Why the Turnaround is Real

Power Line’s Paul Mirengoff recently posted his response to Peter Robinson’s and TJ Rodgers’ open letter to Dartmouth, as well as to my Homecoming editorial, both of which argued that the political turmoil of Dartmouth’s past decade deserves to be set aside now that Jim Kim has replaced Jim Wright as president of Dartmouth. 

Mirengoff writes:

Has Dartmouth turned it around? Or do the objections raised here on Power Line and by other “dissidents” still fully apply?

It depends on which objections we’re talking about. If we’re talking about things like insufficient attention by the president to the football team or an an unwillingness to say nice things about fraternities and the Dartmouth Review, then we have indeed witnessed a transformation under Jim Kim.

But what about academics, which I assume is the foremost issue for nearly all of Dartmouth’s critics? The two major problems I have focused on are (1) class size/inability to get into desirable classes and (2) instruction marred by the left-wing bias and/or outright foolishness of the professor.

I see no evidence of a turnaround on either score. In the spring of this year, my daughter, by then in her last term at Dartmouth, was still being shut out of courses she wanted to take in several humanities departments. And her search for that elusive third course was made more difficult by the fact that some of the courses that otherwise interested her were being taught in a foreign language — leftist, post-modern gibberish.

I agree with Mirengoff, Dartblog, and others that course enrollment restrictions remain a problem. Dartmouth simply hasn’t done an adequate job of satisfying the market demand for courses in Economics, Government, and other popular disciplines. Fixing that will require hiring more professors (preferably tenure-track hires, not adjuncts, as is the dispiriting trend in the modern academy). 

The oversubscription problem is derivative of the fact that Dartmouth (wisely) insists on keeping its class sizes small. In my Dartmouth career, I have taken only one class that had more than 60 students; the majority of my classes have had fewer than 20. My academic experience at Dartmouth has proven much more satisfactory than that which I had at Duke, where I spent my freshman year. At Duke, oversubscription was a much bigger problem: if you hadn’t signed up for your preferred classes within the first 5 minutes of course enrollment online, you had absolutely no chance of getting what you wanted. Even then, it was unlikely that you would get into more than half of your first-choice classes. My classes at Duke, which were mostly in the same disciplines (History, Political Science, Arabic) as I have studied at Dartmouth, were also often twice the size of my Dartmouth classes. Instruction was much less personal, and grading was almost always performed by teaching assistants. I’ve never had a TA at Dartmouth. 

That’s not to excuse oversubscription at Dartmouth. There seems to have been no appreciable turnaround in that area of performance under Kim, though I would argue that compared with one other peer data point (Duke), Dartmouth is doing great.

As for left-wing bias and general foolishness, I have been lucky enough not to encounter much of either in my Dartmouth studies. Sure, I’ve taken classes with professors who are very far to the left, many of whom I now count as friends. They have never imposed those personal feelings on me as a student; I have always been perfectly free to express myself as a conservative, and have never suffered academically because of it. The History and Government departments are teeming with first-rate professors, as is the Economics Department, with which I am familiar only by popular reputation. Of course, there are less-than-stellar teachers at Dartmouth, and the Review has chronicled a number of them. 

I would argue, however, that the turnaround has more to do with the spirit which Kim has brought to the job, which channels the institutional purpose that Dickey championed during his time as president. Kim understands that Dartmouth needs a unifying purpose to counter narrow specialization in the academy, and his eagerness to point to these ideas in his public remarks doesn’t count for nothing. He has met with the Review‘s own Jeffrey Hart on a regular basis to discuss the implementation of a new Great Books-like program that would give more coherence to the humanities, and the administration is apparently in the middle of a review process for reintroducing a Great Issues curriculum for sophomores during their summer term.

What will become of all these things? It still remains to be seen. But I would argue that when it comes to academics, President Kim says all the right things, and seems to be taking clear steps to bring back the old spirit of institutional purpose that makes the liberal arts the liberal arts. I agree that, for the time being, it’s mostly just words. But in this case, words matter a whole lot.

Charles Dameron