Trustees' letter reflects alumni views

by Laura Bryn Sisson | 11/18/10 11:00pm

Citing recent improvements in undergraduate education, the budget, freedom of speech on campus and attitudes toward the Greek system, trustees T.J. Rodgers '70 and Peter Robinson '79 wrote an open letter praising the efforts of College President Jim Yong Kim addressed to the readers of Dartblog, a blog maintained by Joe Malchow '08 that has previously been critical of College policies.

The letter appears to be indicative of a broader trend among alumni, who have continued to express support for Kim even as criticism has been launched from various other quarters in the Dartmouth community. Alumni who previously disagreed on the College administration's effectiveness have generally resolved their past differences in support of Kim's administration, several alumni interviewed by The Dartmouth said.

In their Nov. 7 letter, Rodgers and Robinson praised Kim's accomplishments and his successful resolution of College issues they had criticized in the past.

In their campaigns for their Board seats both trustees were elected as petition candidates Rodgers and Robinson presented concerns about maintaining Dartmouth's identity as a liberal arts college as opposed to "a university in all but name," the letter said, borrowing a phrase former College President James Wright once used to describe Dartmouth. They advocated reining in the College's budget, promoting free speech at the College and increasing College support for Greek organizations and athletic programs all problems for which they criticized Wright, but found no similar concerns under Kim.

Administrators have recently shown a commitment to the undergraduate experience by expanding the size of the faculty in popular departments and expanding opportunities for research, according to Rodgers and Robinson.

The two trustees won their seats in 2004 and 2005, respectively, garnering in the process a public image as "insurgent" candidates who were willing to criticize the College administration, The Dartmouth previously reported.

"Research opportunities, class loads, the growth of graduate programs all have been reexamined with an eye to making certain they enrich the entire institution, including the undergraduate program," they wrote in their recent letter.

College attitudes towards Greek organizations which have been refocused on student safety rather than on punitive measures are no longer serious concerns for Rodgers and Robinson, they wrote.

They also pointed to this summer's hiring of Athletic Director Harry Sheehy and the addition of new athletic buildings as examples of the College's current commitment to its athletic programs.

Scott Safadi '03, treasurer of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni of Silicon Valley, echoed the pair's view. Kim is commendable for continuing to emphasize College athletics, Safadi said in an interview.

Kim's fast and effective cuts to the budget addressed longstanding concerns about Dartmouth's overspending and tackled the immediate drop in the endowment, Rodgers and Robinson wrote.

Tom Peisch '70, the president of the Alumni Council, also pointed to Kim's work on the budget problem as an example of his effectiveness as a leader.

Alumni interviewed by The Dartmouth said they had noticed changes in both policy and atmosphere since Kim's appointment that had alleviated former concerns.

"I shared some of [Rodgers' and Robinson's] concerns, absolutely," Jim McVay '74 said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "[But] I was more concerned about the nature of the dissent and how acrimonious it was, as opposed to let's all figure it out and move forward.'"

The polarity among petition candidates drove apart the alumni body, but Kim has balanced concerns and quieted dissent, Jethro Rothe-Kushel '03, president of the Dartmouth Club of Los Angeles, said in an interview.

The source of Kim's accomplishments, according to former Alumni Council member Martha Hartfiel '83, lies in the new team of administrators he brought to Dartmouth.

"I think the alumni thought, New people, new start, clean slate,'" she said.

Although Hartfiel said she observed "thinly veiled suspicion" of the administration's direction among some alumni groups before Kim joined the College, "the changeover of key positions turned the tide."

Speaking about the positive changes he has seen, McVay said that Kim's appointments of College officials, in addition to the personal efforts he has made, have likely had a great impact on the College.

"I know he must have delegated, but he's probably darn good at delegating, too," he said.

Former Association of Alumni President Bill Hutchinson '76 said he did not agree with the concerns to which Rodgers and Robinson pointed in their letter.

"I don't see things the same way as those two trustees," Hutchinson said. "I thought the College was doing extremely well [under Wright] and has moved into a new phase with the new leadership, which has been a good successor to what came before and is putting Dartmouth in a good position."

The letter acknowledged that Wright removed from Dartmouth's website "a document that many interpreted as a de facto speech [limitation] code," and commended Kim for upholding free speech and constructive debate in his first Board meeting.

Peisch said he disagreed with Rodgers and Robinson's interpretations of administration policies.

"I frankly never thought there was any kind of speech code at Dartmouth College," Peisch said. "I never thought the administration was hostile to the Greek system or the athletic program. I never thought there was any lack of focus on undergraduate education."

Yet some alumni remain who disagree with the current direction of College policies and leadership.

Frequent Dartblog contributor and former Board petition candidate Joe Asch '79 wrote on Nov. 9 that Kim should focus his attention on improving undergraduate education by addressing oversubscribed classes and increasing the number of faculty members in certain departments.

"A few new professors here and there will not do the deal," Asch wrote on Dartblog.

Asch was defeated in the most recent Board of Trustees election, losing to Alumni Council-nominated Trustee John Replogle '88.

In his speeches, Kim has hinted at a focus on research and grant-garnering, which indicate a troubling, university-like direction for the College, Frank Gado '58, a former member of the Association of Alumni Executive Board, said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

"During this recent recession, the [College] president said greater emphasis would be placed on faculty members getting grants," Gado said. "That is certainly a university model of operation The government is not funding research because it's going to improve undergraduate teaching it's funding research because it wants to find out how many left-handed crickets there are."

Although research is important, faculty-student relationships in the classroom are the foundation of a good undergraduate education, Gado said.

Gado also said that Kim equates the liberal arts with studio arts, referring to an Oct. 9 speech in which Kim stated that the liberal arts were essential to Dartmouth's identity.

"When the president talks about liberal arts in terms that apply to studio arts, that's a basic confusion, and a dangerous one," Gado said.

Support of the liberal arts through funding is not necessarily a statement of an undergraduate-oriented atmosphere, as such funding can go towards new technology and research instead of to the interpersonal classroom, according to Gado.

But according to McVay, a broad, world-based focus as shown by Kim's experience and concern with global health does not detract from the College's liberal arts identity.

"Dartmouth can be big in terms of its impact [on the world] without it being a university," McVay said.

According to Rothe-Kushel, alumni approve of the support for the arts that has increased under Kim's administration.

Though critiques themselves are acceptable, the critiques of Kim published on Dartblog cross a line of productivity, according to Association of Alumni President John Mathias '69.

"The letter was addressed to readers of Dartblog, which is authored by a guy who's a well-known critic of the Dartmouth administration, who repeatedly takes aim at Kim with cheap shots, all the time," Mathias said. "Whether the letter was directed to him or not, I can't say."

Rodgers and Robinson asked in the letter that alumni express any disagreements with Kim, but in a constructive manner.

"Let's extend to [Kim] the goodwill that a president who has already done a great deal for the College surely deserves," they wrote.

Kim was cited personally as a galvanizing and unifying force even among alumni of disparate opinions, several alumni told The Dartmouth.

"I think Kim has got a broad base of support from the alumni that I'm aware of and have spoken to," Hutchinson said.

Regardless of cause, alumni said that they had noticed a shift towards more positive attitudes about the College in general since Kim's appointment.

"We're in a new era of all alumni being united and behind the new president," Peisch said.

Some groups will inevitably feel disenfranchised within the College community, but that group is smaller at this time than it has ever been before, Steve Faber '82, president of the Dartmouth Club of the Midwest, said. Despite discord and disagreements, student satisfaction with Dartmouth remains high, he said.