All That Remains

By Joe Rago ‘05

Editor’s Note: This piece was published in The Dartmouth Review on September 20, 2004.

Jeffrey Immelt ’78 was the keynote speaker at the past Commencement; as a loyal and spectacularly successful son of Dartmouth, his tap shouldn’t have been controversial – but, in the strange, cosseted world of campus politics, it was. Immelt is the C.E.O. of General Electric, probably the world’s most valuable corporation, and the cut of his jib didn’t sit well with Dartmouth’s do-gooders. Sure enough, shrill complaints were soon afoot. Immelt is a corporate businessman, – Immelt is a robber-baron, – Immelt is an ogre who wants to club you and eat your bones, – and so forth.

It was not long, of course, before the indignation found its way back to Immelt, but he took it in good humor and hilariously upstaged his critics’ pretensions. He’d been called “an uninspiring and uninteresting choice,” he said; still, he had at least some virtues. For one, he could hook you up with a jet engine, if you needed it. He’d be more interesting than the speaker at his graduation, and as evidence of his authenticity made a few cracks about carousing on Webster Avenue as a student (“but there are parts of this story that GE shareholders need not know”). “And if these credentials still fail to impress you,” he added, “I will shamelessly add that I could actually give you a job.”

For all his self-deprecation, Immelt’s speech ended up rather affecting. He spoke genuinely about the things Dartmouth had given him: an excellent education, a sense of self-confidence, an opportunity for leadership, a loyal group of lifelong friends, and a set of essential values that proved invaluable twenty-five years out. “So I may not be what you wanted,” he went on,

I’m not special. I’m okay with who I am and I don’t really want to be anybody else. I’m a son of Dartmouth, a husband, a father, a business leader; I’m loyal to my friends and I love my family. I am, and always will be, an optimist. But the great part about life is sometimes ordinary Dartmouth grads, people like you and me, get a chance to do extraordinary things.

He concluded, “Live the values of Dartmouth.”

At the time, I thought the speech was undeniably first-rate, exposing the anti-Immelt critique for what it was: simply ridiculous. He was impossible to dislike, – or so I thought. But he remained as controversial afterwards as he was before. The faculty was stewing. A few professors accused President Wright of ‘selling out.’ (Immelt had joked about bankrolling a dormitory or two.) I’m told Susan Wright, Dartmouth’s First Lady, was grinding her teeth so vigorously that she managed to dislocate her jaw.

What the hell is going on here?

The answer has to do with Dartmouth College’s standing in higher education which tells us something about higher education and something about Dartmouth College. But let’s pause for a moment: I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot. By now, you’ve spent a few days on campus, and though I’m sure you came here to challenge your mind, at this point you’ve probably devoted more time to challenging your liver. Still, the time you spend here will expire far faster than anyone can explain, and it won’t be long before you’re raking through the remains of the day and preparing to great the world from the hills with a hail – I hope you’ll come away with more than a bad case of cirrhosis. I hope you’ll also find something along the lines of what Jeff Immelt found.

But will you? It might be a close thing. Spend five minutes at just about any off-the-rack orientation event, and you’ll see what I mean. Your education, for the most part, is in the hands of people who are not only dull themselves but the cause of dullness in others. I’m not thinking of the teaching faculty. Dartmouth has very good professors; it has very bad ones too. The trick is to strain out the differences; it’s the good ones that’ll remain. Instead, I’m talking about the administrators. As you’ve discovered already, or as you’ll discover soon enough, this school is controlled by a massive bureaucracy that’s breathtakingly wasteful – careless with money and time, certainly (orientation should make this painfully clear), but, more importantly, careless with ideas.

This is where the dullness comes in. To put it another way, Dartmouth’s administrators are entirely conventional. They’re content to use words and arguments that are tired and sodden – they’re not even coining new phrases, much less thinking up new thoughts. They’ve drifted into the same rut as every other elite institution of higher learning in the country and they’re not about to haul themselves out of it any time soon.

The problem is not just that they’re sonorous bores, or unvaryingly likeminded. It’s not just that they’ve made mistakes, or even committed great wrongs. It’s just that they’ve made these mistakes and committed these wrongs to spread certain ideas. And when one asks for these ideas they cannot be found. Dartmouth’s administrators are just rolling through a rehearsed set of banalities and bromides, a Lazy Susan of commonplaces – eventually you’ve spun around and you’re back to where you started. Call it Lazy Susan Wright politics.

It’s precisely because these bureaucrats have got nothing new or innovative to offer that the situation is so poisonous. They’d use the ideas they haven’t got to unravel their school from the inside out.

This is the way it’s played out. For years, Dartmouth offered an experience that was unique, one of a kind. It’s the remains of that experience, I suspect, that caught your attention in the first place. It was the sense of the small College, where the professors were professors and the students were drunk. It was the lifelong bonds forged between the classmates, renowned for their conviviality, sharp minds, and capacity for hard work. It was the temper of rural New England, an errand into the howling wilderness.

Dartmouth was not perfect – I’m not trying to conjure forth some golden age that never really existed. The College could be blunt and profane and hostile to women, racial minorities, or change. Its spirit could brush up against aspects of fast living. But two decades ago, Dartmouth’s administrators came face to face with all this, and instead of trying to fix it, they decided to ruin it.

James Freedman, Jim Wright’s predecessor, admitted that his ideal student was a “creative loner,” a fellow who’d be playing his cello instead of beer pong come Saturday night. Did Dartmouth really need more fish-eyed, waffle-bottomed introverts? Wright seemed to think so. In 1999, he unveiled the S.L.I., or Student Life Initiative, the point of which, he declaimed, was to advance “alternative social options” on campus and bring about “the end of the Greek system as we know it.”

The S.L.I. is the reason why you’ll see (and ignore) a training-pants dance club in the basement of the Collis Center; it’s why you won’t see either a keg or a permanent bar in the basement of any fraternity while you’re putting your poor liver through strenuous calisthenics. It’s why the budget for ‘alternative social programming’ has dramatically increased in the past five years; it’s why the libraries and the athletics department have seen their funds curtailed (hey, the money’s got to come from somewhere). Parkhurst doesn’t just want to dry you out. The point of these social engineering schemes is control: control over what should be valuable or appropriate to your College experience.

But I don’t want to paint such an austere picture. The good times aren’t over for good – in fact they’re not even over. There’s no need to mail yourself up like a crusader and storm Parkhurst’s ramparts. As with most things, if you don’t pay attention, you’ll barely notice any of this. In this case, it is possible to be neutral on a moving train.

What we’ve seen lately are the signs of widespread dissatisfaction with the administrative program. The Greek system, a pretty accurate barometer, is stronger than it’s been in a decade, despite the S.L.I. In the spring, the alumni, another good barometer, elected a new trustee, a C.E.O. named T.J. Rodgers. Dr. Rodgers was only on the ballot by petition, yet he trumped the three hand-picked administrative nominations, gathering more than 8,000 votes out of 14,661 cast. And he ran on a very public platform: that Dartmouth was experiencing an acute leadership crisis.

After his election, Dr. Rodgers said that high-level figures told him he would be absorbed. “They’re going to find out,” he said, “that I am an indigestible character.” Whatever he’s able to accomplish, it’ll be a rough effort. But there are other people who can do much more than he can, and without really much work at all. Here is a list:

You.

Me.

The remedy is simply this: don’t allow yourself to be bullied. Don’t allow a committee of bureaucrats to drum up what Dartmouth should mean to you. That must be found on your own terms. It’s one of the ‘extraordinary things’ Jeff Immelt spoke of. Grieving over a lost Dartmouth: that’s pointless, and kind of sad. We cannot go back, however much we would like. The past is irretrievably gone and while it is vital and profound it can never be recovered. In this case, what is important is what has remained are the qualities that made the College unique and so special to so many people.

I certainly don’t like the way Dartmouth’s administrators have governed. But have they really affected my time here or my abiding fondness for the place? Not a whit, – not a whit. Right now, you have four or five years at the greatest school on the face of the earth. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. And after a while, whatever your politics, I don’t think you’ll be able to either.