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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Brown: The Demise of a Mission

When then-College President John Dickey established the Tucker Foundation in 1951, he believed that liberal arts colleges like Dartmouth had a dual mission, to nurture both competence and conscience. He did not worry about the first half of that mission: “the appetite of self-interest,” he said, would ensure that students would pursue a path to competence. Conscience was another matter. Dickey believed that a good education required explicit attention to ethical and moral values. “To create the power of competence,” he wrote, “without creating a corresponding sense of moral direction to guide the use of that power is bad education.” Or as an early Dartmouth trustee, John Phillips, observed, “Goodness without knowledge ... is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous.” In July, Dartmouth announced that it would dismantle the Tucker Foundation, a change that makes the search for conscience, meaning and purpose more difficult at Dartmouth.

During its 63 years, Tucker had come to serve two missions — coordinating more than 25 student religious organizations and managing more than 40 community service programs. It also provided stipends to students pursuing domestic and international internships with not-for-profit organizations. The dual missions were never easy bedfellows. Campus ministers wanted to manage their own student outreach in their own way. Students who might otherwise have sought out social missions like Amnesty International or DREAM were sometimes confused by the religious aspect of the Tucker mission.

Leadership of Tucker has alternated between deans who came from a faith background and deans who did not. Although Tucker’s work continued, the messaging to both students and donors was muddled. In 2013, Dartmouth first extended and then rescinded an offer for the deanship to James Tengatenga, an Anglican bishop from Southern Malawi. This July, in the wake of the related controversy, Dartmouth administrators established in Tucker’s stead two centers — one to house the chaplaincy, the other to coordinate community service programs.

Is this an improvement? Leaders of community service programming may be happy to leave behind Tucker’s religious overtones, and faith groups may be happy with a devoted chaplain and separate institutional footing. But something important has been lost. Dickey hoped that Tucker would do more than become a home for religious practice and community service. He envisioned a focal point for introspection and conversation about social, moral and ethical values. He hoped the Dean would grab students by the collar and ask them where they are going and why. He wanted to prod students to seek life’s meaning, not just greater means.

Last month, the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek featured the pictures of eight Harvard-educated billionaires. The accompanying story described a highly successful business built around the practice of grooming children for admission to elite universities as a ticket to financial success — not intellectual development. Clearly, the prospect of wealth has become the goal of an increasing proportion of students seeking entrance to elite colleges, and businesses have found a burgeoning market among parents willing and able to pay for that advantage.

Like Dickey, I am confident that self-interest will drive our students to seek an education that leads to financial success. But as American higher education faces a crisis of cost, I wonder whether it faces a more serious crisis of purpose. Why are we educating our youth? To what end? Yes, we want to produce competent business leaders, but is that all? Is that, in Dickey’s words, a “good” education? When, in the course of four years, do we ask students to consider their purpose?

A chaplaincy will help students of faith find a spiritual home. A community service and service learning center will help students find a social cause and perhaps educate them on social needs. These are important and meaningful missions, but I worry that they will become eddies that students will too easily avoid. The Tucker Foundation was meant to be a boulder in the middle of the current with the voice of its namesake, William Jewett Tucker, calling out, “you will not make any lasting ... impression on the world through intellectual power without the use of an equal amount of conscience and heart.” It was this message that infused the Foundation’s mission: to help students question the purpose of their education and the meaning of their lives.

Scott Brown ’78 is a former dean of the Tucker Foundation.