Wright looks to future, $1.3 billion in fundraising

by Dax Tejera | 3/3/05 6:00am

After years of planning and anticipation, the College has embarked on its ambitious capital campaign and construction projects. Although they promise significant payoffs, both initiatives have been cause for some reflection in the Dartmouth community.

As always, the College also continues to go about its regular business, electing trustees and preparing for the future. College President James Wright, now in his seventh year in office, sat down with The Dartmouth to discuss his plans this year.

The Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience

Last November, the College announced "The Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience," Dartmouth's most ambitious capital campaign to date. The $1.3 billion goal will finance much of the Wright administration's plans for Dartmouth. Wright himself plays an integral role in the campaign, speaking regularly across the country to alumni groups in an effort to attract stewardship.

Wright said he is typically off campus once a week for one or two days on matters of campaign business. When on campus, he also finds himself focused on the campaign by speaking with potential donors who travel to Hanover and engaged in matters of campaign strategy. Generally, though, Wright said he tries to be on campus to do on-campus work.

"My formulation of a lot of my job is being the headmaster -- that's a role I enjoy immensely," Wright said.

When asked whether he believed that the controversy surrounding Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg's comments regarding collegiate football programs would hurt the capital campaign, Wright said it "could have and may still."

"It's really hard to predict that," Wright said. "But I'm not aware of any significant capital gifts that have been affected by the issue."

Wright said he believes the issue is more likely to influence contributions to the College's annual fund, a result Wright said was troubling because he does not believe it should be used as an "annual referendum."

Wright acknowledged that regardless of the Furstenberg controversy, meeting the campaign's goal would require "a lot of work."

"It's an ambitious goal," Wright said. "But Dartmouth did not become Dartmouth by being anything less than ambitious."

The College Image

Dartmouth students are constantly reminded that they are members of an institution that offers "the finest undergraduate education in the world," but the College still seems to suffer from worse name recognition than Harvard and Yale.

Wright said he does not fully agree with the suggestion that Dartmouth is less visible. Still, he acknowledged that the College's size and location might present challenges that its larger, urban peers do not face.

"We compete very well because we stay focused on what we do," Wright said. "We understand that our niche is to provide an exceptional undergraduate education -- the strongest in the country."

Wright said bigger institutions are not necessarily better and that there was a particular "magic" about Dartmouth. He added that the College has name recognition "for those people who count a lot" -- potential students and parents and faculty.

Still, he conceded that Dartmouth could always benefit from more of a national spotlight.

"Do I sometimes get frustrated that more people don't know just how strong and wonderful this institution is? Of course I do," Wright said. "But I think the best way to deal with that is to continue to make sure that it's strong and wonderful and attractive -- the rest will follow."

Alumni Opinions

Two of the six candidates for the Alumni Trustee election that will begin this month are petition candidates, continuing a trend that gained attention last year with the election of T.J. Rodgers '70, who had been called an "insurgent" candidate. Wright called the petition candidacies "legitimate," but said he reserved opinions on the debates those candidates have made regarding the College.

"I'm not going to intrude myself into that debate," Wright said. "It won't surprise you if I have some views on some of the things that have been expressed."

Much of the debate to which Wright alluded concerns clamoring that Dartmouth is deviating from its chartered mission as an undergraduate college. Wright suggested that alumni of that opinion study his words and "the facts."

"We are a university in all but name. We have been since 1797, when the medical school was organized," Wright said.

But Wright said he values the institution's longstanding commitment to undergraduate education.

"I'm sorry people want to debate this fact," Wright said.

One of the Alumni Council nominees for the opening trustee seats suggested it was not debatable that the two alumni elected to the vacancies on the Board would be electing Wright's successor.

"I don't know how long I intend to stay here," Wright chuckled in response to the candidate's assertion.

Wright cited a number of issues -- strengthening financial aid, expanding the faculty and compensation packages, facilities programs and the capital campaign -- that motivate him every day.

"When I think that either we have these things more or less done or I'm not going to get them done will be the time for someone else," Wright said. "But I'm enjoying immensely what it is that I'm doing right now."

Expanding the Campus

Beyond simply amplifying the academic and residential facilities at Dartmouth, Wright's building plans will undoubtedly change the look of the Dartmouth campus. While he acknowledged that Dartmouth will look different upon the completion of the College's ongoing building projects, Wright said the campus will "feel" no different than it does now.

"People have to look at these projects and say 'Yes, this is Dartmouth,'" Wright said.

Admitting that he worries about the implications of expanding the campus, Wright said he has worked hard to ensure that the buildings under construction will be of a size and style complementary to their surroundings. He reiterated a statement he said he has told planners and designers throughout the expansion process.

"'I'm not going to be the president that moves the center of undergraduate life away from the Green. It is the core of this campus and this community.'"

Wright said that decisions to maintain the campus' main dining facility on the Thayer Hall site and plans to enhance the Collis Center, Hood Museum and Hopkins Center are all in consideration of the fact that these buildings are "the focus of the undergraduate experience here."

When asked which building project he was most eager to see completed, Wright mentioned the residence halls with little hesitation.

"We've talked about that too long," Wright said, adding that it was "embarrassing" for sophomores to have to come to campus unsure if they would have a rooming assignment. Wright said he believes the effect of the new residence halls will be momentous.

"I'm incredibly anxious to have this done because I think it's going to do a lot for the student experience."