Teachable Moments

by Isaiah Berg '11 | 11/16/09 11:00pm

In a recent interview with The Dartmouth about faculty reaction to the College's impending budget cuts ("College leaders to face profs' budget concerns" Nov. 6), mathematics professor Dan Rockmore, chair of the Committee on Priorities, said that economically vulnerable employees of the College should not be disproportionately affected. Speaking following College President Jim Yong Kim's October address to the faculty, English professor Donald Pease went so far as to argue that the definition of a liberal arts education is to deliver services to people in need in the midst of social change. Pease, therefore, said that the College should take the lead in bringing people back to work, despite the example of our peer institutions. Does this square with your definition of a liberal arts education?

Pease's statement seems to define one interpretation of social justice: that out of compassion for the vulnerable, and out of recognition for the privilege we enjoy as students and members of this Dartmouth community, we should end the layoffs and even reinstate the unemployed. Any "definition" of a liberal arts education may be up for debate, but I think one could find consensus that a liberal arts education is centered upon close-knit community, interaction in an exchange of ideas, dynamic learning and critical thinking skills that prepare students for a future of bold leadership and citizenship. Pease's definition simply does not hold water. Although I firmly believe in the virtue of caring for the poor and vulnerable, his educational prescription for Dartmouth does not resemble the kind of leadership required of our world's current leaders or innovators, outside of the reality-burdened halls of academia.

The decisions that President Kim and his administration will have to make in the coming months and years are part of a crucial learning experience for Dartmouth students. President Kim has made clear that budget cuts will not be uniform "across the board," but something, somewhere, has to give. Dartmouth students, faculty and administrators will see the effects of these cuts and the implicit prioritization that accompanies them. Some great employees and assets in our Dartmouth community will be let go, not out of some degrading rejection of their value, but as the product of fiduciary responsibility. With students involved in a transparent process, Kim's budget cuts can inject principle into a painful decision and create the opportunity for learning in a time of difficulty.

Pease attempted to frame this time of financial challenge within the social responsibility of the College. However, Dartmouth's social responsibility is not bound up in the employment of the Upper Valley (which enjoys an unemployment rate less than half that of the nation's). Our social responsibility is to offer the very best liberal arts education to the very best students, with the hope that those students can then proceed to do the good work of leaders and citizens in the communities of our world. If we cannot justify or afford one or 100 extra secretaries, maintenance workers, deans or directors, our leadership has to be willing to make the hard choices that students cannot. It sets a strong example and provides a learning opportunity for Dartmouth students who will someday be involved in those same hiring and firing decisions, from both sides of the table.

Consider, for a moment, how the U.S. economy permanently eliminates 15 million jobs in a typical year in a process of creative destruction. All businesses, institutions and people must be prepared to live in such a world, replete with its economic realities. Respecting and valuing the person being laid off, while making that hard and necessary decision, is a better manifestation of the liberal arts education. Dartmouth has demonstrated much of this with a policy of internal hires and unemployment benefits that help people move on with dignity and security.

Let's hope that the greater Dartmouth community can recognize and respect the human face of our budgetary decisions, while bringing our administrative employment, compensation and programs firmly in line with not only our values, but also our means. If our leadership fails to make these difficult moves such as layoffs in bloated offices, reductions in perks and outsized benefits, or the elimination of balkanized services or programs Dartmouth students will suffer. Professor Pease's sort of preservation reeks of rot, and it is up to the Dartmouth community to know the difference.

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