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Jim Kenyon: Remembering an unmatched critic of Dartmouth

  • Joe Asch at his home in Hanover, N.H., on Aug. 7, 2012. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Ryan Dorgan

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/5/2019 10:31:16 PM
Modified: 10/7/2019 1:29:56 PM

A few years ago, Dartmouth no longer wanted students building a giant snow sculpture on the Green for Winter Carnival.

The decision apparently arose out of fear the frozen artwork — a longstanding Dartmouth tradition — might topple over onto an unsuspecting student on her way to Baker Library. Or worse, a freshman stumbling home from a frat party might do a face plant while trying to scale the beast.

Imagine the lawsuit.

All snow sculptures would therefore be subject to a four-foot height restriction, Joe Asch reported in his Dartblog.

“Just which bean counter in the bureaucracy came up with that number?” Asch posed. “Are we supposed to believe that there is some insurance restriction on the height of snowmen?”

But Asch, a 1979 Dartmouth graduate, wasn’t done opining. “What you are seeing is a textbook example of the bureaucracy in action,” he continued. “Some faceless nobody doesn’t want to make a mistake, so the word goes out that a ridiculous limitation will be the rule of the day. Gosh. And how pathetic. And typical of modern-day Dartmouth.”

Vintage Joe Asch. The outside world might not care much about snow sculptures on the Green. But Asch knew what mattered to those who bleed green. And if he could simultaneously get under the skin of the college’s administration — even better.

“He had the pulse of the school, and he didn’t mince words,” said Rabbi Moshe Gray, executive director of the Rohr Chabad Center at Dartmouth.

Thanks to the internet, Asch developed a worldwide following. For 10 years, he provided alums and anyone else craving the low-down on the college’s inner workings with a must-read. He offered unfiltered news and commentary that they couldn’t get from Dartmouth’s well-oiled public relations and fundraising machines.

One year ago this upcoming Wednesday, Dartblog fell silent. First responders called to Asch’s home in Hanover on the morning of Oct. 9, 2018, found that he had taken his own life. He was 60.

At the time, Asch was in the midst of divorce proceedings initiated by his wife, Elizabeth, in July 2017. The two were also embroiled in a separate court battle over control of their upscale fitness business, the River Valley Club, in Lebanon.

This paper doesn’t often write about suicides, but it did in Asch’s case. One of the exceptions is when the deceased is a public figure.

Asch certainly met the definition. “Joe was a somewhat larger than life figure around here,” said Dartmouth Executive Vice President Rick Mills.

Considering how frequently Asch railed against the college’s “administrative bloat,” it might seem strange for a top Dartmouth official to acknowledge the clout that Asch wielded on campus.

Mills, however, was among the few administrators who wasn’t afraid to break bread with Asch.

“It’s always good for an institution to be open to outside criticism, but it doesn’t mean that it should be reacted to,” Mills told me. “Overall, however, it makes for a better environment.”

But when Asch tore into deans and lower-level administrators for what he perceived as follies, some people viewed it as bullying.

“From a Dartmouth perspective, the fact that it no longer has to contend with some of his ad hominem attacks has probably been a good thing,” Mills said.

Asch took me to task a few times in Dartblog for siding with the college’s blue-collar union workers during contract negotiations.

I was certainly fair game. But Asch had little regard for my argument that Dartmouth — a nonprofit with a $5 billion endowment — had a social responsibility to pay kitchen workers a livable wage.

In that respect, Asch was like a lot of rich folks who made their fortune in the business world. (New Hampshire probate court records value his estate at $10 million.)

In 2009, Asch took over Dartblog, which a student named Joe Malchow had started in 2004. As a blogger, Asch didn’t make a dime, his wife told me. Dartblog, which didn’t have a paywall, was a labor of love.

Asch did most of his writing in the hours before dawn, waking up at 3 in the morning to start typing.

From the outset, Asch was a harsh critic of Dartmouth’s governing board, which he accused — for good reason — of being out of touch. The board has more than a few billionaires who fly in on corporate jets a few times a year for weekend meetings and football games.

“The trustees have to get out into the Dartmouth community and talk to members at all levels — starting with the faculty,” Asch wrote in 2009. “However, chatting at cocktail parties is not what I mean.”

Frank Gado, an alum and retired Union College professor, called Asch a watchdog. “He gave publicity to things that sorely needed it. The absence of Joe has hurt Dartmouth.”

In his writings and his dealings with people, Asch, a Yale Law School graduate, could come off as arrogant.

“He did tend to think he was often the smartest person in the room,” Elizabeth Asch told me. “He also wasn’t afraid to say what he thought.

“He wasn’t trying to have the last word or say that he knew it all. He was trying to figure out why things were the way they were.”

Asch wrote from a position of strength. Sources leaked him college documents and emails not intended for public consumption. He audited classes and attended campus lectures. Students and professors were frequent guests at the Asches’ dinner table.

“He preferred to have friendships with people who had different viewpoints,” Elizabeth Asch said. “That’s how he learned.”

Last month, Dartblog was “revived” by Dartmouth seniors Webb Harrington and Ishaan Jajodia. I’m not sure how successful they’ll be, but they’re smart enough to realize one important thing. Said Harrington, “No one could replace what Joe did.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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