Harvardization: Then and Now

Editor’s Note: This is an expansion and amplification of Mr. Chen’s “Harvardization, Then and Now” report published two years ago.

The Trend to Research University

In April 1996, under the specter of a graduate school expansion, then-Duke Professor Frank Lentricchia stated the following in an interview with The Dartmouth Review:

Why would Dartmouth want to [expand]? There are enough great graduate research institutions out there. I don’t think this country needs another one. The health of the culture depends on really dedicated and passionate undergraduate teaching. Sure, Dartmouth can make this transition, but it would no longer be Dartmouth College.

More than 20 years later, Dartmouth is at a crossroads as it faces many of the same, enduring questions about the role of graduate programs in an institution that, indeed, still calls itself a college. Continuing a string of bad publicity, this year’s U.S. News rankings showed the College tumbling yet again in its traditional strength of undergraduate teaching to #7—our lowest ever. For the survey’s first five years, we held the vaunted #1 ranking.

One can be forgiven for having thought that such performance was essentially secure for posterity. But, alas, no one could have anticipated the speed by which the College has fallen. We have not been #1 since. The #1 ranking that once seemed so assured now seems like an impossibility. And though many at the College, including former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Maria Laskaris, have brushed this off as little more than a clerical error, this precipitous drop poses serious ramifications for the College. The overall utility of these college rankings is to be questioned, but the College’s unexpected decline certainly underscores the continued reputational damage its undergraduate program has endured over the last few years.

It was not always like this. Dartmouth once stood shoulder to shoulder with the country’s top research universities on the back of its unparalleled undergraduate programs, despite its comparatively weak research output and fledgling graduate programs. Student satisfaction and alumni participation ranked above peer institutions in the Ivy League. But today, little has changed besides the general atrophy of the undergraduate experience. Dartmouth has traditionally competed with Princeton for the highest alumni participation rate in the Ivy League, but now we do not even come close. Catalyzed by an impassioned plea on the part of Bryan Thomson, the Class of 2016 voted no confidence by refusing to contribute to the Senior Class Gift. The participation rate was so embarrassingly low that the College has failed to announce final figures.

On March 13, 2013, The Review ran an issue entitled “Facing Down Dartmouth University,” responding to strategy planning reports that envisioned a radically reimagined and expanded graduate presence. The reports, which were presented to President Hanlon upon his ascendency to the Wheelock Succession, even explicitly called for renaming our dear College as Dartmouth University. Today, though the imminent threat of a rapid and dramatic expansion of graduate programs—and indeed the threat of Dartmouth University proper—is no longer present, but the gradual pivot away from undergraduate education seems to be accelerating.

There has been no formal expansion of graduate programs, but the number of graduate students has still increased exponentially in the last two decades or so. In 2000, there were a total of 1,329 graduate students spread across the various arts and sciences and professional programs. By 2015, the number of graduate students reached 2,043, following almost continuous year-on-year increases. On the other hand, the number of undergraduates increased from 4,057 to 4,307 within the same time period, a comparatively small change. In percentage terms, the difference is even starker; the graduate population increased an astounding 54% in 13 years while the undergraduate population increased only 6%. Thus, it is simply hard to believe that the size of graduate student population will not continue to increase to the detriment of undergraduate education.

Despite the casualty of our undergraduate experience, the continuous focus of improving graduate education at Dartmouth has yielded very little. With the exception of the Tuck School of Business, undeniably Dartmouth’s strongest graduate school under the expert leadership of Dean Emeritus Paul Danos and now Dean Matt Slaughter, the College has no top-ten graduate programs. We stand last by most measures in the Ivy League in terms of graduate program quality. Taking even computer science, one of Dartmouth’s traditional strengths—lest we forget President Kemeny invented BASIC—U.S. News ranks Dartmouth’s graduate program at #40. All the other Ivies sit at #20 or better. It is nigh impossible to ascribe such consistently poor performance in these metrics (and others) to faulty methodology or bias; Dartmouth just simply does not do well as a graduate-focused research institution.

At this critical juncture, higher education in the United States is starkly split between graduate-focused research universities and undergraduate-focused liberal arts colleges, with few institutions able to straddle that divide. Dartmouth’s comparative advantage lies in its realization that some of the best teachers happen to be the best scholars as well, and that limited graduate programs can strengthen the undergraduate heart of the College. However, with the exception of a limited number of doctoral students in the sciences, who are needed to support research programs, many arts and sciences graduate programs (such as MALS) are superfluous to the core mission of undergraduate education.

But despite graduate education’s poor track record, the administration and even some students in The Daily Dartmouth’s editorial pages still seem to be misguided in the belief that focusing on graduate education will boost institutional reputation without affecting undergraduate education. Yet no amount of convoluted reasoning can hide the fact that the top universities with the best graduate programs tend to have lackluster undergraduate programs and vice versa. Undergraduate education has diseconomies of scale. Research and graduate education have economies of scale. It does not take an economist to realize where Dartmouth lies in that paradigm.

Attempts at having the best of both worlds have simply resulted in institutions morphing into generic research universities. We are seeing that happen at Dartmouth today. There are enough of those in the world. In contrast, the Economics Department, perhaps the College’s preeminent department, has consistently rejected calls to create a graduate program and provides a model for scholarship and undergraduate education without graduate students. Instead, it chose to specialize in applied microeconomics, which would have not been possible with graduate students demanding mentors in other fields. As a result, the Economics faculty punches above its weight and contains numerous standouts such as Andrew Samwick, Doug Irwin, Bruce Sacerdote, Danny Blanchflower, and Nina Pavcnik. Dartmouth’s Economics Department may never have the scope of a large research university, but it still produces a significantly body of meaningful research combined with great teaching, demonstrating the nonessential nature of graduate students in most departments.

Hanlon and Dever

The administration could have focused on revitalizing a neglected but abundantly promising undergraduate program that has been held together these past years solely on the quality of the students and faculty. Instead, it wasted time and vast sums of money force-feeding an unwanted housing system onto the student body. Even with a heroic effort from an undercompensated and disrespected faculty, the College is starting to come apart. We continue down the wrong path.

So far, President Hanlon’s most significant decision has been the creation of a freestanding graduate school, which Dartmouth has resisted for quite some time. For the new academic year starting July 1, 2016, the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies (GRAD) officially opened. Provost Dever, cognizant of ever watchful alumni and students, claims that “the development of this vision does not presume an expansion of the size or scope of graduate programs.” While it certainly is progress that the administration no longer brazenly supports Harvardizing Dartmouth as it did during the Freedman era, Provost Dever’s words are small comfort for those who truly care about the undergraduate-focused character of the College.

Other presidential-level initiatives, such as the “cluster hiring” initiative, have been no better. Rather than pursue cluster hiring in the context of the Economics Department’s comparative excellence, President Hanlon seems to want to focus on research and solving the world’s “big problems.” This may come as a shock to him, but Dartmouth is a small school. The Irving Institute is perhaps the most egregious example of this approach. Despite a hard sell from President Hanlon, it is unclear what this new institute will do for the undergraduate liberal arts.

As of late, the lack of administrative competence and care has been an especial problem. President Jim Yong Kim passed through town to pay his dues and move on to the next big job. His lackey Dean-Provost-Interim President Carol Folt was no better and should have never left the biology lab. At least she eventually left for the greener pastures of a research university far from Hanover. This quick succession brings us to President Hanlon. A Dartmouth man, he should be one who respects the institution and its undergraduate character, but his behavior time and time again has demonstrated the opposite. For example, recall his shocking disrespect for Emeritus Professor of Classics Ed Bradley, as esteemed a faculty member as any (“O Tempora! O Mores!” in The Review’s March 6, 2016 issue).

The problem begins with President Hanlon, but it does not end there. With such extreme discontent about President Hanlon’s leadership, it can be easy to forget about Provost Dever’s role in deciding Dartmouth’s direction. Provost Dever is Dartmouth’s chief academic officer—the second most powerful institutional officer—and President Hanlon’s most consequential hire. Her office controls a large portion of the College’s budget that is opaque even to Executive Vice President Rick Mills.

In her two years at Dartmouth, it is clear that Provost Dever has failed in both her budgetary and academic responsibilities. A literary and gender studies scholar, she seems to have little expertise in managing budgets and has done nothing to control rampant spending. In fact, she is leading the charge on the astronomically expensive housing system. Far from fulfilling President Hanlon’s promise of bending tuition growth down to the level of inflation, tuition growth has accelerated to 3.8 percent for the latest academic year, following years of already superinflationary increases.

Provost Dever has had one signature academic initiative: diversity and inclusion. Her infrequent missives to campus, such as this year’s longwinded “New Year’s Message on Diversity and Inclusion,” focus on topics such as “inclusive excellence.” Recall that while Vice Provost for Student Affairs Inge-Lise Ameer was calling conservatives “not very nice,” she also emphasized that Provost Dever was “very much in support” of diversity and inclusion. While continuously (and some would say obsessively) harping on the same, tired theme, Provost Dever has done little to revitalize academic life at the College as our reputation tumbles.

There is also the question of whether Provost Dever is acting in Dartmouth’s best interests. She comes from Vanderbilt, a research university that is in many ways unlike Dartmouth, and she is leading the effort to make Dartmouth more like other institutions in terms of both student life and academics. It is early into her tenure as Provost, but it is already clear that she is looking beyond Hanover, much like President Kim. The well-informed observer suspects that she is gunning for a university presidency. Moreover, Joe Asch’s Dartblog has presented testimony of Provost Dever having the same cavalier attitude toward faculty as President Hanlon.

While Provost Dever’s performance has been lackluster, the problem is fundamentally structural. Unlike research universities, Dartmouth has traditionally had a strong Dean of the Faculty and a weak Provost, with the Dean of the Faculty reporting to the President and leading undergraduate and graduate arts and sciences. The Provost led the professional schools and facilities operation and management. Six years ago, President Kim changed the reporting structure so that the Dean of the Faculty, the natural champion of the undergraduate experience, was relegated to below the Provost. Moreover, the recent establishment of GRAD, which has its own Dean, strips yet more power from the Dean of the Faculty. Even more concerning is how President Hanlon and Provost Dever are looking at external hires for the Dean of the Faculty search. It seems that the primary criterion for candidates is the number of “underrepresented” demographic buckets she fills.

Let Dartmouth Be Dartmouth

Dartmouth’s singular claim to fame is its undergraduate college, and undergraduate education is its raison d’être. It is therefore troubling to see a survey by The Daily Dartmouth indicating that eleven out of twenty faculty members questioned supported changing the College’s name to Dartmouth University. Comparative advantage tells us that Dartmouth should focus its energies on its superlative strength in undergraduate education and only consider graduate programs in the way that they improve the undergraduate experience.

The College needs a paradigm shift that returns undergraduate teaching to the forefront and leaders who care enough to make it happen. Dartmouth has the wherewithal to be the undisputed best in the United States, if not the world, in terms of undergraduate education. If we fail tap into this latent potential, institutional drift will seal our fate as a Harvard on the Connecticut. Let us dispel this fiction that President Hanlon and Provost Dever do not know what they are doing. They know exactly what they are doing. They are trying to make us more like other institutions, more like a Michigan or Vanderbilt or other research university. But we do not want Dartmouth to be more like other institutions. We want Dartmouth to be Dartmouth.

Dartmouth College: a research institution or a liberal arts college?

Dartmouth College: a research institution or a liberal arts college?