Verbum Ultimum: Academically Focused
Despite much recent discussion of social and residential life, Dartmouth’s primary mission is academic. As such, academics should be at the heart of President Phil Hanlon’s agenda over the coming months and years. Dartmouth’s core mission is about close faculty and student interaction, a focus on the liberal arts and a community that is engaged with the issues of the world. Experiential learning, interdisciplinary learning and practical skills such as entrepreneurship may stem from this mission, but they are not the mission. If Hanlon wants to enact true change that will allow Dartmouth to prosper, then we have three suggestions.
First, much like he did at Michigan, Hanlon should shake up the tenure process at Dartmouth. The president has a role in approving all tenure decisions. Recruiting and hiring incredible faculty is by far the most important thing he can do, since many faculty members’ tenures and influence will far exceed his own. To this end, we need to raise the bar regarding what it takes to attain tenure; this includes raising the expectations of research and teaching. It is no secret that the tenure process is more concerned with research than teaching. However, it is also no secret to students that the mediocre tenured scholars are, with amazing regularity, also the mediocre teachers. We believe that demanding more will have a positive impact on the quality of undergraduate instruction so long as the College continues to expect that its faculty excel at both. More importantly, academic departments should be encouraged to bring in already tenured faculty members from other institutions. As an example, many of the economics department’s top scholars are also its best teachers and were brought from other institutions, where they were previously tenured. Dartmouth had no qualms taking a new president, and it should have no qualms taking great faculty members.
Second, Hanlon should encourage many departments to rethink their approaches to introductory courses. It is time to recognize that Dartmouth is not innovative simply by having comparatively smaller introductory courses with faculty members rather than graduate students. Once a classes’ enrollment grows beyond a certain level — perhaps 30 or 40 students — the class is no longer small and, while it is better than 700, it is not innovative. One possible way to improve the situation would be to make Religion 1 the model for all introductory courses on campus. In this course, enrollment is capped at 70 students. Two faculty members with different specialties and approaches teach a class that focuses on concepts and analysis rather than facts. It is inspiring; it is dynamic. There are typically two lectures per week, as well as a discussion group section of fewer than 20 students with the faculty members. There are exams, papers and discussions. This is the type of introductory class that makes Dartmouth innovative and helps provide a great undergraduate academic experience. If more introductory classes could resemble Religion 1, the results would be miraculous.
Third, Hanlon could oversee a substantial improvement in the College’s study abroad programs. As we have previously argued, the main problem is not with the total quantity of opportunities to study abroad but rather the types of opportunities available. Hopefully Frank Guarini ’46’s generous gift will help provide the needed impetus for change.
While many of these specific issues are admittedly complicated, the overall problems are, in some ways, quite simple. Hanlon need not introduce anything that is flashy or new to be successful. Instead, simple improvements in the academic experience could have a major impact on the institution for years to come.