Reconsidering David McLaughlin.

By Joe Rago ‘05

Editor’s Note: This piece was published in The Dartmouth Review on October 18, 2004.

David Thomas McLaughlin passed away in August. He was a member of the Class of 1954, a 1955 graduate of the Amos Tuck School, a member of the Board of Trustees from 1971 to 1981, and from 1981 to 1987 the fourteenth president of Dartmouth College. When he died, he was seventy-two years old and fifty-four of those years – from the day he became an undergraduate in 1950 to the moment of his final summons – were both distinguished and haunted by a kind of fanaticism for this College.I don’t mean to characterize President McLaughlin as phrenetic or lunatic, and I hope no one would deem me disrespectful of his memory. Rather, for those who care deeply for Dartmouth his fanaticism is vindicated: it confirms the extraordinary power of this institution in the lives of young men and women. But it is difficult to consider his life and times without sadness, too. The years he superintended Dartmouth were almost certainly the most brutal in College history, and his self-styled and self-absorbed opponents denounced him with ferocity that bordered on cruelty – he was condemned not for his positions or for what he believed or even for his character but for what he ineffably was. The more one lingers over his Presidency, the more elegiac it becomes.

I don’t mean to characterize President McLaughlin as phrenetic or lunatic, and I hope no one would deem me disrespectful of his memory. Rather, for those who care deeply for Dartmouth his fanaticism is vindicated: it confirms the extraordinary power of this institution in the lives of young men and women. But it is difficult to consider his life and times without sadness, too. The years he superintended Dartmouth were almost certainly the most brutal in College history, and his self-styled and self-absorbed opponents denounced him with ferocity that bordered on cruelty – he was condemned not for his positions or for what he believed or even for his character but for what he ineffably was. The more one lingers over his Presidency, the more elegiac it becomes.He was as Prometheus bolted to the face of the Caucasus, where a vulture preyed daily at his liver and knew that he must face the same agony over and over and over again. But, like Prometheus, Mclaughlin harbored an enduring faith that made it all worthwhile, and that faith too came from the classical world. He often cited Pericles’ statement of what the Athenians discovered: that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is a brave heart. “The spirit of Dartmouth,” he continued, “also comes from a brave heart.” The public life of David McLaughlin, for all its sorrow, was never a pity because he never lost confidence in that most precious of quantities: his fanaticism.

He was as Prometheus bolted to the face of the Caucasus, where a vulture preyed daily at his liver and knew that he must face the same agony over and over and over again. But, like Prometheus, Mclaughlin harbored an enduring faith that made it all worthwhile, and that faith too came from the classical world. He often cited Pericles’ statement of what the Athenians discovered: that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is a brave heart. “The spirit of Dartmouth,” he continued, “also comes from a brave heart.” The public life of David McLaughlin, for all its sorrow, was never a pity because he never lost confidence in that most precious of quantities: his fanaticism.

He was in every sense the classic Dartmouth Man, at least as it was memorably defined by English Professor H. H. Horne in the late nineteenth century: “the vigorous liver of life,” “versatile, straightforward, and capable,” “practical, forceful, and efficient,” a man for whom “the College comes first, partial interests of whatever kind second.”

As an undergraduate, McLaughlin won membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society; he was a brother of Beta Theta Pi; he was an Air Force R.O.T.C. cadet; he joined both the Green Key society and the Casque and Gauntlet senior society. McLaughlin was president of his junior class and he was unanimously elected president of the Undergraduate Council his senior year. And he was a three-sport varsity athlete, lettering in football, basketball, and track and field; his senior year he was ranked as the fifth leading wide receiver in the nation and the best in the Ivy League. His gridiron record for yards gained in a single season stood for twenty-three years.

The Class of 1954 awarded him the Barrett Cup, conferred on the senior “giving the greatest promise of becoming a factor in the outside world through his strength of character and the qualities of leadership, record of scholarship, broad achievement, and influence among his fellows.” Few – then or now – could possibly measure up.

He was drafted to play football professionally but turned the offer down to pursue an M.B.A. at Tuck. For two years he flew jets for the U.S. Air Force. Then for two decades he was a highly-successful executive in the corporate world. For all his achievement, he never lost sight of Dartmouth. He was elected to the Dartmouth Board of Trustees and eventually became its Chairman. And when John Kemeny stepped down from the Presidency, McLaughlin was chosen as his successor. Yet, in a cruel irony, it was precisely this post-Dartmouth accomplishment – or for that matter, his accomplishment at Dartmouth – that devastated his presidency.

It was McLaughlin’s lot to assume office under the sour, stolid intellectual and social ferment that characterized higher education in those days. The faculty was increasingly stocked by splenetic radicals and certain restraints had worn away. In this atmosphere, everything about McLaughlin was amiss. He was nothing more than a purse-proud businessman – he didn’t even have a doctorate, for Christ’s sake – and for the stable of faculty ideologues, this amounted to apostasy. His very presence debauched the College’s intellectual airs.

Tellingly, McLaughlin’s relationship with the faculty was catastrophic. During his inaugural address to the assembled professors, one stood up and shouted, to cheers, “You don’t belong here!” Despite aggressive diplomacy on his part, the situation steadily worsened. McLaughlin quarreled bitterly with the faculty over the R.O.T.C. program (he wanted it, and for the most part they didn’t). Moreover, he could not escape his own Dartmouth experience, which seemed antique against the new styles. He joked in public about the freshmen being ‘pea-green’ and mounted a vigorous defense of College athletics (he would never allow sports to be ousted from their “rightful place in the education of future generations of men and women”).

While it often seemed as though some professors were prepared to challenge McLaughlin to draw pistols and mark off twenty paces, the arguments were really about control. Then, as now, the identity of Dartmouth was not entirely fixed. Most of the faculty desired broad change. McLaughlin was more moderate. “It serves us well to remember that the College has never wavered from its original purpose,” he said in his inaugural address.

And as often happens with those fancying themselves sophisticated and progressive, the faculty behaved with haughty disdain. In one instance, they took it upon themselves to vote, overwhelmingly, to abolish the Greek system at the College; McLaughlin said that he valued the opinion and would take it under advisement. He did not abolish the Greek system.

“There are areas of the College, however – fraternities are an example – where the faculty have concerns,” he later said, “but where they have not had the determining voice in terms of where the fraternities go.” They were enraged. In 1985 fifty-two faculty petitioners stirred up tell of a “leadership crisis” at Dartmouth.

In a horrible piece of fortuity, the incident that decisively ended the McLaughlin administration came not from the left, where the McLaughlin critique was more or less centered, but from the right. I’m referencing, of course, the notorious evening in 1986 when a group of aggrieved students, most of them Dartmouth Review staffers, pulled down several plywood shanties that had been erected on the Green to protest Apartheid in South Africa.

With the passage of time, it is now clear that that single incendiary action is really one of the most bizarre events in the history of contemporary higher education, notable mainly for its spectacular mismanagement by everyone involved and the withering criticism it inspired, unique both for its duration and for its intensity. Had the situation been diffused, or had it not spiraled out of control in the way that it did, the Presidency of David McLaughlin might’ve been wholly different.

The day after the shanties came down, nearly two-hundred students and professors stormed Parkhurst Hall and occupied it. Secretaries fled in panic. Dissidents turned over papers and shouted out impromptu speeches. Several students were hung in effigy from the rafters. Rushing back from a fundraising trip in Florida, McLaughlin found angry protesters standing on his furniture, tearing memorabilia from the walls, and stamping on his things. One of them wanted to know why he was off-campus on the day before the incident, Martin Luther King Day. “What was so important and precious that you couldn’t be here to share that with me?” he wanted to know. McLaughlin responded, “My absence wasn’t an attempt to be insensitive to your burning need.”

Even the students involved in “beautifying” the Green admitted that the dismantling was probably ill-advised. But both sides were radicalized by events. McLaughlin’s old leftist foes took the incident as an opportunity: the students involved in the demolition were hauled before the Committee on Standards on trumped-up charges. They were subjected to closed-door proceedings that were transparently used to mollify the ideologues by handing down exceedingly harsh sentences. Four students involved were expelled from the College, and eight were suspended for two terms. (The punishments were later overturned by a court of law.)

Because of his handling of the C.O.S. hearings, conservatives turned on McLaughlin too, and they were unrepentant. The rightward critique had been analogous to Teddy Roosevelt’s verdict on Howard Taft: “feebly well-meaning;” now, it became far more insistent and caviling. Even the Governor of New Hampshire (an ex officio member of the Board of Trustees, as stipulated in the College Charter) criticized McLaughlin for his handling of the situation.

But I don’t want to continue turning over the old issues. What most strikes me about the whole contretemps is how small it was, how petty and mean the issues, how willing were those on both fronts to lapse into sanctimony or mawkish histrionics. It was approached as a parlor game, and third-rate events cut down a first-rate man. They spoiled the ship for a halfpenny’s worth of tar.

Shortly thereafter, the faculty voted 167 to 2 in favor of an ad hoc committee to examine the McLaughlin administration; the eventual report accused him of misprisons, stating that his leadership was “antithetical to effective governance.”  In out-of-town appearances, McLaughlin was increasingly crestfallen. A few times he referred to the Presidency in third-person – “whoever is President” or “whether I am President or someone else.” He formally stepped down late in 1986.

Ernest Martin Hopkins had three decades to leave his mark on Dartmouth. John Sloan Dickey had more than two. David Thomas McLaughlin had six years. Francis Brown’s experience as president (1815 to 1820) is probably closest to McLaughlin’s. Brown’s tenure spanned the whole of the Dartmouth College case, and the unremitting stress and controversy of it killed him. He died when he was thirty-five.

At the memorial service held for McLaughlin two weeks ago in Rollins Chapel, current President James Wright said that “his legacy as the fourteenth President is clear.” Is it, though?

To be sure, he was responsible for several significant achievements. For one, faculty salaries increased considerably, rising forty-three per cent over a five-year period (though in many ways this was appeasement, an attempt to still the turbulent state of affairs). Under McLaughlin, three dormitories, the Rockefeller Center, the Hood Museum, the Friends of Dartmouth Rowing Boathouse, and Berry Sports center were built. McLaughlin bolstered need-blind admissions. The College endowment also ballooned considerably under McLaughlin’s tenure – who could have deduced that such a corporate businessman would be responsible for such derring-do – and he rationalized its management, which was in a constant state of crisis under the Kemeny administration.

David Thomas McLaughlin

David Thomas McLaughlin

McLaughlin also secured approval – over faculty resistance – to relocate the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital from Maynard Street to a remote location in Lebanon. The move made room to expand the undergraduate campus northward and allowed for the creation of an entirely new campus for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, now recognized as one of the leading hospitals in the nation. It’s fitting that the new student facilities to be built on the old hospital property will be named after McLaughlin; it’s also fitting that President Wright called the relocation McLaughlin’s “most long-lasting accomplishment.” “It stands only behind co-education,” he said, “in shaping the modern Dartmouth and the future of this College.”

Yet in another cruel irony, especially for a man so often dismissed as philistine, I think David McLaughlin’s real legacy is an idea – an idea about Dartmouth and, as part of that, an idea about the limitations of ideas.

“Education to me,” he said, “is defined more than just in the classroom.” Dartmouth provided fine schooling, but the Dartmouth experience was far more robust than just that. His believed in “the vital destiny of Dartmouth as a place where the future leaders of this country and of other nations will be developed intellectually, socially, and morally.”

In his valedictory to the Class of 1983, McLaughlin said that education was a “never-ending process,” where one was “always questioning, forever growing, perennially renewing one’s sense of self and extending one’s personal development in a world that cries out for leadership and for understanding.” Most, though, would only be at Dartmouth for four years. The College could not provide a complete education – no school could. This is a sophisticated idea about the intellectual limits of academia. What was far more important, he said, was the idea of the College itself.

When there are no bones, as T. S. Eliot said, anybody can carve a goose. For McLaughlin, the thing that put the bones into the goose was “the embrace of the sustaining bond that will forever exist between you and your College.”

He had a faith in tradition and history that was nearly atavistic. He consistently emphasized the importance of “all lasting traditions” at the College, which he said allowed his students to be “enlarged and enriched by the act of giving himself… to a greater cause.” He realized that change was inevitable, but he said that the “challenge before us” was to confront change by preserving the essentials. We must change, he said, “and still, while doing so, to reinforce the constant values that have attended Dartmouth’s passage through other periods in the past.” At least for the nonce, the situation is usually reversed: Dartmouth has an adequate history, but it must change.

David McLaughlin was the last College President to articulate anything like this. He was an extraordinarily fair and even-handed leader – and this accounts for his fall from grace. He could not satisfy the ideologues, on either the left or the right, because he simply was not an ideologue. The rationale for his Presidency was not his politics but his fanaticism for the College. “We are the envy of almost every college in the land,” he said, again and again. He truly believed that Dartmouth was better, and more valuable, and more important, than just about anything else. He supposed that enough to hold things together. It was not a mentality that would lend itself to hermetic, cauterized orthodoxies.

And against almost universal condemnation, he never soured on Dartmouth. He never mourned or grieved. In his 1986 resignation report to the general faculty, he wrote, “I share with all of you an immense pride in this institution that we jointly serve. It is a place much greater than the sum of its parts – and greater than any single voice can describe or define. I love it – and I know that you do, too.”

McLaughlin described his relationship with the College (and President Wright pointed this out at the memorial service) as “a kind of love affair at first sight.” As if evidence of this, he passed away while he was on a fishing trip with several of his Dartmouth friends and classmates and his two sons, both of whom attended Dartmouth as well.

David McLaughlin once wrote that Dartmouth was “a very precious (and, I sometimes fear, a rare) form of organization.” And “the greatest danger” to that organization, he said, “is the risk of being taken for granted.” On the program for his memorial service was a poem adapted from ‘Remember Me’ by David Harkins, that read, in part, “You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday/ Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday/ You can remember him only that his is gone/ Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on.” His legacy, then, seems as great a triumph, and just as great a tragedy, as it ever did.