11 Ideas for a Better Dartmouth (Part I)

by Joseph Asch | 5/11/05 5:00am

The recent Trustee election campaign and student complaints in The Dartmouth have finally focused attention on the shortcomings in undergraduate education at the College.

The Administration has responded by reorienting its rhetoric away from Dartmouth being a university, highlighting building projects (including new dorms -- at last!), and increasing the size of the faculty. However, the Wright Administration is just playing catch-up with these measures, reacting belatedly to problems that it should have seen coming long ago.

President Wright's plans and speeches show no vision for Dartmouth, no sense of the serious challenges presently facing the College, or more importantly, of upcoming ones.

Dartmouth must break out of its current malaise and move forward. We need to open up decision making, revitalize classroom teaching, and revive residential life, realizing that for $42,000/year, students should be getting more than the large lecture classes and nomadic dorm living that mark too much of today's undergraduate life.

Here are 11 ideas that will help make Dartmouth the finest undergraduate college in America.

1) Open the College budget to review: The budget cuts that took place in past years did so in an informational void. Only the Administration knew the cost of each choice (e.g., cut the swim team, but build a bigger daycare center; close libraries, but hire more deans; or more recently, starve the speech department, but hire a "sustainability" director, etc.).

Dartmouth should have an open budget process, as do many other Ivy League schools. Until the details of the budget are freely available, faculty and students will be shut out of any meaningful role in the governance of the College.

For example, how much do the community directors in the dorms cost the College each year? Would another four community directors improve student life at the College more than, say, four new junior faculty members in the government department?

Under today's secret budget system, it takes digging to find out that the Dean of Leadership and Pluralism is living in a Hanover house that the College purchased in 2000 for $500,000 and then refurbished for about $100,000. Is this the best use of scarce resources?

If the budget were freely available, we could debate the most compelling uses for our money. Annual Cost: negligible.

2) Compensate the faculty separately for teaching and research: Each year, faculty members fill out a questionnaire for the Dean of the Faculty called the "Faculty Record Supplement." Their answers are the basis for calculating annual salary increases.

Until this past year, only three out of 11 questions on this form related to teaching and mentoring undergraduates; the remainder dealt with publication and scholarship. Though the 2004-2005 questionnaire probes somewhat more deeply into a professor's teaching activities, many faculty members believe that teaching still counts for little in the calculation of raises.

Dartmouth should reward teaching by granting annual faculty raises according to a clear formula: 50 percent of a professor's annual raise should be linked to scholarly achievement, and the other 50 percent should be tied to teaching and mentoring -- as evaluated by present and past students and by administrators who visit classrooms. This structural change would ensure that the faculty's focus stays where it should.

The emphasis at Dartmouth should be on a thoughtful balance between teaching and scholarship; a 50-50 salary split will ensure that the proper emphasis stays on both aspects of a professor's work. Annual Cost: negligible.

Note: The either/or nature of the research vs. teaching controversy is sterile. When the College gives tenure to a young faculty member, it makes a 30- to 40-year commitment. Brilliant teachers who do not do research will no longer be brilliant in a decade, when they have repeated themselves ad nauseam. Research keeps faculty members engaged in their fields and alive to new ideas.

3) Reward extra faculty teaching: Faculty members who currently choose to teach a fifth course receive no recognition or added compensation for their effort. Yet given Dartmouth's overcrowded classrooms and the long waitlists that students face, we are in dire need of extra courses.

Many faculty members would happily teach a fifth course (as all faculty did up until the mid-1980s) if they could receive some kind of reward for their effort.

In calculating faculty salary increases each year, the College's compensation system should consider a fifth course to be an important measure of teaching quality, the equivalent of a research publication. Annual Cost: negligible.

4) Provide teaching support for the faculty: The College should provide more specialized teaching support for the faculty, but not with graduate students, who will drift into teaching roles.

The Departmental Editing Program, a writing program that I initiated seven years ago and currently fund in the departments of art history, religion and mathematics, is an example of this idea ("DEP Tutors Teach Basic Writing, Grammar," Jan. 17). The three full-time DEP Editors, all former high school English teachers, work closely under their respective departmental faculty members, who are freed of much of the burden of working with students on basic writing skills.

Faculty members can then focus their efforts on the content of their courses, secure that the DEP Editors are working intensively with their students on writing mechanics. The results of this program in the above three departments have been excellent for students and faculty alike.

Similar support could be provided for in-class verbal presentations if the Administration no longer wishes to make rhetoric a formal part of the curriculum. Annual Cost: $750,000.

5) Make creative use of the Dartmouth Plan: We should take advantage of the Dartmouth Plan's short 10-week quarter. One example of progress would be to offer many "follow-on courses," special courses open only to students who had studied with the same professor in a preliminary course during the previous term.

Students who take a 10-week survey course should, on occasion, have the opportunity to follow on during a second 10-week term to study a subject more deeply with the same professor and other students from their class. They would start their second 10-week quarter with the subject matter of the discipline fresh in their minds and a familiarity with their professor and classmates that would guarantee productive work right from the start of the second term.

Follow-on courses would be perfect fifth courses for faculty members willing to add to their teaching load. Annual Cost: negligible.

(Due to space limitations, the remaining six ideas will follow in the near future).