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Column: It’s a small college, but the recent botches are big

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 2/26/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 3/2/2021 9:31:53 AM

At the risk of being a back-seat driver or a Monday morning quarterback, what the heck is going on at Dartmouth College?

The good news, just to start on a positive note, is that applications are way up for admission to the Class of ’26. That seems to be a result of circumstances outside the college’s control. The temporary suspension of SAT requirements has led to a huge rise in applications to all the Ivies and other schools previously thought of as out of reach by wonderful students who are not strong standardized test takers. SAT scores track closely with wealth, so maybe this bodes well for a more economically diverse applicant pool.

But other than that, it seems to be one botch after another. Dartmouth may need that very large applicant pool to fill the class.

The granddaddy of botches is the Black Family Visual Arts Center debacle. The issue was covered well by Stan Colla, Ruth Cserr, Roberta Millstein and Diana Whitney, all members of the group Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, in a Valley News op-ed column on Wednesday (“Dartmouth must remove Leon Black’s name”).

I needn’t repeat all the facts, but a brouhaha has erupted over the donor, Apollo Global Management CEO Leon Black, being conspicuously honored while having had such close business dealings with a convicted sex offender, the late Jeffrey Epstein.

You know donor recognition has crossed an ethical threshold when your former fundraising leader is a public critic. Colla worked at Dartmouth for 20 years. Fundraisers, and I have been one, are not prudes when considering the extent to which you sometimes have to hold your nose with one hand while taking a check with the other. This stench is more of gas mask-wearing proportions.

The group’s column makes some useful suggestions, but true leadership would be for the college to rip off the bandage — the sign with Black’s name on it — immediately and let the chips fall where they may.

I have no knowledge of the naming agreement, but it is unimaginable that Black would sue the college. His history of burnishing his image suggests that he would not seek the headlines that would surely follow. Besides, the money he gave toward that building is chump change in Black’s cash register.

Obviously, to have a sign on a building that many will see as screaming “Abuse of girls tolerated here!” is not a good look for a school with a long and only weakly mitigated record of sexual harassment and misconduct.

The adventures in the athletics department do not speak well of leadership, either. Shutting down athletics programs is never a crowd pleaser, but to then reverse course isn’t an indication that the first decision really met an urgent need. If I had been lured to Dartmouth to compete for one of those teams, I’d be plenty miffed. And I can’t imagine trying to recruit athletes to these programs, or to coach them. The teams probably won’t be competitive for years to come. It’s unlikely top-flight athletes will come to a program that has been left high and dry by its college.

Perhaps coincidentally, the column about Leon Black appeared on the op-ed pages along with a plaintive column by cellist Daniel Lelchuk. Lelchuk, who grew up in Hanover and Canaan, eloquently chided the college for the boneheaded decision to close the Paddock Music Library (and the Kresge Physical Sciences Library), leaving Dartmouth as the only Ivy without a music library. That decision will probably not be reversed, as string players have even less clout than swimmers, divers, golfers and rowers, and certainly less than billionaire investment managers.

These examples of questionable judgment and other botches have lots of company. In recent years, just to name a few: A multimillion-dollar hole was dug in the wrong spot during construction of a new building (for the college’s engineering school!); the college planned an ill-advised wood-chip heating plant and then reversed course when the issue got too hot; it settled a $14 million sexual harassment class-action lawsuit; and more than 300 faculty, students and staff members, many of them people of color, signed a letter accusing the college of maintaining a “racially hostile” environment. All the while, tuition continues to rise and the endowment has grown to $6 billion, give or take.

I have no way, and no right, to assign responsibility for these serial goofs, but the buck must stop somewhere. One might look to the board of trustees and college President Phil Hanlon for answers.

I do have empathy for Dartmouth spokesperson Diana Lawrence, a former colleague. She must feel like the goalie on a dart team. But never fear! Maybe they’ll eliminate that sport in the next round of botches.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He is the author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk (Garn Press). Email him at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.




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