Alumni criticism fuels mistrust

by Will Schpero | 9/24/08 4:22am

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

spring.

"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

life.

"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

phenomenon."

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

of Dartmouth."

This type of involvement is necessary

to ensure Dartmouth can recruit

qualified students and faculty, Wright

explained.

Asch attributed the administration's

lack of credibility among some

alumni, in part, to the rise of the

internet age.

"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

successful.

"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

comment.

"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

source.

"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

Dartmouth.

"That should be part of the conversation,"

he added.

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

positions.

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."

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