Teszler: For Dartmouth, A Call to Lead
Though Dartmouth has been tremendously successful in raising money, what’s the point if the funds aren’t used to help students?
Earlier this month, Dartmouth announced a 46.5% return on its endowment, which reached an eyebrow-raising total value of $8.5 billion. This windfall, after a year of slashed study abroad programs and library closures, seemed to embarrass the College into action. Dartmouth immediately announced an increase to the student minimum wage, bonuses for employees and grad students, and more generous financial aid policies.
But this smattering of monetary relief measures undersells the transformative potential of such a large sum of money, while also obscuring a long-term trend of cuts and deficits in basic services like housing. Given that its endowment grows by the hundreds of millions yearly, Dartmouth should articulate a bolder vision for how its money can transform the student experience — one that centers a more financially-accessible campus focused on the needs of its students.
Under College President Phil Hanlon’s leadership (or lack thereof), Dartmouth seems content with an unacceptable status quo in which the student experience remains stagnant while both tuition and the endowment rise to ever-larger heights. Today, Dartmouth’s price tag sits at over $80,000 per year, $6,000 larger, even after accounting for inflation, than the first full year of Hanlon’s tenure (the unadjusted increase was $17,000). Have students really gotten a better experience proportional to this extra expense? One of Hanlon’s major measures, the implementation of the housing communities, failed to change daily life for the vast majority of students and totally missed the problem. We didn’t need house communities — we just needed more housing, period. Hanlon and his administration have also notably neglected other major issues such as mental health, which was only given real attention after a combination of high-profile tragedies and student activism made it impossible not to respond.
There has really only been one area in which the College has excelled this last decade — fundraising, in large part through the $3 billion “Call to Lead” capital campaign. To be sure, a lot of this money has been put to good ends, such as increasing financial aid. The Call to Lead campaign also has secured more funding for research, helping restore our status as an R1 school. Yet in spite of the campaign’s lofty goals of promoting our “distinctive education model” and educating “wise leaders,” the vast majority of Dartmouth students do not seem to be experiencing improved conditions on the ground. Indeed, ratings for the administration’s performance are abysmal –– after all, it’s hard to appreciate Dartmouth’s “incomparable student experience” when you don’t receive housing, have to skip meals due to long lines or struggle to get support for mental health.
A truly inspiring vision would be to center student needs and input — a “Call to Community,” if you will. I don’t want to rehash everything wrong with Dartmouth that has been brought up over these past years — what’s wrong, from housing to mental health to an overall lack of understanding for students, is evident. What we need is a plan that actually focuses on the community the College purports to serve: students.
A College focused on an inclusive community would look different in a few key ways. It would demonstrate how it values staff, student worker and all those who make the Dartmouth experience possible by paying better wages and improving working conditions. Yes, we raised our minimum wage to $11.50 an hour — but this is still $1.05 lower than the $12.55 minimum wage our neighboring state of Vermont plans to implement in 2022. A more inclusive community would make the basic needs of students, such as housing and food, the highest priority — rather than falling back on Band-Aid fixes like lotteries or signs asking people not to eat at certain times. It would preserve and expand upon the services students most value about Dartmouth, not defund libraries and study abroad programs. Most of all, it would make the full Dartmouth experience open to all, regardless of cost, and try to avoid increasing tuition whenever possible — especially during times of hardship, like a pandemic. All of this would require more spending to fund higher wages, keep certain spaces in operation and make up for tuition freezes. But with our endowment now at over $1.3 million per student and hundreds of millions in donations flowing in each year, this extra spending should not be a problem.
Yes, I acknowledge that this approach contradicts the way Dartmouth and other institutions of higher education have traditionally managed their endowments — they operate with an eye on the long term, viewing their endowments as sources of security guaranteeing their ability to operate for generations to come. By managing for “200-400 years” down the line, however, it is inevitable that Dartmouth and other top-tier institutions will miss so much wrong going on today. The truth is, we can do both. We can continue to grow our endowment, albeit at a slower rate (say, a few points above inflation), and spend more of our returns every year. It’s just the mindset which needs to shift.
So, Dartmouth, take a page from your own campaign and actually lead. Prove that this school is worthy of the prestige and price it commands, but more importantly, put your students at the center of a new campaign, building the College up as an inclusive community focused on student needs. Bold action isn’t impossible — for instance, in 2019, NYU medical school went tuition free, which was followed by a surge in applications. The elimination of tuition required a special round of fundraising, so Dartmouth might need another fundraising campaign to implement things like tuition freezes and expedite new housing. But this should hardly be a problem, given Hanlon’s fundraising prowess. Some institution somewhere may finally change the troubling status quo in higher education — why shouldn’t it be Dartmouth?