Allen: Release the Records

Dartmouth must release detailed records of its operating budget for the sake of public transparency.

by Spencer Allen | 5/3/22 4:00am

It’s no secret that Dartmouth is practically swimming in cash: Our $8.5 billion endowment rivals many nation’s GDPs, and we have dished out an enormous sum of cash on recent capital improvement projects, such as the recently announced  $88 million allocated for renovating the Hopkins Center for the Arts. But aside from these public pronouncements, where exactly do we spend our money?

The College is nearly silent on the particulars of our operating budget. The most detail I could find on the particulars of the operating budget is the annual “Green Book,” which provides a summary of our annual budget and future projections. However, this document gives only a broad overview of the College’s revenue and spending streams.

At an institution where the cost of attendance exceeds $83,000 per year, Dartmouth must share exactly where its money comes from and how it is being spent.

Returning to the Green Book, the College should be more forthcoming with its revenues and expenses. Dartmouth gives some details — like the amount it collects from charging students and investments and how much it spends in its administrative divisions — but those details are not practical. Looking at the summary of student charges, undergraduates are billed $58,953 for tuition alone in the 2021-22 fiscal year. It stands to reason that a student’s tuition would go towards things like paying professors and staff members, paying utility bills and funding the libraries, just to name a few example categories. However, why students are charged precisely $58,953 for tuition across three terms is a mystery. The Green Book summarizes how revenues are spent — for example, 27% of “student aid” comes from the endowment — but these figures are on a relatively macro scale. How specific funds are spent is not well communicated in the Green Book; in other words, where students’ tuition or other charges are going is still mysterious.

Federal tax documents provide some added clarity. In a copy of the College’s Form 990 — filed annually by tax-exempt organizations like Dartmouth — published online by ProPublica for the 2020 fiscal year, anyone can see a list of the College’s revenues and expenditures in a host of categories. What’s more, the salaries of many of Dartmouth’s highest-paid officers — including President Phil Hanlon — are available for public review. This documentation is far more detailed than the Green Book, but a quick review of this form still does not paint a full picture of how the College spends its money. A complimentary audit of the College’s finances for the purpose of its federal award for fiscal year 2020 gives an incredibly detailed description of the federal money Dartmouth has received — and, since it lists this funding by source, we also get a sense of what research activities, like health research, are done at Dartmouth — but other financial activities lack such detail.

What could a more transparent future for Dartmouth’s finances look like? At its core, the College must prioritize transparency in its budgeting to the general public and especially its stakeholders — the students, alumni, employees and others who have stakes in the success of Dartmouth. This should include divulging where tuition dollars and other student fees go, what aspects of day-to-day life at Dartmouth are bankrolled by alumni donations and what investments the College has that constitute its endowment.

The administration can look to its own campus for suggestions of how to publicize its budget. Student Assembly publishes its budget online as a transparent way for the student body to see how the organization’s budget is managed. Student Assembly publishes a line-by-line list of its expenditures, which would be impractical for the College as a whole. However, Dartmouth can easily adapt the framework that Student Assembly uses to publish funding per academic and administrative department or project and from what pool of money those dollars are coming from.

Such transparency would also be unprecedented among Dartmouth’s peers. Among the Ivy League, all schools share roughly the same level of detail about their operating budgets or previous expenditures, though Cornell University does also publish a list of capital improvement projects they undertake. That said, none of our peer institutions publish such detailed records that  individuals can make sense of where tuition is spent or what the endowment could go to. Were Dartmouth to start publishing this level of detailed information about its budget, the College would be establishing a new precedent of transparency with its finances — and perhaps, this precedent would become a new set of best practices for colleges and universities nationwide.

Importantly, I am not suggesting that the individual salaries of all employees of the College should be posted publicly. While being so transparent could bea mechanism for individuals to advocate for higher salaries if they feel they are being underpaid,  this level of detail is likely be an invasion of privacy. Rather, the spirit of increasing transparency is to hold the College accountable, not to open each individual within Dartmouth to unfair scrutiny for their compensation.

Releasing more detailed records of Dartmouth’s finances is an important step to ensuring that the College is truly serving those it claims to. Additionally, this could be a worthwhile step for the College to take to rebuild trust after years of student mistrust in the administration. If Dartmouth keeps its financial statements behind a shroud of secrecy, it risks sowing distrust and a lack of understanding about the College’s operations in future students.

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