Alumni criticism fuels mistrust
Alumni-fueled criticism of the College
administration in recent years has
called into question an historical belief
in the credibility of Dartmouth's president,
according to statements made
by College President James Wright
in a meeting with The Dartmouth this
"When [Dartmouth President]
John Dickey used to speak 45 years
ago, it was Moses -- he was the
president of Dartmouth -- good
heavens, people may have not always
agreed with what Mr. Dickey said, but
nobody would ever think that he was
misleading or saying something that
was not quite correct," Wright said.
Still, some alumni, who arguably
represent a small minority of the
67,000 living Dartmouth graduates,
have often been critical of College
policies and are hesitant to believe
what Wright and his colleagues say
about the state of the College.
"My sense is that the College spins
everything," Joe Asch '79, who often
writes opinion pieces critical of the
administration, said. "They are extremely
concerned about prestige."
Wright, however, said he does not
take the criticism personally.
"I think there is a general suspicion
of authority," he said. "Somebody
sitting around writing a blog site
speculating about things can have as
much credibility as somebody speaking
authoritatively based on facts."
Criticism of the College administration
has traditionally reached a
crescendo during elections for the
Association of Alumni executive
committee and membership on the
Board of Trustees.
These questions have centered
on a fundamental disagreement over
whether the statistics that the College
reports are true. The College
maintains that the student-faculty
ratio is decreasing while some alumni
argue it is increasing. Similar debatesoccur in the context of administrative with Board controversy
growth, expansion of the faculty and
the College's approach to Greek
"They talk about the decline in
the student faculty ratio from 12 to
1 to 8 to 1 during Wright's tenure
and the numbers just don't bear that
out," Asch said. "This [spin] is a new
Wright has always maintained that
he will not involve himself in alumni
elections unless he feels a need to
"correct the record."
"One of the unfortunate things is
that when I have spoken out it's tended
to be pretty focused and nonetheless
people say I am intruding into alumni
politics, that I am trying to influence
an election," Wright said. "I have
spoken out generally if I think there
is a misunderstanding or misperceptions,
misstatements about the state
This type of involvement is necessary
to ensure Dartmouth can recruit
qualified students and faculty, Wright
Asch attributed the administration's
lack of credibility among some
alumni, in part, to the rise of the
"The combination of having a weak
administration and the ability for that
information to be easily disseminated
is a major change," Asch said.
The information was disseminated
by web sites like Dartblog.com,
founded by Joe Malchow '08, and DartmouthParity.
com, which advocated
for Association of Alumni candidates
supportive of the organization's recent
suit against the College.
The College launched its own web
site in March 2007 to counter this
critical rhetoric. The site, AskDartmouth.
com, was a direct response
to the claims of Stephen Smith '88,
who was then running as a petition
candidate for membership on the
Board of Trustees. He was ultimately
"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," director of
Media Relations Roland Adams said
in a July 2007 interview about the
creation of the site.
Smith did not return requests for
"The real name of the site should
be 'Ask Dartmouth if Stephen Smith
is Lying,'" Smith said in a past interview.
"I see nothing on the site that
disproves anything I have said."
The lack of trust, however, may be
mutual. College officials consistently
have pointed to the secrecy and confidentiality
of the alumni groups as
a sign that their true intentions are
masked. For example, it was unclear,
until an inquiry by The Dartmouth in
March 2007, who was funding the Association
of Alumni's lawsuit against
the College. The "Committee to Save
Dartmouth," founded in the summer
of 2007 to oppose recent governance
changes, never made public its funding
"I am not sure what all of the
agendas out there are," Wright said.
"If [the lawsuit was] going to cost the
College two million dollars plus, this
[was] costing somebody else two million
dollars plus, and if you imagine
that whoever [was] funding that [was]
doing it because they are concerned
about having more classes that are
under 20 students or that they are
really concerned about the size of the
faculty at Dartmouth -- I don't think
that is really what is going on."
Wright said he believes some of
the funding and guidance for these
groups is coming from outside
"That should be part of the conversation,"
In the inquiry, The Dartmouth
found no evidence that outside
groups were directly funding the
legal effort, although several appeared
to facilitate it. The Center
for Excellence in Higher Education,
a conservative Indiana-based think
tank, collected contributions from
alumni, which were then given
to The Hanover Institute, a nonprofit
organization founded by John
MacGovern '80. The organization,
which has often supported causes
critical of the College, then provided
the funds to the Association's legal
team in Washington, D.C.
The Association withdrew its suit
in June after candidates critical of
the legal effort won election to all
of the organization's 11 leadership
Wright said he never felt "stifled"
by the criticism from alumni, though
he admitted that he did consider their
response in his decision making.
"You have to sort of think, 'Okay
if I go into this one it's going to be
interpreted this way,'" Wright said.
"I think that is too bad, but I haven't
felt stifled -- I generally tend to speak
my mind and I always will."