Voices in the Wilderness

A forum for discussion of all things Dartmouth.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Reassessing Research

In an op-ed yesterday, one Mohamad Bydon '02 argued that the college should become a research university, and if one agreed with that position one should vote against the petition candidates for trustee, or for the other candidates. Or at least that's what we think he said, because at times he seemed a little confused- arguing that Dartmouth already is a research university, even though some people were trying to prevent it from becoming one and we should thus oppose those people. Or something. We were at times as confused as he seemed to be. Whatever the case, it all boiled down to a last line urging people not to vote for the petition candidates. We'll leave aside for now the blatant disregard for the election campaign rules, since things like rules or decorum seem to be so passe in Hanover these days, and move straight to the argument the piece (we think) is trying to make. We majored in a soft science, not desensitizing literature, so maybe we're missing something in the prose, but here's our crack at refuting this stuff.

First, there is wanton and willful distortion (or at least a woeful ingorance) on Mr. Bydon's part when he states that the petition candidates' arguments against becoming a research university equate to attacks on Dartmouth's three cornerstone graduate institutions, Tuck, Thayer and the Med School. As both candidates have explicitly stated, those three schools are wholly separate from the college in both mission and funding, and should remain as vital AND separate as always. Tuck, Thayer and the Med school have little or nothing to do with regular undergraduate life (with notable exceptions, of course, in engineering and bio) and this has always, repeat, always been the case. Mr. Bydon attempts to blur the line between those schools and students in the Arts and Sciences grad programs, which are two entirely different groups. (Remember this the next time someone says to you that Dartmouth is a "research university." If Dartmouth defines research university, and has since the inception of Tuck, Thayer and the Med School, then what the hell are Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton and many other institutions going to call themselves? If you miss our drift, Dartmouth is fundamentally different from those institutions, and that's a good thing. Dartmouth is a college, bub.)

Another myth that Mr. Bydon hopes to perpetuate is that the petition candidates are "against research." To our knowledge, nowhere have the candidates stated that scholarly research in and of itself harms a professor's ability to teach undergraduates; in fact, Todd Zywicki has made statements quite to the contrary. This page has also argued that a professor engaging in research can (but does not at all necessarily) improve their teaching. The disconnect is in who is getting taught.

Mr. Bydon- though he doesn't explicitly say it but we're inferring it- seems to want graduate students to be a part of this equation in the arts and sciences curriculum. He throws out increasing funding numbers (which does make us wonder if he's privy to some information that we're not) totaling a $100 million increase over an undefined time period ("a few years") and makes an unsubstantiated judgment that this has been a good thing. If these millions came in through med school channels and went to fund the cervical cancer research he mentions, then good for us all. We're guessing, however, that the numbers to which he refers are general operating budget numbers for the central Arts & Sciences campus, and that's where we have a problem. Funding a grad-student oriented academy is enormously expensive, as Jim Wright is finding out, and thus requires enormous investments of both money and manpower. The details are too lengthy to get into here, but with the stock market decline of 2000 and subsequent belt tightening, the college discovered that the extra 100 million clams it had been ladling into graduate studies wasn't as easy to come by as it had been in the gravy train days of the late 1990s. This presents an allocation of resources problem that any bureaucrat is loath to attack, and is where the real disagreement between Mr. Bydon and the petition candidates exists- where Dartmouth is spending its scarce resources.

Mr. Bydon was in the Class of 2002, so he wasn't in Hanover for the closing of Sanborn Library or the cutting of the swim team. (Was he in a research-induced haze down there in New Haven?) I wonder if among the wondrous millions he champions he could somewhere find a few hundred grand to lavish on those two institutions, which he apparently views as extraneous. The petition candidates (as well as this page) take quite the opposite view. Evenings in Sanborn and weekends spent competing alongside or cheering for our fellow students in our minds are vastly more important to the fabric of Dartmouth than a newly funded graduate study program.

At the end of the day, we commend Mr. Bydon for at least trying to make clear his vision of Dartmouth, and, though we hope the reader will forgive us for using an overtired cliche, that vision looks awfully like institutions in Cambridge, MA and New Haven. We also wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Bydon that the college needs to hire more professors to teach its undergraduates, although we would refer him once again to the candidate statements so he can reassess just who would actually try to do that (here's a hint: think insurgent).

Our own, final take on Mr. Bydon's piece is that he shares a love for Dartmouth that virtually all who come here feel, and he wishes that those two people he knows who chose to go elsewhere had instead chosen to venture to the Hanover plain. However, Mr. Bydon, by expressing his fondness for the institution, has betrayed his own argument and made our point: the fondness he feels for Dartmouth is special, even unique, and it is not easily replicated. There are other methods of educating 18-22 years olds, Harvard and Princeton and Yale turn out many fine examples of this every year, and they have their own deep-seated, passionate loyalties. But Dartmouth is different. Its fabric is woven tighter through small experiences, whether in the classroom with those famous educators, or on the playing fields, or (heaven forbid) in basements across campus. It used to be that for their four undergraduate years, students who attended Dartmouth were given the chance of a lifetime- to live and learn amongst their peers, without having to compete for resources with grad students and administrative bureaucracy- in short, to do everything Mr. Bydon espouses. And those four years are what Dartmouth, simply, should return to being all about.