Voices in the Wilderness

A forum for discussion of all things Dartmouth.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

This just in...

Dartmouth students have just begun that period known as Spring Break, giving them plenty of time to sleep one off...err, I mean, study for the exams prior to that break. This also means that the Daily D has stopped publishing for the term, which leads me to this post. This letter was forwarded to us, and serves as a rejoinder to the letter published March 1st in the D authored by Geoff Berlin (a prominent figure in the Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth site). The author of this letter is Frank Gado '58, and we post it unedited, enjoy.

Sent to The Dartmouth
March 8, 2005
By Frank Gado'58 (email: [__])
Geoffrey Berlin's guest column of March 1 exemplifies the very sin of misleading he imputes to petition candidates Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki. When, in his opening argument, Berlin says that the candidates are "inclined" to mislead, that "inclined," by slipping the ballast of substantiation, leads him to soar into an airy array of silly inferences His ploy is analogous to claiming that someone who criticizes the Pentagon's planning for post-invasion Iraq is "inclined" to persuade others that American soldiers are cowards. Shame on you, Geoff! Robinson and Zywicki can and should speak for themselves in rebutting Berlin--I am not their spokesman, and they will not be vetting my comments. But Berlin's attack on the petition candidates for expressing concern over Dartmouth's academic direction so troubles me that I must raise my own objection. Berlin dismisses Zywicki's call to "resist efforts to transform Dartmouth into a research university at the expense of its undergraduate focus" as balderdash. After all, he says, hasn't President Wright made that "clear" by stating, "I have regularly insisted that Dartmouth provides the strongest undergraduate education in the country. This is our legacy and this is our ambition-and this is our niche. Why would we seek to be anyone but Dartmouth College." Well, no, actually it isn't so clear. Wright has repeatedly and recently declared that "Dartmouth is a university in all but name," and the tide loosed by his predecessor and swollen by his own administration unquestionably indicates sustained movement toward operating as a university. Indeed, one finds recurrent instances of "Dartmouth University" in the institution's own statements.

But the question isn't really about a name; rather, it refers to a growing emphasis on promoting graduate study in departments outside the structures of the Medical School, Tuck, and Thayer, and on defining "research" in terms of winning funding through grants. Nothing in Wright's speeches in Denver and Chicago reflects a disposition to curb the influence of graduate programs-or even to weigh their adverse effects. On the contrary: the evidence suggests that Wright regards the promotion of graduate study as an asset to "the strongest undergraduate education in the country," and that the Dartmouth College he seeks may very well turn out to be indistinguishable from a university. Far from being reckless, Zywicki's statement is fully warranted, and the incompatibility that alarms him is scarcely a figment in the mind of someone trying to "disparage" the College. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a cautious and highly temperate organization which reviews its member institutions every decade, has pointed to Dartmouth's ambivalence over whether it wants to be a college or a university as a problem in its last two reports. To be sure, the choice of either as the dominant model involves complex factors, yet one peers in vain through the cotton candy blizzard of publicity blown at alumni for any acknowledgment of the critical, and urgent, decision hanging over the College. This trustee election has also developed a second overarching issue that strikes to the very heart of what Dartmouth is and will be. From the moment the two petitioners qualified as candidates, a small group of alumni has isolated them as targets for opprobrium. Although these alumni have electronically distributed messages bearing different names as authors, the attacks employ the same language, and are even arranged in the same order. Were I still an active faculty member, and had these messages been submitted to me in a course, the prima facie case for plagiarism would justify disciplinary action. Yet lack of originality is of minor importance when compared to the apparent cause underlying their meanness of spirit: the fact that Robinson and Zywicki won their places on the ballot through the petition route instead of through the nominating committee of the Alumni Council.

Albeit facetiously, Berlin compliments the petition candidates for their "spirit of democracy"; the others in his cohort, however, have loosed a petulance that bespeaks a real fear of the democratic process. Immediately after Robinson and Zywicki qualified, a body calling itself the Association for a Strong Dartmouth suddenly appeared, with Geoff Berlin listed as its web site's "registrant." The same Berlin who accuses the petition candidates of misleading alumni evidently had no qualms about making the site appear to be officially sanctioned by the College, or about affecting neutrality while loading its initial statement against those not nominated through the Alumni Council. At approximately the same time, Mary Conway and Belinda Chiu, both of whom are also AFSD sponsors, were disseminating markedly more vitriolic e-mails, characterizing Robinson and Zywicki as "renegade" (defined in my dictionary as a "traitor, apostate, turncoat, deserter" ), "insurgent" ("one rising in revolt against constituted authority"), and bent on trying to "hijack" the Board of Trustees. If language, in this age of deconstruction, still has meaning, these descriptions are surely misleading. The petition candidates scrupulously followed the rules established by constituted authority for getting on the ballot, and their loyalty to their alma mater is unassailable. As to "hijacking": from whom would the election of either or both candidates be stealing? The alumni being polled? The Alumni Council's nominating committee serves a useful function, but, like any small group that steers a much larger organization, it tends toward self-replication, conformity, and isolation from the general temper. For this reason, a democratic process requires some means by which a substantial body within that larger organization can contest the policies and direction determined by the small group. The candidates for the Dartmouth's Board of Trustees issue from the Alumni Association, not just the Council, and the petition procedure is the device allowing the aggregate alumni to check the Council in its presumption to speak for them. Terms like "renegade," "insurgent," and "hijack" being flung at Robinson and Zywicki betray a worrisome disposition to abridge or possibly even eliminate the franchise currently enjoyed by all alumni. If there were no other reason to vote for the petition candidates in this election, reinforcement of the alumni's right to express dissent would be more than sufficient.