Harvardization, Then and Now

The College on the Hill or Harvard on the Connecticut?

The College on the Hill, or Harvard on the Connecticut?

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.

Nearly 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 from its vaunted #1 ranking in undergraduate teaching—a position it has held for the last five years (every year the survey has been held)—to #4. And though many at the College, including 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 reputational damage its undergraduate program has endured over the last few months.

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. For the Class of 2014, overall satisfaction declined for the third year in a row, and the College now stands equal to or even behind peer institutions. Dartmouth has traditionally competed with Princeton for the highest alumni participation rate in the Ivy League, but now we do not even come close.

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 longtime Dean Paul Danos, 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.

Just last year, 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, the College still faces two starkly different choices. We can languish in mediocrity, or we can revitalize a neglected but abundantly promising undergraduate program that has been held together these past years solely on the quality of the students and faculty.

Currently, despite the fact that much student and administrative effort has been diverted toward overhauling social life, President Hanlon and Provost Carolyn Dever certainly have significant academic initiatives. Among these is the plan to create a freestanding graduate school. Provost Dever has created a ten-member faculty task force to this end and, 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.

There has been no formal expansion of graduate programs, but the number of graduate students has still increased exponentially. In 2000, there were a total of 1,329 graduate students spread across the various arts and sciences and professional programs. By 2013, the number of graduate students reached 2,066, following almost continuous year-on-year increases. On the other hand, the number of undergraduates increased from 4,057 to 4,276 within the same time period, a comparatively small change. In percentage terms, the difference is even starker; the graduate population increased an astounding 64% in 13 years while the undergraduate population increased only 5%. Thus, it’s simply hard to believe that the size of graduate student population will not continue to increase to the detriment of undergraduate education.

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 Daily Dartmouth’s editorial pages are still too often filled with baseless assertions 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. Attempts at having the best of both worlds have simply resulted in institutions morphing into generic research universities. 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. The Economics faculty, which contains standouts such as Andrew Samwick, Doug Irwin, Meir Kohn, and Danny Blanchflower, produces a significantly body of meaningful research combined with great teaching, demonstrating the nonessential nature of graduate students in most departments.

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. Needless to say, we should not even indulge in such flirtations. 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.

While marginal innovation such as “flipping” introductory courses is well and good (filming lectures and using class time to answer more detailed questions), the College needs a paradigm shift that returns undergraduate teaching to the forefront. 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. It is a direction we have been headed in for years. Instead, let Dartmouth College be Dartmouth College.