de Guardiola: Priorities Askew

The College needs to shift its focus back to its undergraduates.

by Mercedes de Guardiola | 9/20/16 12:15am

Dartmouth has often been touted as one of the leading schools for undergraduate teaching in the United States, as it should be: in many other leading institutions, rarely does one find a noted professor teaching undergraduate students, much less is it the norm across classes. At Dartmouth, prospective students and parents can rest assured that their classes will likely be small, their professors will be present and participation will be held to a rigorous standard. Thus, if anything, Dartmouth’s drop in the recent U.S. News & World Report 2016 ranking of the best undergraduate teaching institutions from second to seventh should be read as one of many indicators of problems with the current administration’s policies.

It is easy to look at the rankings and assume that the drop isn’t dramatic. After all, Dartmouth did rise from 12th to 11th in the past year for overall education. Small shifts in rankings are to be expected — it would be boring, not to mention a little strange, for each school to maintain the exact same ranking from year to year. However, while the overall rankings are based on a multitude of factors, the best undergraduate teaching ranking — in which we have now dropped to seventh — relies on only one: peer reviews from leading college administrators across the country.

In the time that College President Phil Hanlon has been at the College, Dartmouth has lost its once steely grip on the number one spot for undergraduate teaching in U.S. News, falling to fourth in 2014. While we rebounded slightly to second in 2015, we currently hold the not-as-illustrious seventh ranking for 2016. Since this ranking is based not on such factors as average class size or teacher-to-student ratio but, rather, on reviews from college administrators who presumably communicate with their peers at Dartmouth, it gives credence to an idea that’s been gaining traction for the past few years: Dartmouth is moving away from its focus on undergraduate teaching.

Hanlon’s tenure has been marked by numerous initiatives supposedly designed to bolster the school. In examining these initiatives, however, a question arises: are these actually improving the College’s main strength as an institution of undergraduate education?

In the past few years, students have seen such changes as the implementation of Moving Dartmouth Forward policy initiative and the new house communities system and the establishment of the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, just to name a few. Most recently, Hanlon announced the creation of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society, which raises questions of its own given that it aims to study energy problems while being funded by $80 million of oil money. We often hear words like “diversity” and “inclusion,” and we get numerous announcements about new deans and administrative positions — but missing from the administration’s conversation around these initiatives is how they will definitively improve student learning and, moreover, continue to improve and support our undergraduate faculty.

Last year, the administration’s own campus climate survey showed that 69 percent of tenure-track faculty have seriously considered leaving the college. A recent survey from this document revealed that 71.2 percent of students surveyed disapproved of how Hanlon has handled his job as president of Dartmouth. While American colleges are traditionally a place of protest, the mood on this campus is not just the normal college disquiet: there is a serious undercurrent of dissatisfaction and anger, and the administration needs to take note instead of pursuing new initiatives that put band-aids on deeper problems and do little to address existing issues.

Currently, faculty compensation is 6.8 percent lower at Dartmouth than the average compensation at U.S. News Top 20 Schools. In 1999, the Board of Trustees voted to remedy this issue — which has since only gotten worse. Adequate housing, for both faculty and students, is also an issue. Combined with the lack of competitive pay, the lack of affordable housing around the College for faculty makes teaching here a hard sell to both current and prospective faculty. While a study would be needed to examine the issue for students, anecdotally, I’ve had numerous friends who were unable to get housing with the College and struggled to find off-campus housing within walking distance, as it normally needs to be arranged months before you can even apply for campus housing. I myself had issues getting housing for sophomore fall. Fortunately, the school does guarantee housing for freshmen and sophomores, and my roommate and I ended up being placed in a random room just two weeks before the term started.

Instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money on house swag that looks like it could from a fake Harry Potter shop, the administration should put that money towards the $5.4 million it would take to close the compensation gap between Dartmouth and our peers­— one of only many changes that would need to happen if we are to make Dartmouth the most attractive school for undergraduate professors. To reaffirm its commitment to undergraduates, the administration should reinstate Convocation, the prime symbol of our place as an institute of higher learning.

If we can raise money for “cluster hires” and bulking up the administration, surely the school can start a fundraising campaign to build a new dorm on campus — and name it after an oil giant without raising questions of academic integrity and impartiality — to ease the student housing problem. If the administration really can’t let go of their initiatives, a unique one would be to invest in a program to bring guest professors to campus during sophomore summer so that sophomores would truly be able to take once-in-a-lifetime classes and not be required to pay full tuition for a term with only mediocre course options. These are just some of the issues facing our undergraduate program — though at the very least, surely someone could have created an initiative to come up with better house names.

If there’s anything harder than making it to the top, it’s staying there. Even as one of the top undergraduate teaching institutions in the country, there are serious issues on campus that could and need to be resolved to create an even better institute of higher learning. Dartmouth is an undergraduate institution first and foremost, and the administration should look carefully at its commitment to undergraduate teaching and what it can do to continue and even improve that tradition of excellence before what are now surmountable problems become insurmountable.