The Old Dartmouth Difference

The potential problem lies in how students and our institutions will relate to the administration in the post-MDF climate.

The potential problem lies in how students and our institutions will relate to the administration in the post-MDF climate.

Among other things, some good, some bad, and some yet to be determined, the year-and-a-half old Hanlon presidency has brought a return of purposeful vision to the College. Though Jim Yong Kim’s air of enthusiasm (including literal cheerleading on the sidelines of Memorial Field) helped him “connect” with students at the surface level, President Hanlon has already outdone him with his constant, un-showy dives into the deeper currents of student life.

It’s definitely a good thing to once again have a president who understands his role as being bigger than fundraising and PR. University presidents and leaders of all institutions who focus on the levers of management and take culture for granted usually see their organizations lose flavor, if not their entire reason for being. With the touch of an alumnus, President Hanlon has reminded the administration (and any students or alumni who may have forgotten) that Dartmouth ought to be a certain way, upholding certain values and providing a certain depth of experience. Looking beyond his mostly flat speeches, Hanlon has shown a keen awareness that a Dartmouth that turns out men and women with nothing but a diploma, a great salary, and a vague notion of “global citizenship,” as President Kim would have had it, is no Dartmouth at all.

Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward plan, which presumably was an answer to the College’s Greek life issues and PR woes during its planning phase, turned out to be the centerpiece of a broad moral vision for Dartmouth. But in pursuing a higher standard for student life, a few of his MDF proposals ran into the problem that sits opposite of Kim’s hands-off approach on the administrative-involvement spectrum: micromanagement. The hard alcohol ban is the ominous tip of the iceberg, but MDF’s entire approaches to Greek life and other delicate areas of student life at the College have the potential to partially erode the tradition of student independence that has really allowed Dartmouth students to flourish like few others.

The potential problem lies in how students and our institutions will relate to the administration in the post-MDF climate. Tails and hard partying will survive the liquor ban in many forms. But the first time the College brings down its merciless sanctions on a student or Greek house caught in violation, it will dampen the campus’s spirit and make social life a little more rigid. Fraternity and sorority members pour their time and effort into their houses because they have the sense that inside the walls of their house exists an experience that they truly control. Students make an investment by managing and participating in independent endeavors that have a degree of privacy and room for an organic, original culture to grow. The payoff on that investment is character and skills built in the social life arena, which are so substantial and crucial to student success latter on, that the College should strain itself to keep groups’ independence intact even when parts of their culture seem unsavory on the surface.

Hanlon similarly overreached in MDF’s approach to academic rigor. Just as with social life, it’s clear to any fair-minded observer that Dartmouth has academic problems that the administration should play a leading role in addressing. The need for a richer intellectual culture at Dartmouth has been addressed on The Dartmouth Review’s pages and elsewhere over the past year. But if Hanlon’s plan to ramp-up academic rigor plays out with depressed grades and more time in the classroom, it will threaten to stifle students’ free range to throw ourselves into independent endeavors in the same fashion as overregulation of our social lives.

The balance between advancing a rich administrative vision for the College while preserving student independence is delicate, but Dartmouth’s most cherished alumni demonstrate how remarkable the results have been when we’ve gotten the formula right. Daniel Webster and Theodor Geisel cultivated much of their rich outlooks on life during their years at the College, but were also great drinkers and free thinkers who chafed against Dartmouth’s establishment. Robert Frost and Fred Rogers both spoke fondly of their time at Dartmouth during their final years of life, but as students both felt the pull of their independent pursuits so strongly that they felt compelled to leave before graduating, with Frost returning to his farm and his poetry and Rogers entering seminary. A more rarely remembered example, but perhaps the greatest, is John Ledyard, Class of 1775. Ledyard was a charismatic student and confidant of Eleazar Wheelock at the newborn college, but only came into his own by leading fellow students on unauthorized camping expeditions and ultimately by departing Hanover altogether to spend the rest of his life at sea. If Dartmouth is to continue to form men and women with this boldness and depth, it must preserve moral ambition but check every impulse to downgrade the robustness of the student independence.

But how can we address the shortcomings and excesses of Dartmouth’s culture without curbing students’ range of options? President Hanlon should look deeper into the legacy of John Kemeny, his fellow mathematician and the president during Hanlon’s own tenure at Dartmouth, for a guiding example. Following in the footsteps of John Dickey, Kemeny was Dartmouth’s last president before the era when it became unsophisticated to describe the purpose of college as anything more than pre-professional training and diversity immersion. He articulated a detailed vision for life and learning at Dartmouth, pioneering the College’s cutting-edge computer science research and presiding over the beginning of coeducation in 1972. But rather than shrinking the space for students to grow and explore amongst themselves with his administrative actions, he introduced the D-Plan, which has provided Dartmouth students with nearly unlimited space to chart our own course throughout our years at the College and reap whatever skills and experience our chosen off-terms have to offer.

Moving Dartmouth Forward falls short of Kemeny’s mark in many ways, but another one of Hanlon’s signature initiatives appears to have the potential to walk the balance between administrative vision and student independence. In a conversation with The Review last term, President Hanlon expounded on the concept of experiential learning beyond the hints and mentions he’s sprinkled throughout his speeches since his inauguration. Students stand to benefit tremendously if Hanlon succeeds in enriching the curriculum with more opportunities for hands-on learning. As Hanlon’s presidency rounds the corner to maturity, let’s hope that he matches his ambition for purposeful student life with greater appreciation for students’ free creative space and emphasizes a style of learning that advances both, as opposed to the harsh tradeoffs of Moving Dartmouth Forward.