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Jim Kenyon: The Trouble With Dartmouth

  • 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. Geoff Hansen

Published: 1/7/2017 11:53:11 PM
Modified: 1/7/2017 11:53:12 PM

As a die-hard sports enthusiast, I probably should be more gung-ho about Dartmouth’s effort to build a massive indoor practice facility near Thompson Arena.

Neighborhood be damned.

But I’m finding it harder and harder these days to root for the home team. I’m not talking about Dartmouth football, hockey, basketball or other squads. It’s the institution, as a whole, that troubles me.

President Phil Hanlon and his crew take such a corporate approach to town-gown problems and employee relations that it’s nearly impossible to figure out if Dartmouth really is an evil empire or just a misunderstood financial giant lousy at public relations.

Exhibit A: In the case of Andy Harvard, the Hanlon administration had a golden opportunity to right the wrong of previous administrations.

Harvard, a 1971 Dartmouth graduate, was a world-class mountain climber who returned to Hanover in 2004 to oversee the Dartmouth Outing Club that had fallen into disarray.

Under Harvard’s leadership, the DOC regained its footing. In 2008, however, Harvard was fired for not doing an adequate job.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Harvard was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that wasn’t diagnosed until nine months after his dismissal.

In November 2015, I wrote about Harvard and his family’s struggle to collect $300,000 in disability and other benefits from the college. A few months later, three of Harvard’s classmates approached the Hanlon administration in hopes of persuading the college to finally “do the right thing.”

But the college continued to maintain that it had no legal obligation to help Harvard. In fact, under Hanlon, the college took an even harder line — rescinding its offer of $96,000, the equivalent of one year’s pay for Harvard, said Norwich attorney Geoffrey Vitt, who tried for seven years on the family’s behalf to reach a financial settlement.

With the college refusing to budge, Harvard’s friends and classmates established a trust to help with his long-term care expenses. Harvard, 67, has been at Wheelock Terrace, an assisted-living facility in Hanover, since 2015. His wife, Kathy, visits him a couple of times a day, juggling her marketing job and being home with their two teenage children.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited Harvard. Carrying on a conversation is “getting tougher,” his wife told me. “But the good news is that he’s at ease. He likes the rhythm of his life. It’s just a long, hard road.”

Information on the trust can be found on a website (Andyharvard.org) that friends have also set up. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the realities of younger-age Alzheimer’s,” Kathy Harvard said. “Even someone who has climbed the highest mountains can be brought to his knees by this disease that has no cure.”

I wondered if Dartmouth might consider making a generous contribution to the trust. After all, the college talks a lot — particularly during fundraising campaigns — about Dartmouth being a family.

After pitching the idea to a Dartmouth official, I heard back from Diana Lawrence, a college spokeswoman. In an email, Lawrence wrote that the college had offered “significant support on more than one occasion” that had been turned down.

“Dartmouth does not intend to revisit its position on the matter,” she wrote.

Exhibit B: In September 2015, Dartmouth informed Deb and Richard Higgins that their home’s well was contaminated with a chemical called 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a likely carcinogen.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the college used an old pasture, above the Higginses’ home, as a dumping ground for animal carcasses and chemicals that were part of lab experiments.

For the last 16 months or so, Dartmouth has provided the Higginses with bottled water and conducted monthly tests on their well, which continues to show concentrations of 1,4-dioxane above acceptable state levels.

Vitt, the Norwich attorney, has taken up their case. Last fall, with settlement negotiations having stalled, the Higginses asked the college to pay for them to rent a house. “The amount of stress it causes — knowing our house has no value and not knowing about the future effects on our health — is getting to be too much,” Deb Higgins told me. Dartmouth agreed to foot the bill — with a caveat. The college wanted to deduct the rental amount from any future settlement the couple might receive.

“We’re stuck,” Deb Higgins said. “We don’t have the money to re-locate.”

Deb, a paraplegic since she was a teenager, uses a wheelchair to get around. Her husband is a self-employed lawn maintenance man who does carpentry as well.

Ellen Arnold, a college attorney, told me the college has made “monetary offers” to the couple, but “negotiations broke down because of the magnitude of the Higginses’ demands.”

The case appears headed to court.

Which is where Dartmouth also expects the fate of its proposed indoor practice facility to be determined.

Last month, after nearby residents complained that the facility would be a monstrosity in their neighborhood, the Hanover Planning Board rejected the proposed structure. The college plans to challenge the town’s decision in Grafton Superior Court.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dartmouth ends up getting its way. With a $4.5 billion endowment, the college can afford to spend as much on lawyers as it takes.

I just wish the college would find a way to be more generous with the Harvard and Higgins families. What good is having billions of dollars sitting in the bank if you’re not willing to throw a bit of it around once in a while to make some problems go away — in this case by helping deserving people.




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