In Defense of “The Call to Lead”

On April 27th, 2018, President Phil Hanlon of Dartmouth College announced “The Call to Lead: A Campaign for Dartmouth,” a capital campaign seeking $3 billion of gifts and fiduciary commitments. The immediate reaction was mixed, with the general attitude seeming to be the apathy which accompanies most major announcements from the administration. Some of Old Dartmouth’s proud friends have decried “The Call to Lead” as another attempt by the Hanlon administration to destroy the College’s traditions and uniqueness. These detractors include many of my colleagues at The Dartmouth Review, whom I seek to challenge on the premise the capital campaign isn’t that bad. In fact, it may even be a good thing for Dartmouth.

Many of the capital campaign’s opponents see it as the latest manifestation of President Hanlon’s expansionist, transgressive, and ultimately destructive vision for the College. However, this view is simply rooted in a lack of understanding. President Hanlon’s critics are loath to acknowledge any possibility that he may have put forward a sound proposal, and so close their minds to any thoughtful consideration. So, in order to even evaluate the capital campaign, we must understand its aims.

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth

Consider the stated “Strategic Priorities” from the capital campaign’s website:

  1. “Affirm Dartmouth’s Distinctive Model of Education”
  2. “Revolutionize the West End of Campus”
  3. “Nurture Creativity Through a Vibrant Arts District”
  4. “Make Big, Strategic Bets on Discovery”
  5. “Create a Nationally Recognized Graduate School”
  6. “Transform the Residential Life Experience”
  7. “Develop Leaders Through Experiential Learning”
  8. “Expand the Availability of Financial Aid”

The first strategic priority, among other things, aims to improve considerably Dartmouth’s notoriously lackluster faculty compensation. With the departure of well-known professors like Hany Farid and Brendan Nyhan at hand, the need for competitive compensation should rightly be at the forefront of the College’s attention. The goal also seeks to facilitate undergraduate research through increased funding and advance “innovations in the liberal arts.” The latter objective is more vague, though it seems the College is minded towards improving increasingly popular courses of study in the social sciences, such as Economics and History. The goal intends to maintain the teacher-scholar model of the faculty which has formed the backbone of undergraduate-focused instruction at Dartmouth. This strategic priority pays remarkable and careful attention to the distinctive qualities of undergraduate teaching at Dartmouth and so deserves acceptance if not praise.

The second strategic priority is directed at the development and improvement of instructional capacities in the river-facing quarter of campus. So, many of its smaller aims are centered on improving the Tuck School of Business. Tuck is already recognized as one of the world’s leading business schools; however, attention should still be paid to maintaining or even improving that standing and the quality of business education offered there. This priority also seeks to provide new an expensive (~$200 million) new center for instruction in Engineering and Computer Science. Though the price tag is quite hefty, it is right that the College should be providing new opportunities for a growing and marketable pool of STEM majors. This priority is also quite forward thinking; Dartmouth’s most generous alumni are often graduates of Tuck, Thayer, or undergraduate STEM programs.

The third strategic priority only seeks to raise funds for the expansion of the Hood Museum of Art and the support of the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts. Though this objective claims nebulously that “cultural ripples of this development will ignite campuswide creativity,” the support of the fine arts at Dartmouth is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right. This objective also seeks to create new opportunities for the incorporation of the arts into curricula, and although I am unsure what that will look like, it seems like a meaningful endeavor.

The fourth strategic priority seems very broad, but it is actually focused on providing new funds for a variety of established research initiatives, which seek to tackle some of the world’s largest challenges. The four named programs in this priority’s fundraising goals are the Irving Institute for Energy and Society, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, the Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and the Institute for Arctic Studies. Additionally, this priority will provide funding to the Cluster Initiative, which is a project established in 2017 to create interdisciplinary academic clusters of faculty to design coursework and research opportunities focused on ten separate topics. To me, the Cluster Initiative seems very vague in its implementation, but the topics it deals with are certainly substantive; for instance, there are clusters devoted to “Meeting New Challenges of Cybersecurity” and “Personalized Treatments for Cystic Fibrosis.” Overall, this seems like another priority based on improving undergraduate research opportunities and involving students in the study of pressing present-day issues.

The fifth strategic priority intends to create an endowment for the Advanced and Graduate Studies Program, now called the Frank J. Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies. The endowment will enable the Guarini School to offer more fellowships as well as professional development opportunities and engage in faculty and student recruiting.  The Advanced and Graduate Studies Program has long been in need of improvement, and even though it is only an aesthetic improvement, the name change signifies the College’s intentions. The creation of a brand for a graduate school is significant, as we know from the example of Tuck’s far-reaching reputation. The promised growth of the Guarini Graduate School offers Dartmouth a tremendous opportunity to build its profile as a preeminent center of academic research beyond the studies of business, engineering, and medicine.

The sixth strategic priority is the only one with which I can take a reasonable amount of issue, as it seeks to re-engineer residential life at Dartmouth. As its primary aim, this priority seeks to allocate $200 million for the construction of a 350-bed dormitory. I do not find this part objectionable, as the new dorm does not come with the caveat of expanding undergraduate enrollment or destroying College Park, and most can agree that there is a shortage of beds at Dartmouth. However, this priority also intends to create a $50 million endowment for the execrable house communities. This endowment is the only major issue with the expansion plan, because as I see it, the house communities are a waste of millions of dollars that could be spent on nobler projects, even within the capital campaign. The house communities are purposeless and unpopular, complicating roommate choices at best and squandering resources and attacking traditions at worst. That is to say, without the endowment for the house communities, I would find the capital campaign hard not to support. If West House scarves and optional events at alternative social spaces is the price of these other noble aims, then so be it.

The seventh strategic priority is one of the vaguer ones and therefore easier to criticize. It seeks to establish something called the Dartmouth Leadership Project for $25 million in addition to spending $90 million on “Athletic competitiveness and leadership development.” The latter seems to have something to do with Dartmouth Peak Performance, which works on leadership and personal development with the College’s student-athletes. In all honesty, I do not know what that entails and so I find it difficult to defend or criticize. However, the Leadership Project, while still in its pre-infancy, has the promise of a great opportunity for enriching students. As the capital campaign materials indicate, it will be the first such program in the Ivy League, so only time will tell how it looks in practice. Nevertheless, leadership skills are crucial for success in many fields, even academia, and should be taught to undergraduates by experiential means.

In contrast with the seventh, the eighth and final strategic priority is very clear about its overarching objective, which is to improve financial aid at Dartmouth. This priority seeks $250 million to preserve “need-blind” admissions, which I think is a most agreeable goal to most community members. Financial aid at Dartmouth has been criticized lately for failing to meet demonstrated need and for neglecting international students. Since 2015, financial aid for international students has been “need-aware,” meaning that their financial needs are a consideration when deciding to admit them or not. The capital campaign seeks to change that, by requesting $90 million to “restore need-blind admissions for foreign citizens.” The financial aid objectives also seek to eliminate loans from aid packages as to avoid a debt burden on low- and middle-income families. It is right and honorable for the College to be improving its accessibility to all deserving applicants, so the renewed commitment to addressing financial need is laudable.

Though some of the objectives included within the eight strategic priorities are vague, and it is blighted by the inclusion of the house communities, most of its propositions are tolerable if not praiseworthy. This capital campaign simply does not pose any threat to the traditions or institutions of the College. Instead, it seeks to support and develop beloved aspects of the Dartmouth education, such as the importance of teacher-scholars. It does make changes, but they are mostly focused on educational aspects, not issues of student life. We should recognize that Dartmouth is an exceptional institution and not try to stifle efforts to improve the College’s standing as a worldwide academic leader.

The capital campaign is far from perfect and does allocate funds to the housing communities, a negative influence on Dartmouth’s cultural traditions. However, it does present an enormous effort to improve quality of life and education for students and faculty and to build Dartmouth’s prominence as a global center of learning. Dartmouth has been losing ground lately in terms of fundraising and development when compared to the other Ivies. Some detractors will argue that given the track record of cost-overruns and delays of the Hanlon administration, the capital campaign is doomed to fail in its implementation. Even if the money is squandered and lost by mismanagement, that will not be a failure of the campaign. Instead, that would be a failure of the administration to see its plans through, for which administrators must be held accountable.

Critics will be quick to designate the expansion, creation, and development of programs as a detrimental change that must be opposed. This is reactionary thinking at its worst when any change is viewed as a bad change. There are those who believe that Dartmouth must maintain, or recreate, an idealized version of itself, the proverbial “Old Dartmouth,” which enthralls many of my fellow Reviewers. Dartmouth has to grow and adapt to a changing world or lose its relevance as a groundbreaking institution. We should not forget that the freshman class admitted in 1918 numbered at 164 students, and one hundred years earlier than that had numbered at 31 students. It is neither plausible nor rational to resist just an iota of change.

Dartmouth students have to resist the temptation to dismiss “The Call to Lead” just because it originated from the administration that brought us “Moving Dartmouth Forward.” Most of its priorities are beneficial and are sure to win the support of alumni who thoughtfully consider what it will bring to the College. Those objectives which are unclear will probably be addressed in time as nascent programs are planned further.

The capital campaign does not seek to increase enrollment; it does not intend to pay for the demolition costs to level Webster Avenue; it does not pay administrators to restrict free speech. It seeks to pay our teacher-scholars better; it seeks to fund important graduate and undergraduate research on global issues; it seeks to provide new opportunities for students to lead in their fields of study. The capital campaign will bring us more needed beds; it will help make Dartmouth more accessible to deserving applicants in need; it will renovate and maintain our educational and cultural facilities.

Having begun its “quiet phase” in 2014, “The Call to Lead” has raised $1.6 billion of its $3 billion goal with over 78,000 benefactors participating. The capital campaign deserves our regard and our support, as well as our oversight to hold the administration accountable for its failure or its success.