Gado in the Valley News

The Valley News printed an Op-Ed from AoA Executive Committee member Frank Gado ’58. Because it is not available online, I have reprinted it in full below:

For the Valley News

FOR DECADES, Dartmouth alumni have manifested such extraordinary devotion to their alma mater that, not altogether jokingly, the devotion has been likened to a cult. How remarkable, then, that an insurgency is raging among these same alumni. What accounts for it?

In a Valley News commentary Feb. 4, “Dartmouth’s Critics Misunderstand the College Experience,” professor of government Richard Winters credits the successive victories of alumni trustee candidates nominated by petition instead of by an establishment committee to “a coalition of Œlosers’ who have little in common with each other” but are infuriated by singular causes. As instances, he cites the suspension of a fraternity, the precipitate decision to eliminate the swim team, a decline in legacy admissions, losing seasons in football, “and so on.” The contention has a certain professorial logic, but is it true?

Suppose it were. Would Dartmouth’s trustee elections then be unique? As professor of government, Winters should know that majorities in all elections are typically an aggregate of minorities. But quite aside from this fact, his facile explanation is inaccurate. As a leader in “the movement,” I have heard from hundreds of Dartmouth alumni. None fits Winters’ categorization. Particular grievances vary, but the underlying concern is a constant: the changing nature of Dartmouth and how it affects the quality of its education.

Despite his coalition-of-losers theory, Winters seems aware of the reason for alumni disquiet. Of the six italicized “claims” he tries to refute, the first three restate one issue: the adverse effects on undergraduate education caused by research university policies. To his credit, Winters does not introduce the canard that Dartmouth has long been a university in all but name because it has professional graduate schools. No one is proposing elimination of those separate entities.

Instead, like us, Winters focuses on the growing emphasis on published research for the college faculty. He pronounces it beneficial. We see it as detrimental ˜ and Winters’ own arguments support our case. Before I proceed in rebuttal, let me emphasize that I do not oppose research per se. A good teacher remains intellectually involved through an entire career; his or her enthusiasm for learning is at least as important as the subject matter itself. But what drives a research university is the unending quest for grants, in areas of inquiry directed by particular interests of the money providers (usually the federal government) and by career pressures ˜ not by intellectual curiosity for its own sake.

Does the nature of the research matter? Of course it does. Certain fields are “hot” at different times. Half a century ago, physics was at the top of the research hierarchy. Today, it is biology ˜ or, more accurately, special areas of biology. Outside the sciences, the current rage is for economics. When salaries and promotions are tied to research “productivity,” faculty outside the favored studies (such as the humanities) tend to imitate what is remunerative in more rewarded disciplines. The plaque that clogs the arteries of scholarly activity in disciplines not well suited to the scientific model is directly attributable to the influence of “research” policies.

In his Leslie Conference address, President Jim Wright proclaimed as Dartmouth’s new mission the “production of new knowledge” (presumably superseding the old mission, teaching undergraduates). This “new knowledge” assembly line is expensive business, however. One example: When President James Freedman set Dartmouth on the university course, he cut the faculty teaching load by 20 percent. Subsequently, reflecting the new emphasis of Dartmouth U., teaching duties in the sciences have been reduced by another 25 percent, with grants cutting teaching obligations still further. Today, it is the rare faculty member who meets classes for more than 18 weeks a year.

Curiously, as professorial classroom presence shrinks, the curriculum swells. Winters’ own department has doubled in faculty since his arrival in 1969 but tripled the number of seminars. The inescapable logic: Staffing of lower division courses has diminished. Unreined, a faculty rewarded primarily for publication will shape the curriculum to serve its own interests rather than those of students. Seminar topics tend to mirror the professor’s special professional focus, and the students who elect that seminar often abet the professor’s investigation. The mitosis in Dartmouth’s doctoral programs also cited by Winters illustrates the same drift.

Winters asserts that alumni do not recognize the reality of today’s Dartmouth, that undergraduate instruction has clearly improved. One of the places he bids us examine is the English department. But in the day of “inferiority,” freshman English ˜ which introduced students to the Old Testament, Shakespeare, classical tragedy and Milton ˜ also developed writing skills. Today, despite various inducements (including the teachers’ choice of “fun” subjects) that failed to lure most of the English department to such plebeian instruction, the teaching of writing has been turned over to adjuncts and administrators. Has the cause of education gained?

Winters claims that “a significantly better research and publishing record” proves his case: using Panglossian logic, he declares, “For undergraduates, this is the best of all possible worlds: Great teachers plus great minds equal great classes.” But is a longer curriculum vitae proof of a great mind or a great class? The evidence is missing. Indeed, some of the dullest classes I endured in graduate school were taught by pedestrian intellects with elongated bibliographies.

Back in the unglorious days of 1969, Winters writes, his department had only “one superlative instructor (the legendary ‘Zinger).” But Vincent Starzinger, it is worth noting, wrote just one book during his entire career. His monumental reputation instead derived from his brilliance in challenging students to think, and in employing the broad base of scholarship. He directed his intellectual vitality at a range of heterogeneous students, not just government majors. It is that kind of mind, operating with that kind of passion, that Dartmouth should be seeking and rewarding. The Winters model turns in a rather different direction.

At this critical moment in its history, Dartmouth should benefit from vigorous debate about its future course. Unfortunately, supported by faculty like Winters, the administration has tried to blast such debate by asserting that dissent harms the college. Among its ordnance of pernicious petards is the allegation that dissent has caused Dartmouth’s drop in U.S. News and World Report rankings. This is dangerous nonsense. The very universities Dartmouth wishes to rival are currently arenas of conflict regarding, in part, the consequences of their research model; none trembles from apprehension over the effects of debate.

In my view, Dartmouth’s best prospect for distinction is the cultivation of the possibilities of undergraduate instruction, focused on the liberal arts. Taking the research university as a template is a grave mistake. “Life’s follies,” Samuel Johnson reminds us, “stem from the attempt to emulate that which we do not resemble.”