Rodgers: The Best of Both Worlds

A focus on graduate studies helps undergraduates — and Dartmouth overall.

by Kyla Rodgers | 4/27/17 12:40am

The editorial “Resurrect the Liberal Arts” by The Dartmouth’s editorial board misses the mark in its call to “return to what Dartmouth does best,” leading readers to believe that Dartmouth has become focused on its graduate programs to the detriment of undergraduate education and satisfaction. The article points to the recent establishment of the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies and cites declining senior satisfaction, application rates and senior class gift participation as evidence for this conclusion. However, the board failed to consider other plausible explanations for these phenomena.

Even a cursory glance at the results of the biannual survey since 2000 shows that the decline in senior satisfaction is not as dire as the article indicated. The percent of satisfied seniors has remained relatively stable — hovering around 90 percent reporting “generally” or “very satisfied” — with the Class of 2010 being a significant outlier. While last week’s article leads its readers to believe that the results from the Classes of 2014 and 2016 reflect increasing dissatisfaction with the direction of Dartmouth, they more accurately represent a return to a baseline. Further investigation into the reason behind high satisfaction and financial gift-giving rates among the Class of 2010 is warranted in order to recapitulate these outcomes among current and future students.

The editorial board points to the decline in senior class gift giving as a metric for undergraduate satisfaction at Dartmouth. While the drop is quite drastic and may be partly impacted by bias against the current administration, other factors should be considered, such as an increase in student debt over the past few years. According to The Dartmouth’s own reporting last year, the Class of 2016 graduated with an average student loan burden of $23,939.80, up from the $18,712 figured cited by StateImpact New Hampshire in 2014. A negative view of the price of higher education may also be adversely impacting the senior class gift campaign. The zeitgeist of 2017 is simply not comparable to that of 2010. When taking this into consideration, the operationalization of gift giving as a measure of student approval of the College’s direction is unsound. Furthermore, any linkage between low approval and the existence of the graduate programs is speculative without survey data that addresses the matter.

The board implies that declining application numbers also indicate disapproval directed at the College’s supposed focus on graduate over undergraduate programs. Again, this argument does not hold water. As The Dartmouth pointed out itself, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania both saw substantial increases in applications over recent years. Both institutions have top-notch graduate programs and offer undergraduate programs in the liberal arts tradition. If the existence of graduate programs at an institution were truly a deterrent for those seeking a liberal arts training option, then how does one explain these increases? Something else could be at play, such as any number of highly publicized mishaps surrounding Greek life on campus in recent years. It is well established that negative press about a college often results in an immediate short-term drop in its applicant pool.

The article also fails to provide proper historical context. Though the designation of GRAD as a freestanding school is new, graduate and professional programs are not; its previous iteration, the Office of Graduate Studies, was founded in 1885. The medical school — now Geisel School of Medicine — is the fourth oldest in the country, founded a mere 28 years after the undergraduate college. Thayer School of Engineering was founded in 1867 and Tuck School of Business in 1900. Although Dartmouth has maintained the “College” moniker, it has been a de facto university for well over a century. Through this historical lens, the proposed relationship between the graduate programs and the declining numbers of undergraduate applications is clearly a red herring. Dartmouth cannot be considered a small liberal arts college because of these longstanding elements; it is a small research university. Nor should Dartmouth eschew its identity in favor of a liberal arts college designation, for the coexistence of a strong liberal arts undergraduate track and the graduate programs in an intimate setting are what make it special. In this light, it is unfortunate that the article dichotomizes the Dartmouth experience as an “either-or” choice, presenting the ultimatum that “if they [the Class of 2021] want a pure research university, there are many schools that fulfill that role, while those who want a pure liberal arts college should vocalize that desire.” Instead, those accepted to the Class of 2021 at Dartmouth get to experience the best of both liberal arts education and cutting-edge research.

Dartmouth offers an environment ripe for interdisciplinary collaboration. Revolutionary ideas do not come from intellectual compartmentalization but rather from the integration of multiple disciplines. This idea is supported by Nobel Laureate Thomas Südhof, who told a group of Dartmouth graduate students during his visit to campus in September 2016 that his discoveries would not have been possible without an interdisciplinary approach. Dartmouth’s small size readily lends itself to the kind of interdepartmental partnerships required to promote paradigm-shifting research and theoretical work across all disciplines. Large research universities are borrowing from the liberal arts model, attempting to construct bridges between departments that have been historically segregated, because their administrations recognize the impact of the work that comes from it. Here, that structure exists organically. A good example is the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, which has fostered startup companies founded by undergraduates, graduate students and faculty alike with the aid of Tuck expertise.

Critically, it is because of the existence of graduate students that Dartmouth is, as the editorial board put it, “resource rich.” These resources, particularly those in the sciences, cannot be maintained for continued undergraduate use without a graduate and professional student body. Graduate students are the driving force behind research and having graduate and professional programs at Dartmouth allows undergraduates the opportunity to be part of the cutting-edge in their respective fields. Additionally, graduate students are future leaders in their fields. An academic institution that does not invest in training the next generation of academic leaders necessarily relies on other institutions to generate its future and seals its own destiny as a follower, but one that is equally committed to undergraduate and graduate education can be self-sustaining, easily shape its own direction, empower its network of leaders and influence future discoveries and policies.

Postsecondary education is at a critical point in its history, facing mounting criticism for skyrocketing cost and its perceived inability to prepare students for the real world. Stuck between a commitment to the core values of learning for its own sake and the pressure to eliminate the “college bubble” and expose students to real world phenomena, institutions of higher learning must be innovative in their pedagogy if they are to survive.

Dartmouth is uniquely qualified to be a leader in revolutionizing the postsecondary model in the United States — if only it has the vision to recognize and capitalize on that potential. Dartmouth has the ability to better connect its undergraduates with the cutting-edge work done by graduate students because of its small size. If Dartmouth commits fully to both the liberal arts and the graduate and professional programs, it will achieve the synergy between intellectualism and professional preparation that many modern students seek. If Dartmouth blazes this trail rather than hanging on to a false “liberal arts college” identity, it will once again see application numbers rise. But to do so, the College needs to cast off the pall of reticence reflected in the editorial board’s call to “Resurrect the Liberal Arts.”

Rodgers is a Ph.D. candidate in the program in experimental molecular medicine and is the current president of the Graduate Student Council.

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