A Retrospective on Dean Johnson

After three years, Dean Johnson is scheduled to depart for Scripps College at the end of the spring.

After three years, Dean Johnson is scheduled to depart for Scripps College at the end of the spring.

My time at Dartmouth has been a turbulent one. In the years since the class of 2015 arrived on campus, three different presidents have presided over twelve changes to the senior leadership team. Until the beginning of May, only two officers had retained their positions over that time: the woman whose auto-penned signature graced my admissions letter, Maria Laskaris, and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson. Only the former will be spending next year in Hanover.

 I. The End of an Era

With this upcoming departure, the last of the senior leadership appointed by Jim Yong Kim in his stint as Dartmouth’s YouTube mascot will make its exit. It is difficult to say what Ms. Johnson was expecting when she signed on Dartmouth’s dotted line in 2011; one would hope that she anticipated staying longer than that three-year contract required. But her welcome was hotter than it was warm: Dartmouth’s PR problems were already reaching a boiling point when the Rolling Stone story broke early in Ms. Johnson’s first Hanover spring. 

Between Andrew Lohse’s 2012 attention-mongering, the Dimensions protests of 2013, and this year’s liberty-inspired financial planning, Ms. Johnson’s time at our school would constitute a strenuous three years at any workplace this far from Pennsylvania Ave. It’s not hard to imagine why a small all-girls school out West might have begun to feel like an upgrade.

Although rumors had been circling for several weeks, President Hanlon officially announced Ms. Johnson’s departure from Dartmouth in an email to campus on May 2. She will finish out the academic school year on campus before beginning next year at Scripps, a Claremont college in California. In an interview in her new school’s newspaper, The Scripps Voice, Ms. Johnson was eager to make it clear she’s no fair-weather fan:

[Ms. Johnson] said that she intends to stay for at least five years, but would stay longer if Scripps is a good fit and if she has good support… She added that she is “not a jumper.” She has only spent three years at Dartmouth, but said that she has had three different bosses during her time there, so she felt it was time to look into other options.

Departing so quickly from Dartmouth may now be a point for clarification on Ms. Johnson’s resume, but few will object to her seeking employment elsewhere as her contract expires. This year, Ms. Johnson watched as President Hanlon steadily filled his leadership team with new picks. She was no doubt happier to hand over the reins than fight to establish position in yet another new political landscape. The timing of her contract’s expiration was a convenient bonus for everyone.

 II. An Administrator Accounted

Ms. Johnson’s record as Dean of the College was summarized in the May 2 College press release as such:

During Johnson’s tenure at Dartmouth, advising services for first- and second-year students have been expanded, an innovative advising program is being piloted, access for mental health support at Dick’s House is greatly improved, and late-night programming activities grew through the expansion of the Collis Center and the new Sarner Underground, a 24/7 social space for students. Under Johnson’s leadership, residential life at Dartmouth is being re-envisioned with several new living-learning communities to open this fall, and other innovations are under consideration.

This vague little history (note the passive voice?) is an insult to our outgoing Dean. It reads like a high school resume; you can almost hear the sound of the barrel bottom, slowly scraping.

By all accounts, the Advising 360 pilot program has been moderately successful, if short on improvements over the current system, since its launch two years ago. But keep in mind: the program covers only one hundred students from each of the classes of 2016 and and 2017, and outcome data have not been made available. 

Dick’s House may or may not have “greatly improved” its mental health offerings in the last three years — such an assertion in the context of a press release is pretty meaningless. But a few things are for sure: it still has a several-week-long waiting list for female therapists, it is still universally reviled within the student body, and it is positively infamous for accusing students of being hungover or pregnant instead of diagnosing them: “So you said you have a sinus infection? Well … how much did you drink last night?” 

The next achievement afforded Ms. Johnson, the construction of Sarner Underground, sounded like exactly what the College needed at the time it was proposed. The final building, though, has been a monument to administrative incompetence in the social sphere: the space is tucked out of the way behind ’53 Commons, has no open areas and a tiny foyer, serves no food, and is trafficked almost exclusively by the dance groups who rehearse there. 

Certainly, the introduction of “living-learning communities” next year is hoped to be a positive change for campus. The devil is in the details, though, and there is little to inspire hope that the administration can get these right. Of course, we can rest easy in the knowledge that “other innovations are under consideration.”

The College press release’s overview of Ms. Johnson’s legacy highlighted some of Dartmouth’s most inconsequential and poorly-executed initiatives of the past three years while ignoring her more controversial and definitive initiatives, like tightening alcohol policies and increasing direct oversight over the Greek system. Although there has been no mention this month of any specific social policies for which Ms. Johnson is responsible, the College is still claiming that Ms. Johnson is responsible for significantly reducing binge drinking at Dartmouth. Hospitalizations for binge drinking have indeed decreased, but the simple statistics in this case don’t tell the full story of Ms. Johnson’s involvement (or lack thereof). 

According to Clery Act data, the number of liquor-related arrests on campus decreased dramatically (from 84 to 37) between 2010 and 2011, before Ms. Johnson had even arrived on campus or gotten a chance to implement any policies. In the same years, the number of disciplinary cases related to alcohol held constant at thirty-one. 

Between 2011 and 2012, the number of liquor-related arrests fell again, from thirty-seven to nine, but the number of liquor-related disciplinary cases jumped from 31 to 69. In fact, more kids got in trouble for drinking during Ms. Johnson’s second year in charge as did in her first year (unfortunately, Clery Act data for Ms. Johnson’s third year will not be publicly available until October, and the College has refused to release any data other than that required by the Clery Act). 

Even if we consider the falling number of arrests over the last four years to be a definitively positive thing and ignore the corresponding increase in the frequency of disciplinary cases, the data show it is unlikely that Ms. Johnson’s strict alcohol policies or random S&S walkthroughs of Greek houses had much to do with anything. Off-campus liquor arrests, taking place at locations completely outside the purview of the College’s liquor policies, dropped precipitously from thirty-three in 2010 to just one in 2011. Ms Johnson’s policies did not go into effect until 2012.

 III. A Tendency Toward Tension

I have watched Ms. Johnson interact with students in the flesh on a handful of occasions (notably including this year’s April sit-in of the President’s office by a radical student group). Every time, particularly in private settings, I have been impressed by the energy of her presence and the frankness of her speech. This is a woman far removed from the painful doublespeak of her campus-wide communications, a woman who can command a room and who enjoys putting people in their place. Such traits can be a huge asset for a leader in troubled times.

But many students seem to believe that this assertiveness has also prevented Ms. Johnson from getting an accurate picture of how Dartmouth students feel and what motivates them — that for all her talk, she was a bad listener. Many of her initiatives were viewed as intrusive, and though Ms. Johnson was known for being close with several students on campus, she did not seem to break out beyond a chosen few. She also made a point of claiming a student mandate for her alcohol policies only to push them through quietly over the summer when only the sophomore class was on campus.

Ms. Johnson also comes dangerously close to espousing an “us-versus-them” mentality when it comes to the administration’s relationship with the student body. During a dinner last summer, she explained to a small group of students that she thought it was fine, if not preferable, for a school administration and its student body to act in opposition to each other. As she understood it, college students want to do as they please and an administrator’s role should be to establish order and push back against student desires. Ms. Johnson, it seems, saw the process of administering a college campus as the bureaucratic equivalent of an epic struggle between children and grown-ups.

This belligerent philosophy and this zest for combat is the precise opposite of what we need on campus right now. Already, the College’s “anti-student” demeanor has caused a serious degradation to the strength of the Dartmouth community. Students no longer trust Dartmouth administrators to keep our best interests in mind. We do not trust S&S officers to “keep us safe” — why would we, when they spend so much of their time trying to coax us into the backs of their cars?

These days we cannot even trust our healthcare providers: just last year two Dick’s House nurses had a student arrested when they heard him talking about his fake ID over the baby monitor they had placed in his room. Incredibly, that student was only in Dick’s House in the first place because a college administrator had called the police and provided them his personal information after watching him enjoy a few drinks alongside his dinner at a Hanover restaurant. 

These sorts of abuse are simply outrageous, both in their magnitude and their prevalence. The Dean’s Office absolutely needs to fix its relationship with the student body, not by paying lip service to intangibles but by making a concerted effort to truly advocate for students and ensure we are treated fairly across campus. Only by demonstrating leadership will the next Dean of the College be able to effect a cultural shift.

 IV. Looking to the Future

President Hanlon has a big choice to make for next year, and there will be many sons and daughters of Dartmouth waiting nervously on his pick. What is clear, though, is that Dartmouth today needs a humble and honest leader, one who can zero in on concrete, addressable issues and suggest effective changes. We need a Dean of the College who loves Dartmouth and its students, who wants to change our lives rather than our politics. We need a Dean of the College who is willing to make difficult decisions and crack the necessary skulls, not for his or her own political gain but because it is the right thing to do for the future of the school. 

In short, we need a parent — not a warden.