential conflict of interest in his election.

"I have a real ethical contradiction inside me," then-music department chair William Cole said regarding McLaughlin's selection.

In marked contrast to the College's faculty, the Undergraduate Council unanimously passed a measure congratulating McLaughlin on the appointment, expressing hope that he would demonstrate "zeal and dedication" in his future service.

"We are confident that our relationship with the new president will be as smooth as that with President Kemeny," UGC chairman Chris Cannon '81 said in a Feb. 23, 1981 interview with The Dartmouth.

McLaughlin's subsequent six-odd years as president proved no less turbulent than his opening days.

He clashed with faculty over the reinstatement of the College's Army ROTC program, as well as several budgetary decisions. Professors also widely criticized his handling of several students' destruction of a shantytown intended to protest Dartmouth's investments in apartheid-era South Africa.

Student and alumni opinion of McLaughlin was generally more hospitable.

Although the College community had widely anticipated his resignation in the fall of 1986, student sentiment as reported in The Dartmouth generally held that McLaughlin was "a nice man who was overcome by the president's office and events at the College."

The atmosphere at the October 1986 faculty meeting when McLaughlin announced his resignation, however, was initially subdued. But soon enough, faculty members stood up and applauded as the president described his abiding affection for Dartmouth College at the conclusion of his speech.

"It's a place much greater than the sum of its parts, and greater than any single voice can describe or define," McLaughlin said. "I love it -- and I know you do too."