What’s Wrong With Parkhurst?

By Mene O. Ukueberuwa

The enlightened Dartmouth student is well aware that a variety of the seemingly unrelated cultural quirks that define our college are actually bound together by a single, fundamental theme. The perennial dominance of Greek-life, the popularity of a cappella groups, the surfeit of student service organizations, and many of the odd but durable traditions that define our campus are all representative of the student control of our own atmosphere. The activities of our motivated and autonomous student body are central to the unique culture of the College in a way that seems to leave little room for the lingering presence of bureaucratic administration. And yet, in spite of their often-inconspicuous nature, the Dartmouth administration dwells within Parkhurst Hall, monitoring daily the rapidly flowing course of student life and sporadically interjecting with initiatives designed to improve it. At the heart of these operations is David Spalding ’76 who, as Chief of Staff to the President’s Office, is charged with oversight of the administrative agenda. Mr. Spalding sat down to offer a rare introspective account of the workings of the Dartmouth administration and presented several insights that may help us decode their hazy image.

The initial point of inquiry was the central one: the nature of the president’s role, which spans the wide range between fundraising and fiscal matters, and the evolving collection of student concerns. “The key for dealing with the broad range of issues was that no one person could fulfill all the requirements,” Mr. Spalding recalled of the establishment process of Jim Yong Kim’s presidency, during which he suggested “unprecedented attention” was given to the formation of the administrative management team. While he agreed that Mr. Kim’s position as the face of the administration requires him to remain engaged in conversation with students, he pointed out that “[Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson] is the right person to go to” to seek an audience within the administration for the bulk of comments and questions that are often directed toward the president.

In spite of Mr. Kim’s efforts to maintain the appearance of swift responsiveness and accountability to student concerns, many students and alumni have criticized him for what they perceive as detached and “technocratic” decision-making. Parkhurst’s positions on controversial measures such as the Connecticut River docks, the BlitzMail overhaul, and the meal-plan reforms have struck the Dartmouth community as perplexing at best and in the eyes of the administration’s harshest critics, representative of a lack of sympathy for student concerns. Mr. Spalding attempted to rebut any doubts about the president’s intention in attaining the best outcome for the students. “Our objective is to seek out a wide range of opinions before decisions are made,” he asserted firmly, suggesting that financial sustainability and safety were among key factors that contributed to decisions considered less than optimal by students. However, he also stressed the fact that the decision-making process is always continuous and, as in the case of the river docks, there are always opportunities to reconcile differences of opinion.

In addition to President Kim’s handling of student affairs, another fierce and unresolved point of debate surrounding Parkhurst has been the administration’s handling of the recent financial crisis, as many of the College’s progressive students and faculty still maintain that measures taken in the wake of the crisis had unnecessarily harsh consequences for Dartmouth’s employees. Mr. Spalding confidently addressed the criticisms, suggesting that the public may not have been fully aware of the depth of the situation. “From a financial standpoint, we just came out of one of the worst financial crises the College has ever faced,” he recounted in defense of the termination of 38 members of the Dartmouth staff, the move that eventually sparked the “Students Stand With Staff” protests during the Spring 2011 term. “We saved well over 100 jobs,” he continued, indicating that there were voices inside the administration advocating measures even more draconian than the ones that were eventually put into place. Mr. Spalding also highlighted the rehiring of many previously laid-off employees as the College recovered from the initial downturn as evidence of the administration’s continuing commitment to strong labor relations. However, he shed additional light on the crisis to provide justification for one measure that has been more permanent: the reforms to employee insurance plans. “When you see your endowment decline by 20%, and that’s putting aside the sharp decline in fundraising, certain steps need to be taken,” he stated before saying that the administration “maintained that employees need to contribute” to closing the budget gap in the form of a general increase in their contributions to their health insurance plans.

Aside from the budget issues and student affairs that draw considerable attention and bring the administration into direct contact with the public, there are also several initiatives that are conceived and designed in relative silence within the walls of Parkhurst. Asked if there were any such cases he considered particularly worthy of the Dartmouth community’s attention, Mr. Spalding mentioned the research being done in conjunction with the National College Health Improvement Program to find methods to reduce the negative effects of binge drinking at Dartmouth. “The collaboration is something that hasn’t been done on this level before,” he described of the effort, acknowledging its developing success and stating his hope that a similar approach, combining the broad base of research of a national program with the specific local knowledge of the Dartmouth administration, could be applied to problem solving for other critical issues.

Compounding the difficulty of crafting solutions in the interest of students and staff, Parkhurst is also tasked with incorporating the opinions of Dartmouth’s body of alumni into its decision-making. As Mr. Kim’s first introduction to the unique culture of Dartmouth came during his preparation to assume the presidency and given his reputation as an energetic progressive reformer, one might assume he would have clashed with a dedicated alumni corps that had often taken issue with the agendas of previous and often out-of-touch presidents. Mr. Spalding, however, attempted to paint a different picture, naming several examples he hoped would demonstrate Mr. Kim’s knowledge of and appreciation for the College’s many particularities. “He came to the very first meeting in a green tie,” he reminisced before continuing to note Mr. Kim’s early knowledge of the fraternity system and the priority given to intimate undergraduate teaching. “He has definitely shown himself as someone who his able to speak to the hearts of the alumni,” Mr. Spalding said in summary, acknowledging the fact that the emotional connection to life at the College is often as resonant amongst Dartmouth’s graduates as are strictly logical considerations in the crafting of administrative policy.

Departing from the scrutiny of Mr. Kim’s relationship to the Dartmouth community, Mr. Spalding’s remarks concluded with an open discussion of his own experiences at the College, and how they have informed his work as an administrator. When asked what characteristics of Dartmouth qualify its description as a truly exceptional institution, he did not hesitate before delving into a heartfelt recollection of the story of his relationship with the College from its foremost origin. “Dartmouth had a transformative impact on my father, Lyle Spalding ’52,” who he recounted as having arrived in Hanover from Kentucky and been shaped by the influences of prominent professors in his time as an undergraduate. “When students come to Dartmouth, they really come to Dartmouth,” he added, explaining how the College’s isolated setting and vibrant spiritedness differentiate it from its peer institutions. He finished, however, with a cautionary insight, urging critics to understand that a deep love for and understanding of Dartmouth is not exclusive to the College’s alumni. Speaking of the many members of the administration who did not graduate from Dartmouth, he said “most spend more [years at the College] than the typical undergraduate student,” affirming his opinion that while identification with Dartmouth is the fundamental component of meaningful administrative work, it is a quality that can be acquired by anyone willing through the dedication of time and effort. His rigorous account of the qualities of these men and women of Parkhurst and the taxing process by which they attempt to appropriately shape the student experience at Dartmouth may be an essential addition to each member of the College community’s understanding of our campus character.