Academic Rigor Mortis

“It is… a small college, and yet there are those who love it.” – Daniel Webster

There are few things as central to Dartmouth’s self-conception as its size. Students are proud to be able to walk from one end of campus to another, to be able to truly get to know their professors, to feel a sense of abiding familiarity with the nooks and crannies of their Alma Mater. And, as all of us students know, the College takes advantage of this unique status. Although its focus has seemed to shift in recent years, looking towards broader graduate programs and institutes, the core of Dartmouth’s pitch to prospective students is still its size – the small seminars, the tight knit community, and the beautiful campus that feels like home. Dartmouth is a college, not a university, and both alumni and students seem to want to keep it that way. 

It is not surprising, then, that attempts at expanding have in recent years met with some opposition. Proposals in 2012 to expand the graduate program met with opposition from such distinguished alumni as Joseph Asch ’79, and in 2016 a petition protesting the expansion of the College reached 1800 signatures. Aside from the expansion of Dartmouth’s graduate programs, much of the agenda of current president Philip J. Hanlon ’77 has been focused on maintaining Dartmouth’s unique identity within the Ivy League. One notable example, a central tenet of the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative, has been the increased focus on academic rigor. In 1965, the median GPA at the college was a 2.66. Today, that has increased to a 3.46. Further grade inflation is rightly viewed by the administration as a threat to Dartmouth’s reputation as a serious academic institution.

But, since 1999, a little-known academic policy at the College has threatened the core character of this institution – and undermined the well-intentioned policies set to maintain it. For 18 years, Dartmouth has forcibly cancelled classes with fewer than five students. It is the only Ivy League institution to do so. An investigation by The Dartmouth Review has revealed that this policy is deeply flawed, hurting professors, undermining students, and diminishing Dartmouth’s academic integrity.

A New and Unique Policy

The source of this issue is a single policy – one that is tucked away in an unassuming corner of Dartmouth’s Catalog of Organization, Regulations, and Courses. In the “Instruction” section, under “Time Sequence,” the sentence is hidden in a paragraph governing course scheduling: “Dartmouth reserves the right to alter, including cancel, course offerings if enrollments (fewer than five students), resources and/or other circumstances in the judgment of the Trustees and Administration require.” It is unclear whether the trustees are ever consulted on specific courses as the clause suggests; The Review’s reporting suggests that the decision is confined, in large part, to the administration itself.

The policy itself seems to be a modern innovation for the College. According to The Dartmouth, the clause first appeared in the ORC of 1999. The origin of the policy is another mystery; there appears to have been little notice of it when it was introduced – none at all in publicly available contemporary news sources. Aside from a single article in The Dartmouth, the policy has consistently failed to attract the attention of the community.

This deserves to change. The Dartmouth Review has determined that Dartmouth’s policy is wholly unique in the Ivy League. No other Ivy League institution forcibly cancels courses when they fall below five students. This should be cause for concern in itself – unless there are compelling reasons for doing so, Dartmouth should not flaunt the standards of academic practice established by her peers. There are no compelling reasons, and the evidence speaks clearly against the policy.

A Case Study in Dysfunction

In investigating this issue, The Dartmouth Review had the opportunity to speak with Professor Michael Lurie of the Classics Department. A distinguished scholar in his own right, the story he has to tell about his experience with this policy is astonishing.

The trouble began in Winter Term of this year. Professor Lurie was slated to teach two courses: a second term of an Elementary Greek sequence, and an advanced seminar in Euripides’ Bacchae. Both, coincidentally, had only three students enrolled. The course in Elementary Greek was easy to get approved – the students, after all, had been promised full instruction in Attic Greek. But the advanced seminar offered serious problems.

Professor Lurie was teaching this course for the first time – although experienced in the subject matter. Teaching a new course requires a lot of preparation. Apart from developing a new syllabus and teaching program, putting together a new extensive course page on Canvas, and other course-building work, Professor Lurie wanted to organize webinars with leading international scholars in the field: “The students might not always realize it, but developing a modern, intellectually ambitious, and academically rigorous course is an intellectual, pedagogical, and logistical challenge in its own right, and it requires a lot of work and preparation. The way I run advanced seminars now is that, in addition to everything else, I also try to organize webinars with interesting international scholars who have done important work on the topic the course is concerned with. These webinars give the students a unique opportunity to engage in a fascinating intellectual dialogue with some leading scholars whose work they have read, and they have proved to be exceptionally popular with students. But these events have to be carefully planned: the scholars have to be invited months in advance in order to secure a date.”

When he discovered early in November that there were three students enrolled in the course, Professor Lurie contacted the chair of the department. “I asked the chair of the department what was going to happen, because it seemed that there were just three students in the course. I asked whether it was going to run or not – and I told him that I would like to know soon because I need to invite these international scholars. I was told that it would not be decided whether my course was going to run until the beginning of the term, and that it was my duty as a faculty member to recruit enough students for the course to run.” Professor Lurie was further advised that he should not request advanced approval from the Dean – and that the need for preparation did not warrant such approval. As a result, he had to cancel the planned webinars, but continued putting together a course without knowing whether it was going to run.

According to Professor Lurie’s estimates, however, there were only six or seven students on campus who were even eligible for the course. And, of the students who theoretically could take an advanced Greek seminar, it is not reasonable to expect that every one will take such a course every term. So, having spent a great deal of time preparing extensively for the course, he began the winter term unsure if any of his efforts would be fruitful. After the first week of classes, still without information as to the status of the course, he informed the chair of the department that he would continue to teach the course regardless of whether it was approved by the College. A week later, the course was finally approved.

The course itself ended up being a phenomenal success. Zachary Quayle ’19, one of the three students to take the course, was effusive in his praise. “Greek 24 was a spectacular course for a variety of reasons, and that was partly because the enrollment in the class was so small. I had more of an opportunity than in any other course to take an active part in discussion and build a close relationship with Professor Lurie. Perhaps the biggest thing about a small class is that, with a three-person class, everyone is so invested in it. You can’t just show up; you need to be prepared to contribute. We had better discussions in that class than I’ve had in almost all of my classes at Dartmouth, and I learned so much because the nature of the class both forced me to be very prepared every day and gave Professor Lurie much more time he could devote to each individual student. This class was a defining part of my Dartmouth experience and has taught me more than any other class I have taken here.”

Quayle’s comments echo the sentiments of many students who have taken low enrollment courses at Dartmouth. They provide so many unique benefits – increasing student accountability, ensuring student engagement, and allowing for one-on-one instruction and help. So it is difficult to understand why these courses are in the crosshairs of Dartmouth’s administration. Quayle himself was troubled by the ever-present possibility of cancellation during the first two weeks of the course. “The concern about whether the course would be canceled was very stressful for me. As a double major, I have to plan my courses carefully, so I would have been in a bad situation had the course not been allowed to run, because I would have been scrambling to find a class that was both interesting to me and within the relatively limited parameters of my major requirements.”

Although this story ends well, there are many that don’t. The Dartmouth Review has been made aware of at least one course that was cancelled under the policy this term. But, even though many courses make it through the gauntlet, there is a lasting negative effect on Dartmouth’s academic standing.

Exploiting Professors

Perhaps the most facially concerning aspect of the policy’s impact is the way it affects the faculty. For temporary and visiting professors, the cancellation of a course under the policy means a reduction in compensation. If the professor is tenured or tenure-track, then they effectively “owe” Dartmouth another course. They might teach a course in the current term for which they have not prepared, they might be forced to overload their schedule for the next term, or they may be told that they are expected to teach five classes as opposed to four during the next academic year.

Even on its own, this is troubling. It seems deeply unfair to professors – especially professors in small departments – to hold their time hostage until a determination is made on the small courses they teach. Professors contribute so much to the College – in their research, writing, and teaching – that Dartmouth ought to afford them every measure of stability possible. This lack of stability is made even worse by the fact that Dartmouth has among the lowest faculty salaries in the Ivy League. Combined with this, the low course enrollments policy puts our faculty on a level of financial and academic insecurity that is unheard of at peer institutions. If it continues, we may have difficulty attracting top scholars to faculty positions.

Reflecting on his experiences with the low enrollments policy, Professor Lurie fears that it can also have a negative effect on the quality of course instruction. Even when a course is not cancelled, he says, the process itself discourages professors from preparing for their own classes. “I can spend weeks preparing for the course. I can prepare a syllabus and handouts and spend hours putting together a Canvas site – in order to be able to teach a course the way it ought to be taught – without knowing whether it’s going to be cancelled and all of my preparation is for nothing. Or I could learn my lesson and reduce my preparation to an absolute minimum: no extensive Canvas pages on Canvas, no sophisticated teaching programs, no comprehensive handouts for each class, no webinars. If the course happens to run, I could just sit there with a text of Euripides and let students translate, or talk, for an hour, without trying to make an advanced Greek seminar an ambitious and sophisticated exploration of Greek literature and intellectual history. But, you see, this is not what I think an advanced seminar is supposed to be like at one of the best universities in the world. We have amazing students, and I think they deserve better.”

How can we expect professors to heavily prepare for a course under threat of cancellation? As students, we rarely see the full extent of the work that goes into designing and running a course. Aside from the selection of course materials and the planning of its structure, instructors are expected to have read the material themselves to the point at which they are able to answer any and all questions on the material of the day. Dartmouth rightly prides itself on its undergraduate teaching – students regularly tout the knowledge, preparation, and accessibility of the instructors in every department. This teaching strength is one of the most important assets of Dartmouth’s central mission of teaching.

For seminar courses and small classes, this teaching skill and preparation is even more important. Small classes often mean more work – students are much more liable to ask questions, go to office hours, and delve deeply into the course material, especially in advanced seminars. So why do we make instructors prepare for these classes without assuring them that they will be allowed to teach their courses? When we tell a professor that their upcoming course may be cancelled against their will and against the wishes of their students, we tell them not to bother preparing and to be happy if the course runs at all. It is a testament to the scholarly attitude of those professors teaching such courses that few seem to have given in to this incentive.

“Your Business Here is Learning”

If the impact of the policy were confined to introducing additional uncertainty into the academic lives of Dartmouth professors, then the policy would be bad enough. Unfortunately, Dartmouth’s code on low course enrollments also hurts students directly by undermining the academic integrity of the College. The policy necessarily changes the relationship between professors and students for the worse. In a well-functioning institution, professors offer classes to students, students choose based on interest, and professors give students the grade they deserve. The low course enrollments policy destroys this relationship, even when it is not used to cancel a course.

Any student who pursues a major in a small department at Dartmouth knows that such departments are on a constant hunt for new students. This is as it should be. Departments ought to be actively looking for new students and coming up with attractive course offerings – but this should be occurring only insofar as a Department should be constantly improving. According to Professor Lurie, the low enrollments clause introduces an unhealthy fight for students between professors. “It creates competition between faculty members who are trying to poach students for their courses. It puts the pressure on you to design courses that will attract enough students instead of focusing on providing proper service for students who want to take the course in the first place.” This does not seem to be a problem for introductory and survey courses – those are meant to attract a large number of students. But it does undermine all seminar courses in small departments. The unique appeal of Dartmouth in general – and its small liberal arts departments in particular – consists in the small advanced seminars that are on offer by leading scholars in their respective fields. It may be the case that only four students on campus are even eligible to take an upper level course in such departments. Why, then, do we force professors to harangue and persuade students to take their courses? This is not the sort of relationship that we should cultivate at an Ivy League institution – professors should not need to beg students to take their classes simply to satisfy an arbitrary enrollment number. What is the harm in letting three passionate students explore a complicated topic with an experienced and equally passionate professor?

An economics class at Dartmouth. (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

An economics class at Dartmouth. (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

This competition, too, is a driver of grade inflation, says Professor Lurie. “You find yourself under increasing pressure to make your courses easier, because students who don’t do particularly well in one course are unlikely to take another course with the same professor. This can lead to grade inflation. If I don’t want to be blamed for low enrollments, or not be paid for low enrollments, then of course I have to make my courses interesting and captivating in order to attract more students – and this is a good thing. But I also have to make sure that the students want to take my courses again. So even if the student deserves a B, then I fear that I am supposed to think twice, because if I give the student a B or B plus then it’s very likely that the student will take courses with other professors and not me in the future.” The integrity of any academic institution is measured, in part, by the objectivity with which it measures the output of its students. At a time when Dartmouth continues to fall in national rankings of undergraduate institutions, such integrity is more important than ever. Professors need to feel free to give the grades they think students deserve. But if departments and professors feel the heat when they have low course enrollments, then they might naturally turn to increasing medians and decreasing academic rigor. When professors feel obligated to give a student a high grade for any reason other than the quality of that student’s work, then something is deeply wrong. If President Hanlon is as serious about increasing academic rigor as he seems to be, then he ought to end the low course enrollments policy for its impact on grades alone.

A Crisis in the Liberal Arts

If some professors choose to combat low enrollments by increasing medians, then they are fighting a losing battle. A look at the status of the humanities at Dartmouth reveals a staggering crisis in numbers. According to the Dartmouth College Fact Book, in 2002, 23 percent of students with declared majors were majoring in a department in the humanities. Today, it is only 12 percent. The English department alone has fallen from 167 majors in 2002 to 52 majors today. That department used to be twice the size of the Computer Science department. It is now one third its size. Across the humanities, the story is the same. Philosophy and Religion have seen similar declines, with the latter department now at an astonishing one eighth its size in 2002. You need no special affinity with the Liberal Arts to see this as a problem. More and more students are using their time here as vocational training, eschewing a classical education in favor of studies in Economics, Government, and Computer Science. For proponents of traditional education, the decline in majors in the Liberal Arts is something to be mourned.

But you do not even need to see this as a problem to be worried about the disparate impact of the low enrollments policy on humanities departments. For many of these departments, the past few years have seen more and more classes falling under the low enrollments clause for a single reason – fewer and fewer students are pursuing majors. It is deeply unfair to treat the traditional departments of a Liberal Arts education – Classics, English, and the like – as academic outcasts. And if more and more classes fall under scrutiny, some fear that their departments may lose vital resources. Professor Lurie expressed this concern, one that touches the very survival of our humanities departments, to The Dartmouth Review. “If we don’t increase the numbers of students who are interested in humanities courses – if we don’t convince the students who come to Dartmouth that they’re here to receive a Liberal Arts education, and that the very idea of Dartmouth is that you can major in English or Philosophy or Art History and then still get a job as a diplomat or lawyer or hedge fund manager, then the numbers will continue to drop. And there will be a moment when there will be several courses in a row in which there are low enrollments. There is a danger if the policy remains in place and the number of students doesn’t go up.” In 1999, the low course enrollments policy may not have been biased against the humanities. It may even have been well-intentioned. But the College cannot now continue a policy that increasingly puts pressure only on the Humanities, especially if it wants to continue to survive as a small liberal arts school.

The Ability to Lead

When asked for comment about the policy, Dartmouth cited financial efficiency. In an email, the communications office had this to say: “The purpose of the policy is not to discourage small classes – we value them at Dartmouth. We monitor the number of classes with five or fewer students to ensure the College’s scarce resources are used wisely. The deans have wide discretion and in many cases classes with five or fewer students are allowed to move forward as circumstances warrant.” As far as The Review has been able to find out, the College is right in one respect here – they do not cancel most classes that have fewer than five students. On the contrary, they appear to allow most to run. But much of the impact of the policy is not on the courses that are cancelled, but on the courses that are under that possibility and on the professors who fear it. As for the scarcity of resources, The Review has been unable to determine the savings afforded by the cancellation of courses under this policy. But, considering the wide negative impacts of the policy, it seems incumbent on the administration to find another way to save money.

When asked, Professor Lurie was skeptical of a justification on the basis of limited resources. “We don’t charge students who come here less than Harvard or Yale. So if we say we have limited resources and can’t provide the services that Harvard and Yale can, then we should charge less. What are the limited resources, exactly? 10 percent of Dartmouth’s budget goes to Faculty salaries. 10 percent. So what do we do with the rest of the money, and why are the resources so limited?” That 10 percent figure, confirmed by The Review, is astonishing. Over the same time that faculty and staff compensation for academic programs rose from 24-27 percent of the total budget, Dartmouth’s ranking in faculty compensation fell precipitously, according to the Committee of the Faculty. It is disheartening that Dartmouth continues to undercut its core academic mission while at the same time taking on more and more staff.

Considering his experience here, Professor Lurie recalled the practice of top universities in Europe. “I have never seen anything like this before, neither in the UK nor in Germany or Switzerland. In Germany, there is a saying that three make the course (‘tres faciunt collegium’) – two students and a professor.” Such a reasonable doctrine would be a good change for Dartmouth. Even a system of enrollment requirements under which higher-level courses are exempt would be an improvement. Whatever the alternative, though, the current policy must end.

Dartmouth is unique among the Ivy League in many ways. This is not one that we should be proud of. At its heart, Dartmouth is a liberal arts college. You can see it on the Green, in the classroom, in the library – ours is a small community that we love. It is, then, difficult to countenance the existence of the policy on low enrollment courses. At its core, it puts pressure on professors both financially and academically, undercutting their support at the same time as it suggests they reduce rigor.  It is, quite simply, a bad policy – and wrongheaded, too. If we are to remain the prestigious College on the Hill, then it is time that the administration ended it.           

  • Joseph Asch ’79

    Good piece. My recollection is that the policy of limiting courses with an enrollment of fewer than five students originated around 2002 — in the wake of the dot com bust and a drop in the endowment (the administration tried to kill the swim team then, too). As so often occurs, with each financial crisis, we eliminate appreciated features of a Dartmouth education, aspects that are never restored once the endowment resumes its growth.

  • piper60

    There’s many an American college where this sort of bean-counting “administration”is the norm. Just what good it does anybody isn’t usually clear since the school continues to pay the unfortunate prof.his/her full contractual salaryforteaching less, thus helping build the case for non-renewalof the untenured junior faculty, and, at times, holding up students from getting their required courses done!You’d think, a bean counting administration would be interested in whether other students would to drop and add the doomed course. But, no!That’s not even slightly interesting to the average Sears &Roebuck “suit!”