Critics attack Ask Dartmouth website

by Hillary Wool | 7/22/07 6:53pm

Three months after the alumni trustee election that seated petition candidate Stephen Smith '88, Smith and many of his supporters are questioning the integrity and cost of the College's Ask Dartmouth website, which was launched weeks before the election's voting period began.

The site, which debuted on March 14, features questions and answers pertaining to the College, sorted into nine categories such as administration, athletics, Board of Trustees, student life and freedom of speech. The Office of Public Affairs maintains the site by choosing questions and researching answers.

Roland Adams, director of media relations at the College, said that the spring seemed like the ideal time to launch the website largely because of the climate surrounding the trustee elections.

"Keeping in mind that various sorts of claims were being made by various parties on all sides on various issues at that time, it did seem like a particularly timely way to address some of these questions and put out accurate information," he said.

But the accuracy of information on the website -- which, without exception has confirmed the College's side on the questions dealing with contentious issues -- is specifically what critics have been questioning.

Joseph Asch '79, a longtime vocal opponent of the Wright administration, calls the site a mechanism for "self-congratulation."

While Smith and many of his supporters viewed the website as an attack on himself and petition trustee candidates in general during the campaign, representatives of the College defended Ask Dartmouth, maintaining that it arose only partially in response to the climate surrounding the trustee election, and that the overarching purpose of the site has been to provide a forum through which people can receive well-researched answers about Dartmouth from an official source. Adams said that College President James Wright does not vet Ask Dartmouth's postings, but that Senior Assistant to the President Sheila Culbert, as the interim vice president for public affairs, has a role in the website.

Some of Smith's allies believe that Ask Dartmouth -- which Smith himself coined "Ask Dartmouth if Stephen Smith is lying" -- was a means for the College to fight against his popularity in the race.

"I think that Smith's win demonstrates that alumni are not being influenced by obvious [public relations] efforts like Ask Dartmouth," Asch said, adding that he believes Ask Dartmouth worked against the College in the recent trustee election.

Smith's vote total was higher than any prior petition candidate in a Dartmouth trustee race, leading some to suggest that the website failed in its purpose.

Adams disagreed with that metric.

"The measure of success of Ask Dartmouth is whether it is a place where people can continue to come with questions after the election, and they do. And by that measure it does seem to be successful," Adams said.

Ask Dartmouth's cost is also at issue. Smith identified the College as one of his campaign's opponents and Ask Dartmouth as a financial endeavor aimed to prevent his election.

The College, on the other hand, contends that the website was not costly.

Adams said that the website cost "next to nothing," citing the only costs as the hours it took several Dartmouth public affairs personnel to field questions, research answers and post them.

"If the staff time weren't being used that way, it'd be getting used in some other effort to provide answers about Dartmouth," he said.

According to Adams, Ask Dartmouth took a couple of months to put together, and involved consultation with other offices within Dartmouth.

Among the questions that appeared the day the site launched were, "How big is Dartmouth's administration?," "How effective is the administration?" and "Is there a so-called speech code at Dartmouth? Where does President Wright stand on the issue of freedom of speech?" Free speech and decreasing the size of the College's administration were central platforms of Smith's campaign.

Adams said that the site was launched during "a time that was particularly busy with question and assertion."

"Certainly there's a clear timing consideration involved with the trustee election. But that's because it was generating particularly large numbers of questions and assertions," he said.

Refuting claims that the Ask Dartmouth website was targeted against Smith, Adams said he believes the decision to launch the site in mid-March has "more to do with the overall climate than any particular individual's campaign."

He added that while many questions were asked in connection to the trustee election, they were not exclusively related to it.

According to Adams, the initial questions were "of various sorts that we had received from various sources" and were intended to give people an idea of possible topics about which they could inquire.

"In the process of trying to answer questions as they come up, the site may serve to correct misinformation of various sorts regarding various questions," Adams said. "Often enough whatever topic there may be misinformation about becomes a subject of an Ask Dartmouth question."

"Clearly a number of those questions were questions being asked frequently at that particular time, but others you will see could have been asked at any time," he added.

Adams added that Ask Dartmouth provides a means to field questions about the College in a fairly regular manner.

Although Ask Dartmouth was not launched until this spring, Adams explained that the idea had been discussed previously, and at one point there was even an actual box in Berry library which served a similar purpose. Before the advent of computers and the web, people could write down their questions and put them in the "vox box," and College staff would research them and post the answers nearby.

"Most institutions have a need to be asked and field questions publicly," Adams said, citing that Cornell University has a "Dear Uncle Ezra" question box named after its founder Ezra Cornell, on its website.