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Jim Kenyon: Will Alumni Make Course Correction at Hanover Country Club?

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Recent news that Dartmouth is thinking about getting out of the golf course business may strike some as eerily familiar. In November 2002, the college announced its men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs would be eliminated the following spring as part of campuswide belt tightening.

But within weeks, college officials did a backflip.

What changed?

Deep-pocketed supporters quickly ponied up $2 million in pledges to keep the teams afloat for 10 years. The college agreed to pick up the tab after that.

The lesson: Cry poverty, and good things will happen — compliments of wealthy Big Green alums.

Which brings me to Hanover Country Club.

Dartblog, the blog run by Dartmouth alum Joe Asch, first reported earlier this month that the college was considering closing the 118-year-old club for financial reasons. The college will continue to field golf teams, regardless of what happens to the club.

Over the last four years, Hanover Country Club ran an average deficit of $595,000, said college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence. “It’s no secret that memberships are down at golf clubs nationwide and they are losing money. We would be remiss if we did not consider ways to alleviate costs associated with owning and operating the Hanover Country Club,” she wrote in an email to Valley News staff writer Rob Wolfe.

But, Lawrence added, “no final decisions about the club have been made.”

Last week, Rick Mills, the college’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, indicated that at least one decision had been made about the 123-acre golf course.

“I don’t think there’s any intention to sell the land,” Mills told me. “The college recognizes the importance of the land to its future, and how much it’s valued as a community resource.”

No doubt the college also recognizes that residents of the tony neighborhood around nearby Occom Pond would be on the phone with their white-shoe lawyers the moment a for-sale sign went up to block private developers from laying claim.

Hanover Country Club’s financial woes come while Dartmouth is in the midst of a four-year effort to shift $17 million in annual operational expenses to academic endeavors. For an Ivy League school with a $4.5 billion endowment, the exercise smacks of window dressing. If Dartmouth is serious about cutting administrative costs, it might look at reducing its public relations army. The website for the office of communications lists 22 employees.

Then again, the spin masters have their work cut out these days. The word is that Dartmouth’s fundraising machine is leaking oil. (Last year’s $80 million gift from Irving Oil being an exception.)

President Phil Hanlon is under fire from Dartblog and its followers for a lackluster response to the college’s latest billion dollar — or more — capital campaign, which remains stuck in a so-called quiet phase.

Hanlon, who came aboard in 2013, exhibits no “wow factor” when he’s out on the alumni club circuit, Dartblog claims. The assessment is not out of bounds, but blaming Hanlon for failing to rally the troops — and persuading them to write large checks — seems unfair.

Dartmouth trustees knew what they were getting when they hired Hanlon — a mild-mannered, thoughtful, mathematics professor and Dartmouth alum unaccustomed to the spotlight.

Hanlon and most of his lieutenants weren’t in Hanover 15 years ago when the swimming drama played out. Still, I couldn’t help but ask if they saw Hanover County Club’s financial woes as an opportunity to awaken alums — or at least those who have fond memories of their alma mater’s golf links.

Mills, who I’ve found to be a straight shooter, told me that “most institutions are reluctant to allow donors to steer gifts toward individual projects that are emotionally appealing to them absent some alignment with larger institutional strategy.”

“It’s not a cohesive fundraising strategy.”

Unless, I suppose, the gift has enough zeros to get a donor’s name on a building.

On Thursday afternoon, I finagled a seat on Hanover Country Club’s back porch with 10 or so longtime members who had just finished playing a twice-weekly game.

The friendly group included alums and retired Dartmouth administrators. They were well aware that Lawrence, the college spokeswoman, had pointed out that club membership is on the decline, having fallen from 550 to 300 or so in roughly five years. (An adult membership costs $1,350 this year.)

It would be nice, they said, if the club drew more support from the college’s golf-playing administrators, starting with the president. They seldom see Hanlon — unlike his predecessor, Jim Kim, who was a member at Hanover and Montcalm Golf Club in Enfield.

If not to play golf, Hanlon might want to stop by Hanover Country Club just for the conversation. Among those on the porch Thursday afternoon was Ron Keenhold, who coached swimming and diving at Dartmouth for 38 years.

Although he no longer worked at the college in November 2002 when swimming was supposedly sunk, Keenhold immediately began calling “very loyal alumni.”

“They started making noise and before long other alumni were jumping on the bandwagon,” Keenhold said.

It might not be a “cohesive” fundraising strategy, but I’m betting the current talk of shutting down Hanover Country Club will be over before anyone can shout fore!

Or at least once alums start pulling out their checkbooks.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.