×

Some See Dartmouth Growth Proposals as Threat to College’s Identity

  • The east side of campus and College Park is seen from the Baker Tower on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Phil Hanlon, the college's president, is considering an expansion of the school's undergraduate population. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth Executive Vice President Rick Mills told the audience that student housing proposed to be built on the western edge of College Park and a possible increase in student population are not related during a Dartmouth Executive Vice President Rick Mills discussed student housing proposed to be built on the western edge of College Park during a Dartmouth Town Hall event in Spaulding Auditorium in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Mills said the proposed housing would absorb students displaced as other residence halls are renovated or demolished. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A dog walker crosses the Baker Library lawn at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. The university is studying increasing its undergraduate student population by 10 to 25 percent. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Bartlett Tower, located on the east side of the Dartmouth College campus, seen on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2017, at the college in Hanover, N.H. Phil Hanlon, the college's president, is considering an expansion of the school's undergraduate population. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A dog-walker stops near Rauner Library on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. The university is studying a undergraduate student increase of between 10 and 25 percent. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The east side of campus and College Park is seen from the Baker Tower on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Phil Hanlon, the college's president, is considering an expansion of the school's undergraduate population. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, December 03, 2017

Hanover — Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon’s ongoing study into expanding the undergraduate student population by as much as 25 percent has drawn a strong response from students, faculty and alumni as a deadline nears for public comment — a response that, with a few exceptions, has been largely negative.

The editorial boards of both the mainstream daily student newspaper, The Dartmouth, and its right-leaning counterpart, The Dartmouth Review, oppose an expansion. Professors voiced concerns directly to the college president during a recent faculty meeting.

And as part of a public comment process initiated by the administration, alumni letters have flooded into administrators’ mailboxes — most of them against the proposal, if messages made public by their writers are a representative sample.

Hanlon in August announced that he had launched a task force of faculty and administrators to investigate a 10 to 25 percent expansion of Dartmouth’s 4,300-member undergraduate student body, the smallest in the Ivy League.

Although he stressed that he and the college trustees had made no final decision, Hanlon at the time said the idea was worth considering for its potential to increase Dartmouth’s influence outside of Hanover and diversity on campus.

Administrators also have hinted at potential financial benefits.

As a Nov. 8 college news release notes, “The task force is also considering whether there are economies of scale to be achieved — ways of more efficient operation that could be realized by increasing the number of students.”

Some community members argue that neither economic nor academic gains are in the offing.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” read the headline for a Sept. 15 editorial in The Dartmouth that warned of strain on the school’s resources and danger to its tight-knit, undergraduate-focused profile.

“Dartmouth’s students, for the most part, chose the College because it puts undergraduates first. If Dartmouth expands by 10 to 25 percent, the potential change — as many as 1,100 more students — risks stripping the College of its identity, even if facilities are also expanded,” the paper’s student editors wrote.

Earlier this year, The Dartmouth also editorialized against an ongoing study into a 750-bed dormitory project in College Park, the forest east of the Dartmouth Green that hosts the 160-year-old Shattuck Observatory.

Administrators have sought to differentiate the two initiatives. During a meeting last week, Dartmouth Executive Vice President Rick Mills said the primary point of building dorms in College Park would be to provide swing space for renovation or demolition of aging dorms.

On the enrollment front, a handful of professors confronted Hanlon in October as he chaired a faculty meeting. The professors raised concerns about the potential impact of expansion and criticized administrators’ decision to begin planning such a consequential change without consulting faculty first.

Stephen Brooks, an associate professor of government, said his colleagues were expressing concerns about the administration’s ability to pull off an expansion, given the existing backlog of improvements needed to facilities and faculty resources.

“In an expansion, however it is done, there are going to be situations where we thought there would be enough dorms, and there weren’t,” Brooks said, according to a recording of the event. “We thought there would be enough first-year classrooms. There weren’t. We thought there would be enough faculty in this department. There weren’t. And then there would be a lag, and presumably that issue would be addressed.

“It’s hard to have confidence, what many faculty have told me, in how that process would work, given that right now we are dealing with the various issues that we have pointed out are problems now for the faculty here, even before the expansion, and they haven’t been fixed.”

Mary Coffey, an associate professor of art history, said many faculty members, particularly among the humanities, feel that administrators should have consulted them before going public with the idea.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be asked to do this until we have been given a compelling argument for why it should be considered at all,” she said in an interview last week, recalling her comments from the same meeting.

Moreover, Coffey said, she and others have doubts about administrators’ ability to field the resources and strike the fine balance needed to grow the school without overburdening it or sacrificing its identity.

“We are something more than a liberal arts college in that we have a research profile, and we are also distinct from a research university” in that Dartmouth’s professors are closely engaged with their students, she said. “It’s a very small niche, but it’s our sweet spot. It’s what we do best.”

“We are extremely vigilant when we think that the conditions that make that possible are being potentially modified or eroded,” she added.

During the October faculty meeting, Hanlon gave terse responses that focused on process. “So you’ve exactly made the argument for why we need to involve the task force to look at ... what are all the things we need to consider if we are going to go this way,” he told Coffey. “That’s exactly their job.”

To Brooks, Hanlon offered a correction: The task force would not be considering the potential costs of expansion, he said.

“Just as a factual error,” he said. “Cost is not even anywhere in the charge of this task force.”

Dean of the Faculty Elizabeth Smith, who is one of the Task Force on Enrollment Expansion’s co-chairs, also has added the caveat that her group is coming up with hypothetical plans for expansion, but not with a recommendation about whether it’s a good idea.

“Our charge is to look at how — not whether — to expand enrollment,” she said in a college announcement from August.

As part of its planning process, the task force for the past month has been soliciting comments from the college community. Alumni, students, faculty, staff and community members are invited to email the group at Enrollment.Taskforce@dartmouth.edu by Monday.

Smith and the committee’s other co-chair, Dean of the College Rebecca Biron, declined to comment last week on how their work was progressing.

College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence declined to characterize what kind of response the task force had received so far, and pointed to Hanlon’s original statements about the potential plan from August.

“The most compelling reason to contemplate growth is that Dartmouth aspires to better the world by preparing graduates who have the skills and ambitions to go out and change the world,” Hanlon said at the time. “A larger student body would lead to more graduates, which would amplify our impact on the world.”

Peter Bridges, a 1953 alumnus and retired foreign service officer from Virginia, was one of many to write in. He shared his letter to Hanlon and the task force with the Valley News last week.

“The need to expand is argued on the College’s need to have a greater impact on the world and to gain ‘flexibility,’ ” he said, referring to the college president’s argument that more students would mean greater flexibility in selecting diverse classes.

“Those are patently false arguments,” Bridges said. “If having a greater impact on the world is a question of size, then Cornell, for example, should be more influential than Dartmouth; but who would say that it is?”

Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., has about 14,500 undergraduates, the largest of the Ivies.

“As to flexibility,” added Bridges, who served as ambassador to Somalia in the mid-1980s, “let me say on the basis of long experience that a bigger bureaucratic machine is not a more flexible one.”

Meanwhile, the expansion debate has spilled into the constituency it might most directly affect: current students. And where better for the nation’s brightest young scholars to debate the future of their Ivy League institution than on Facebook?

Luke Cuomo, a sophomore from Long Island, made an opening salvo by posting a “meme,” an image superimposed with humorous text, to a Facebook group geared toward Dartmouth students.

The meme showed Hanlon as a stationmaster with a lever controlling the fork of two railroad tracks marked “expand student body” and “destroy College Park.”

“You are Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon,” the title says. “Your goal is to tarnish the character of Dartmouth as best you can with unpopular initiatives.”

In the next frame, sparks fly as a train car slides along both tracks. “Multi-track drifting!!” the fictional Hanlon says.

As so often happens in the comments sections of lighthearted internet postings, Cuomo soon found himself in a serious debate with another student, Gyan Moorthy, who cautiously favors the expansion.

Moorthy, a sophomore from El Paso, Texas, said he had done charity work in his area and seen parents struggling with poverty light up when they learned their children had received scholarships to elite colleges like Dartmouth.

“If we can get to the point where we tell fewer people ‘no,’ where we can afford the incredible opportunities we have to offer to a larger student body, that should be something we can be proud of,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

Cuomo, for his part, said he wasn’t necessarily against any kind of expansion — only the way in which administrators were going about it now.

Dartmouth, Cuomo said in a separate interview, is known for being a “small, intimate institution where you can have contact with your professors.” Growth wouldn’t necessarily jeopardize that, he said, but only if planned carefully.

And on that point, the two seemed to agree.

“My support for this expansion isn’t unequivocal,” Moorthy said. “I want us to go forward only if we can go forward together.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.

Correction

Luke Cuomo is a sophomore at Dartmouth College. An earlier version of this story incorrectly st   ated what class he is in.