Dartmouth Discontinuity

by Brian Solomon '11 | 10/7/09 10:00pm

So much for institutional memory. Just three short months after Provost Barry Scherr announced he would remain in his current role through June 2011, he's jumping ship, in the latest high-profile departure from Parkhurst. Scherr's decision to step down marks an emphatic conclusion to the transition or rather the disintegration occurring at the highest level of Dartmouth's administration. From Jim Wright's planned exit, to Gail Zimmerman's firing, to Tom Crady's resignation and Rovana Popoff's departure, and now on to Scherr's bombshell, this has been a nightmarish year for anyone who values continuity and tradition at the College.

But Scherr's exit is perhaps the strangest development yet. It was only the beginning of the summer when College President Jim Yong Kim triumphantly announced the provost's decision to stay on for another two years. Scherr himself even acknowledged, in an interview with the Dartmouth Office of Public Affairs, that part of his decision to stay was to maintain some "institutional memory for the central administration." Apparently, all the wisdom Scherr wanted to impart from his eight years as provost and 35 at the College could be conveyed in a campus tour, because three months later he's out the door.

Scherr isn't even sticking around to finish the big project his experience was supposedly needed for: Dartmouth's upcoming reaccreditation. Suddenly the "long, time-consuming process" that would take up to two years has become an afterthought. As soon as Scherr completes a first draft of the accreditation report, he's handing it off to his successor. Kim cited "rapid progress over the last few months" in his e-mail to campus as part of the rationale for Scherr's early departure. And sure, Scherr deserves a chance to get out of administration politics and back to his treasured Russian research, but what's the rush? Has he truly completed all of the work he wanted to before 2011, or could there be some other underlying reason for the quick reversal?

These last two departures, those of Scherr and of Dean of Undergraduate Students Popoff, hint at just how disorganized the top administration has become. Popoff even described the turmoil when recounting her decision to leave the College, telling The Dartmouth, "It was a difficult year for the institution in general. There are a lot of changes that a lot of us are experiencing at Dartmouth, there are a lot of the people who are still here and a lot of people who left that can recount similar feelings to my own." Obviously her descriptions of the "difficult year" and "changes" are intentionally vague, but it's easy to read into her departure a sense of upheaval and uncertainty in the present and future of College administration.

Within months, the evisceration of the old guard at Parkhurst will be complete. There will be no voice of Dartmouth's tradition, or even of its recent past. Instead, by 2010 the College will be run by newcomers Jim Kim, his right-hand man Steven Kadish, a new provost and a whole host of interim deans. After a decade of sustained, consistent leadership from Jim Wright praised over and over by Kim suddenly any semblance of consistency has been wiped away.

Dartmouth is in no way perfect. An outside perspective could be invaluable in improving our College. But the greatest strengths of this institution are its history, its tradition, its record of achievement and success. And it is particularly in this area that Kim, with few previous ties to Dartmouth or undergraduate education in general, has cited as among his weaknesses. By sweeping aside all of the old elements from his new administration, intentionally or not, Kim has embarked on potentially the most dangerous course in Dartmouth's (now underrepresented) history.

In his campus wide e-mail announcing Scherr's departure, Kim praised Scherr for reflecting "the finest traditions of Dartmouth" and thanked him for his "steady hand and tremendous service." How did, in just a few months, those very qualities become so drastically undervalued at Parkhurst? I worry that we'll find out soon.