Verbum Ultimum: In Faculty We Trust

For the housing system to survive, Dartmouth must trust its faculty.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/28/17 12:45am

Dartmouth’s new housing system was designed to encourage safer, more stable communities within campus. Yet professor Jane Hill’s recent dismissal from her position as Allen House professor belies a sense of shakiness in this new system. With two of the six initial house professors now gone — North Park House professor Ryan Calsbeek stepped down this past fall — Dartmouth is going against its stated mission to provide strong communal bonds between the students and faculty.

While Calsbeek’s resignation seemed to have been voluntary, Hill’s resignation was anything but. Hill noted in a recent interview with The Dartmouth that she was surprised by Dean of the College Rebecca Biron’s decision to dismiss her. Hill said that she did not understand “why the reasons given equaled to being let go.” According to Hill, such reasons included not responding to two emails, missing four or five House Council meetings during the fall, failing to remove a word from a flyer for Allen House and reaching out to the Center for Professional Development against Biron’s instructions.

Of course, there may be more reasons for dismissal that Hill neglected to discuss. Since Biron has not yet commented on specifics, we are working only with Hill’s version of events. Since such matters are generally confidential, we may never hear all sides to the story.

But who are students more likely to believe — a faculty member who has spent the past year interacting directly with her house community or the administrator whose name and face we rarely see? In such a scenario, the faculty always wins students’ trust. In our daily lives, we see consistent and abundant evidence that faculty members care for us, whether through the office hours they hold or the passion with which they teach their classes. Yet we rarely interact with administrators, and when we do, much of the interaction is frustratingly bureaucratic — even setting up meetings with deans can be difficult.

Dartmouth’s housing communities’ rapid turnover of faculty leadership is not just harmful for the stability of each individual community affected; it is also harmful for the administration’s standing with students, despite Biron’s assertion that “staff turnover is to be expected in the beginning stages of any enterprise as dynamic and complex as Dartmouth’s house system.” Students and alumni criticize Dartmouth for its administrative bloat — over the past few years, Dartmouth’s administrative staff has grown by a rate more than double that of the faculty, and there are currently 3,335 administrative staff on the College’s payroll compared to just 930 faculty.

By pitting themselves against the faculty — as ambiguous dismissals inevitably do — administrators are bound to perpetuate the idea of administrative bloat and overreach. There may be legitimate privacy concerns that prevent administrators from specifying clear reasons for such dismissals, but without similar levels of direct interactions with students, administrators who fail to explicate their actions clearly harm the College in the eyes of its students.

With over 20 applications for six house professor positions submitted in 2015, Dartmouth had its pick of some of the College’s most dedicated professors. Seeing one-third of the professors originally selected leave the position is a warning sign to students that their communities’ stability is less important to the College than administrative control over their minute workings. Dartmouth has bungled the roll-out for College President Phil Hanlon’s signature housing initiative, and administrators are quickly losing students’ trust.

If Dartmouth truly wants to develop the deep relationships between students and staff that it touted on “Founders Day” last year, it needs to trust its faculty first. Dartmouth hires smart, capable professors; the ones who were accepted to lead the new housing communities are not just leaders in their fields but also well-liked by students. The administration needs to step back and allow professors to do what they excel at: connecting and interacting with students.

While we would like to call for complete transparency in hiring and dismissals, especially when professors’ stories don’t match up with the College’s, we are aware of transparency’s limitations. But we hope to remind the administration where students’ allegiance really lies: with the faculty, not the administrators. If the College realizes the value of building faculty-administrator bonds, trusting faculty more — not using a few missed meetings or typos as reasons for dismissing capable and passionate professors — and using their connections to gain student trust, Dartmouth can regain stability within the house communities and continue its push toward a more inclusive campus.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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