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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Alsheikh: Lest the New President Fail

For the sake of the College on the Hill, the incoming Beilock administration must work within existing Dartmouth traditions to create change.

This article is featured in the 2023 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

Commencement is a time for reflecting on the past and considering the future, and this is as true for the rest of the College as it is for the graduating seniors. I want to take a moment to make a statement about our Dear Old Dartmouth: Our College is at a crossroads.

Stuck between the pandemic and a new College President, our College is potentially positioned for a radical change to its core identity. We have seen old traditions get lost during the pandemic, with students expressing concern over the slow recovery of campus culture after COVID-19. The pandemic hit when Dartmouth was already undergoing a significant transformation: Hanlon’s modernization of the College, mainly through the Call to Lead campaign. The desire to make Dartmouth into a more traditional research institution led to the expansion of the graduate schools, investments in the school’s STEM programs and the construction of the Engineering and Computer Science Center. Because of Hanlon’s efforts, Dartmouth is more competitive, more well-recognized, more “modern” than ever before, and the incoming Beilock administration will be in a position to build upon these changes – but at what cost?

Dartmouth is defined by its respect for tradition and history. Our College’s ethos, our basic value system, is rooted in the idea that we have a unique past which we must celebrate, even as we must adapt to new conditions. That celebration of our past is what gives Dartmouth its fundamental character as the “College on the Hill,” something more than just another New England university. Yet, with both COVID-19 and administrative pressure eroding College culture, one must be concerned over how this “Dartmouth-ness” will be preserved for future classes. At this crucial juncture in the history of Dartmouth, I would like to offer the Beilock administration a new framework from which to approach modernization: working within traditions, rather than against them.

To preserve the Dartmouth ethos, I suggest that the incoming administration should prioritize re-imagining existing systems over creating new ones. This strategy isn’t directed at any specific issue, but rather is aimed to be a general strategy for approaching Dartmouth traditions and campus culture. While our College is in need of change, it need not come at the expense of Dartmouth’s uniqueness.

For instance, take the undergraduate-focused, liberal arts nature of Dartmouth. In attempting to make Dartmouth more competitive nationally, the Hanlon administration joined the Association of American Universities (“a consortium of leading research institutions”), expanded funding for the graduate schools while cutting funds from the Library system, disbanded the Education department, closed the Kresge Physical Sciences and Paddock Music Libraries, founded the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy with millions of dollars from Big Oil, and even considered expanding the student body by up to 25%. To quote a 2017 Verbum Ultimum, “[it] appears clear that the College is attempting to play a game of ‘big university’ alongside its Ivy League peers.”

This is a clear example of the administration attempting to work outside of the traditional Dartmouth framework, which is that of the small, undergraduate-focused liberal arts school. Such efforts have failed to bring about the “modernization” that the Hanlon administration so desperately desires: trying to play the big university game hasn’t given us any edge over the competition. As that same 2017 Verbum Ultimum notes, Dartmouth’s application numbers, senior satisfaction, administration approval, and senior donations all dropped noticeably in that period, despite the fact that our Ivy League peers were doing well on these statistics. 

Instead of working outside the existing Dartmouth framework, let the incoming administration embrace the liberal arts as a tradition of Dartmouth. Focus on bringing in more faculty, supporting undergraduates to do more research, expanding course offerings in interdisciplinary fields like the digital humanities, capitalizing on Dartmouth’s legacy in artificial intelligence, creating opportunities for undergraduates in the graduate schools and so on. Actions like these help to make Dartmouth more appealing from the outside, while simultaneously staying true to tradition and our identity. There are so many ways we can make Dartmouth more competitive, more selective and more “modern” without sacrificing basic qualities of our beloved College. If we work within the core identity of Dartmouth, we can make strides towards a better future for our College — without destroying Dartmouth heritage.

As a slightly less academic example of how we can apply the aforementioned strategy, consider the example of Greek life. So far, efforts to limit the historically-influential presence of Greek life at Dartmouth have failed miserably. Hanlon’s administration launched the housing system as an alternative space to Greek life, sorting undergraduates into one of six randomly-assigned housing communities. Yet, this system has failed to curtail Greek life’s serious problems with alcoholism, misogyny and racism. The housing system has also failed to create any sort of student excitement, with 73% of undergraduates in 2020 disagreeing with the statement, “I feel a strong sense of community with those in my House.” The end result has been a shallow, corporate residential system that feels more like a cheap copy of Yale University than an authentic expression of Dartmouth’s culture.

Applying our new principle of re-imagining existing systems, a much better solution to Greek life’s problems would be creating a greater diversity of Greek houses on campus, giving students a range of house cultures to choose from instead of subverting the very tradition itself. Houses like Phi Tau, Alpha Theta and the newly returned Omega Psi Phi are great examples of houses which can accommodate diverse backgrounds, identities and cultures. These types of houses create spaces within the Greek system for alternatives to the stereotypical drink-and-party fraternity lifestyle, and simultaneously open up Greek life to traditionally underrepresented members of the student body. The College should devote more resources to the Office of Greek Life, which could then equip student leaders with the support to create new Greek spaces that enrich the existing culture and add to diversity. 

After all, both Greek life and the liberal arts are Dartmouth traditions, and although they have flaws, like all other traditions they are a fundamental part of what makes Dartmouth itself. 

This brings me back to my main point: the incoming administration should approach campus culture by asking how it can be reimagined or revitalized, and not fundamentally changed. The principle of “re-imaging existing systems” can be applied to many other aspects of campus — upholding the College’s duty towards Native Americans, improving our national reputation, strengthening alumni relations, revitalizing Winter Carnival and so on. At an institution with such a rich history and heritage as Dartmouth, we cannot afford to abandon that which has made the first 250 years of the College on the hill so special. This is the approach that I urge the incoming administration to take.

We need change, innovation and new solutions to old problems, but we cannot and must not make Dartmouth into just another Ivy League school. We are not just a university, and we are certainly not Harvard, Yale or (God-forbid) Princeton — nor should we be. No, we are the College on the hill, the voice crying out into the wilderness: “It is a small college, yet there are those who love it.” We are what Eisenhower thinks a college should look like, as beautiful as a poem from Robert Frost and as goofy as a book from Dr. Seuss. Raised by the hill-wind and granite of New Hampshire, our College has spirit — a spirit that each previous generation of Dartmouth sons and daughters has carefully guarded from the world around it, as if it were the candle of the Twilight Ceremony.

That candle is now passed to our generation. And just like freshmen at the end of Orientation, it is our duty to ensure that the fire is not blown out by an autumn wind.