Mr. Asch Tells It All

Joe Asch

Joe Asch talks about the workings of the administration.

Few alumni show as much concern and interest in the affairs of Dartmouth College as prolific Dartblog writer and vigilante Mr. Joseph Asch ’79. The Yale Law School alumnu, Bain & Co. consulting veteran and serial entrepreneur splits his time between Paris – where he’s resided for nearly 30 years –  and Hanover, and he hasn’t failed to enroll in a summer class since the early ‘90s. Readers of Dartblog know well the level of insight and knowledge Mr. Asch possesses of the College and its inner workings.

In light of some recent and not-so-recent changes on campus, The Review got a chance to hear the thoughts of the man himself.

Honest Phil

The prevailing campus mood is rather harsh on President Hanlon and his administration. A series of punitive decisions for Greek houses – especially the derecognition of Alpha Delta fraternity – and stricter restrictions on student life – namely the hard alcohol ban – have not gone over well with the majority of the student body.

When asked about the current Hanlon Administration, however, Mr. Asch put things in a rather positive context. “There was a huge change when Phil Hanlon arrived… at least in terms of honesty,” he explained. “Jim Wright, Jim Kim, and Carol Folt would tell lies if it profited them and they would do so with no hesitation at all. The new administration tells the truth.”

Honest dialogue from the administration is nothing short of welcome change. And this honest dialogue is complemented by more openness to criticism. Mr. Asch explained, “the staff and faculty is still a little reticent to speak up because for years, if you voiced any criticism of the administration, you were punished harshly.”

Mr. Asch also explained how Hanlon’s arrival has contributed to more firsthand involvement of the Board of Trustees. “Phil has encouraged them to meet more with students and faculty, and so they’ve done so during the past two trustee meetings.” He went on to explain just how closed off prior administrations wanted the trustees – to whom it directly reports to – to remain in day-to-day affairs: “Prior to that, the administration absolutely discouraged the trustees from meeting with faculty members.”

This isn’t to say that Mr. Asch was entirely positive of the Hanlon administration and the changes it has brought to Hanover – more to follow on his thoughts on specific decisions and initiatives. He does, however, provide an interesting perspective on how the Hanlon Administration has dealt with its position at the helm of the College and its honesty and openness compared to many of its predecessors. It is a perspective that likely comes as a surprise to the student body – many members of which, at the end of the 2015 Winter term, bought shot glasses with a picture of college student President Hanlon in reaction to the hard alcohol ban.

Trustees in Absentia

The people who ultimately have the final say at Dartmouth (at least, in theory) are its Board of Trustees. In the aftermath of President Hanlon’s much promoted Moving Dartmouth Forward plan, many commentators – especially Mr. Asch – have questioned the Trustees’ involvement in the initiative, or lack thereof.

“It’s interesting that the Trustees were presented with the MDF proposal the weekend before it was announced. So, they got to have their say,” Mr. Asch explained, “but if you were asked about the plans for D-Day on June 5th, there won’t be a lot of change. That’s been a constant criticism of mine, that the trustees are very much out of touch.”

Readers of Dartblog will hardly find Mr. Asch’s criticism novel; the lack of engagement and involvement of Dartmouth’s Trustees has long been a core issue that Mr. Asch has discussed and written about. It’s an issue Mr. Asch takes seriously – to the point of having running for the Board of Trustees himself.

His anecdote about former Provost of the College Carol Folt hones this point: “it’s astounding how out of touch the Trustees can be. Carol Folt was really held in contempt by most of the faculty here and yet she gets a job [as Chancellor of] the University of North Carolina. It is clear that no one on the UNC Board of Governors called anyone at Dartmouth and asked ‘How do you like working with Folt? Has she done a good job?’ Had they done that, they would’ve gotten an earful from just about anyone.”

On Alpha Delta

With Alpha Delta’s official derecognition by the College as of April 20th, a slew of eulogies by upset students overran Yik Yak, bored@baker, and Facebook. When asked about his thoughts on the derecognition and its broader implications, if any, as well as the administration’s Greek policy going forward, Mr. Asch explained: “There’s never been a consistent approach to fraternities. You get Alpha Phi Alpha beating on people with sticks, and they get a slap on the wrist when that was as clear hazing as you could ever hope to find. And yet, you get something like this which didn’t even involve everyone and the house gets derecognized. Fair justice is consistent justice, and that hasn’t been the case here.”

As it pertains specifically to AD’s derecognition, Mr. Asch went on to explain, “I think they wanted to choose a fraternity that was A) iconic and B) was Phil’s former frat. Either they’re just making an example of AD to put the fear of God in all the other fraternities or else we could see two or three other fraternities derecognized in the next year as a way of eliminating the fraternity system on a slow timeline.”

Either rationale behind AD’s derecognition spells out a frightening paradigm for its surviving peer fraternities.

Hanlon & Ameer? Or Ameer & Hanlon?

Given Dean Ameer’s relatively recent ascent to the Dean of the College’s Office and the unleashed administrative action that has followed President Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward announcement, we had to ask Mr. Asch about his thoughts on Dean Ameer- does she have the best interests of the students in mind? More importantly, is Hanlon really as passive in his relationship with Dean Ameer as we think he is? “Everyone has the best interests of students in mind. It’s all a matter of definition…” Neither this paper nor Mr. Asch has ever fully agreed with Dean Ameer’s definition of students’ interests.

About President Hanlon, Mr. Asch continued, “My sense of Phil Hanlon is that he never leaves fingerprints. He comes across as someone who’s somewhat passive, but I think he’s not that way behind the scenes. Certainly with something like derecognizing AD, he was involved.”

Vomlettes, and Kiddie Pools, and Hard Alcohol! Oh, my!

“When Andrew Lohse’s column came out: I said you shouldn’t punish SAE for the hazing. What you should do is do what South Africa did at the end of Apartheid: they had a truth commission and they obliged everyone to come forward and confess what they had done. As long as you told the truth and all the truth, then it was ‘okay, let bygones be bygones.’ Otherwise you’d have a huge percentage of the white population in jail. If they had gone to the fraternities then and said ‘fess up now; what have you done?’ And then pledge to stop it, you might have had some change.” The Review has agreed with Mr. Asch that the College’s traditional reaction to hazing allegations has not been productive. This past fall’s “ban” on pledge terms, we reported, would eliminate only the innocuous public aspects of hazing, such as the wearing of lettered shirts; already surreptitious and potentially dangerous activities would remain unchanged.

As it turns out, Mr. Asch and The Review also are in agreement about the College’s recent hard alcohol ban. Mr. Asch explained: “There has to be a give and take with these policies. One of the things that I thought was foolish about the alcohol ban was that the administration didn’t offer anything in exchange. If they had gone to the frats and said, ‘okay, we’ll let you have taps back – so you can have kegs, and you have one point where you serve beer – but in exchange you have to do a deal with us: no more hard stuff. And if we find hard stuff, we’ll take away your taps,’ then you might have achieved a workable agreement.”

Mr. Asch is right — there is no real incentive for any Dartmouth fraternity or individual to completely do away with hard alcohol even with the harsh punitive reaction that may result from keeping it around. Given this situation, Mr. Asch predicted the hard alcohol ban would end up the way that the similarly unilaterally imposed SEMP alcohol restrictions have — ineffective.

Dartmouth’s PR

It’s no secret that the College has been the subject of some less than positive media coverage. From Lohse to myriad protests, one scandal after another has left a mark on Dartmouth’s image. As Mr. Asch tersely put it. “If you look at the College’s PR strategy in the last three or four years, it was the PR strategy from Hell. The College has taken a massive hit in the eyes of college counselors and students from scandal after scandal.”

How should the College recover its tarnished image? The solution, as Mr. Asch describes it, doesn’t quite have to do with a better PR strategy: “As for our PR strategy, ‘you can’t sell a product unless you have a product to sell’…” In other words, Dartmouth’s image can improve if Dartmouth made the headlines for positive developments — if great professors left Harvard or Yale for Dartmouth, if Dartmouth students won international competitions, if major scientific breakthroughs occurred at Dartmouth laboratories. The College could serve itself well to heed Mr. Asch’s advice.

The Bureaucracy is Rapidly Expanding to Meet the Needs of the Existing Bureaucracy

When asked about rising tuition costs and growing numbers of non-academic staff employed by the College, Mr. Asch harshly observed wryly: “In another decade or so, we’ll have an administrator for every student.”

Why is this so? How did we get here? “A faculty member once told me,” Mr. Asch explained, “that for a long, long time, the school has been run for the staff, not for the faculty, and not for the students.”

Of course, few students – or their tuition paying parents – are surprised. A single purchase from Novack Café says more than enough on the matter. Just as unsurprising are the significant questions of administrative competence that Mr. Asch raised. In light of Dartmouth’s media blunders and poor handling of a seemingly endless array of protests and scandals, Mr. Asch commented, “We’ve just been putting people in place who just aren’t competent… Over the past fifteen years the Dean of the College’s Office has been staffed by weak people, and we’re suffering the effects of those choices today.”

The Dartmouth community does have something to look forward to on the issue. Mr. Asch shared his opinions on the upcoming split of the Dean of the College’s Office: “Essentially what they’re doing now is splitting the Dean of the College’s Office into two offices: Dean Inge-Lise Ameer in a Provost Office position and a faculty member as the official Dean of the College.” Mr. Asch did mention that while the decision technically involves adding to the existing bureaucracy, it “would be a good idea if done with the right people… If you look at the Dean of the College’s equivalent at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, they’re faculty positions held by very impressive faculty members. They’re tenured professors with long records of publication and research, and people that students respect.”

Myth Busting: Fraternity Alumni

“There’s always been a notion that in disciplining students,” Mr. Asch remarked to us, “all the big rich alumni call up and say ‘don’t do it!’ and give the frats a bye or give the students a bye… This superstition should die.”

What is the reality when wealthy and influential fraternity alumni get involved when their former fraternities get in trouble? Mr. Asch himself asked two former deans the same question. “’If anything,’” he told us they explained to him, “‘the alumni encouraged us to be harsher than we were willing to be. The alumni wanted bad behavior cleaned up… The alumni wanted rigor and seriousness.’”

Dartblog’s Source

Any Dartblog reader often finds him or herself asking how exactly Mr. Asch gets his information. How does he always seem to know the inside scoop? We got the chance to ask him.

“I have sources in the administration. I don’t know who they are. They get a fake email address and they send me email with comments, documents and pictures. It’s untraceable… At least half my posts come directly from sources.”

The Review thanks Mr. Asch for his time and frankness.

Sandor Farkas also contributed to this report.

Correction: In the print edition of this article, we accidentally said that Mr. Asch ran for Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees “multiple times.” Mr. Asch only ran for a seat on the Board once.