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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

President James Wright's Alumni Council speech

December 8, 2000

Note: What follows is the text of President James Wright's speech to the alumni council in December 2000.

Welcome back. I am delighted to have this opportunity once more to address this important body and to give you a report on the state of the College. I would like to thank you for the work you have done this year and to thank Council President Missy Attridge for her contributions. You have a full agenda and a busy schedule. The Alumni Council provides a great bridge between the alumni and the College - connecting both, allowing us to share with you our challenges and our opportunities, and providing a structure and process for your input.

This meeting provides me with an occasion to talk to you about the state of the College, to discuss with you the important issues that face us. Over the past two months we have had two meetings of the General Faculty focusing on our academic priorities. We are currently engaged in an important discussion that will provide guidance for the College over the next 10 years. The Provost, Susan Prager, has led the effort to focus this discussion.

First, let me share with you my assessment of the state of the College. Dartmouth has never been stronger than it is today.

* The Endowment stands at $2.4 billion compared with $1.7 billion last year. Our investment team, led by Win Johnson and Jon King, provided us with a 46 percent return on the endowment, the largest annual increase in Dartmouth's history. It was a stunning performance and one that will be hard to repeat. Dartmouth's return on investment was among the top 5 percent of institutions in the country.

* Research support - this past fall we surpassed the $100 million mark in outside support for research. Our faculty are applying for grants and are succeeding in winning outside funding in support of their research at levels that far exceed those of previous years.

* Annual and other giving - The Dartmouth College Fund over the past two years has also seen record levels of giving as has total giving. And in October we announced a gift and bequest provision from Fannie and Allan Leslie for ultimately $16 million much of which will support the Humanities Center.

* Student applications for our undergraduate program as well as the professional schools have been outstanding. Applications for the Class of 2005 are up as are applications from students of color. It looks like we will be able to admit another outstanding class. The students in the Class of 2004 have just about completed their first term and, by all reports, are a lively and interesting group. The professional schools admitted similarly impressive students from around the world to study business, medicine, engineering, and to do graduate work in biochemistry, music, astronomy, and comparative literature, among other disciplines.

* Faculty appointments - we appointed new faculty in each of the schools, faculty who are not only top scholars in their fields but who have a commitment to teaching, to their students, and to the learning process. We are seeing stronger and deeper pools - faculty want to be at Dartmouth because of the strength and focus of this institution.

We are well positioned - but we are neither smug nor satisfied. We cannot afford to be either. The competition for faculty, for students, and for resources is intense. Our peer institutions are all moving forward with their own initiatives, and all strive to provide the very best academic experience for their students. We live in a very competitive environment and we face many complicated issues. Beginning in the Dickey/Kemeny years, the College raised its aspirations, increased the size of the student body, expanded academic programs, committed to strong professional schools, and enlarged the faculty. We did these in some imaginative ways. But it is the case that we did not always have the resources to support our aspirations. The financial situation of the last quarter century often required us to get by with less. While we still face real limits, we are now in a position to address some important things that have been deferred and to build on some of our traditional strengths. It is time to affirm and meet our best hopes. Our top priority has to be to meet some core needs. Let me summarize these.

Financial aid - Dartmouth remains one of the few fully need-blind institutions in the country. Our financial aid package is generous and has allowed us to attract absolutely superb students from all walks of life. Currently, over 40 percent of students receive scholarships, but 56 percent of scholarship support comes out of the operating budget and only 44 percent is paid for through restricted funds. A decade ago, only 30 percent of scholarships came from restricted funds, so we have made progress in this area, but Princeton pays for over 95 percent of their scholarship assistance out of restricted endowment. We need to increase the percent of our scholarship aid that comes from restricted endowment and gifts so as to better protect our ability to remain need blind. Yale has recently joined Harvard in expanding their need blind program to international students. This is something that we may need to consider if we want to maintain our competitive position.

Faculty - We have general agreement that we need to expand the faculty. The Provost has underlined this priority in all of her presentations. The professional schools are planning this and so must the Arts and Sciences. This could give us a better student/faculty ratio, reducing class size and strengthening mentoring and advising. It would also provide intellectual critical mass in a number of important places. Our need to recruit outstanding faculty, who care about their teaching as well as their research, is only a part of our obligation; we also need to retain good faculty. And to do this we need to pay them competitively. Over the past few years, we have had a compensation strategy to improve our standing in this area relative to a group of peer institutions. While we have made some progress, we have still more to do. This has to remain a priority.

The faculty and the work they do provide the sustaining intellectual vitality that is at the heart of Dartmouth. We need to support faculty research and scholarship opportunities by providing seed money where appropriate and by ensuring that our policies and practices allow our faculty the ability to excel. Even as we look for ways to encourage collaboration, we need to underline the continuing critical role of the individual scholar and teacher.

Finally, we need to provide support for innovation in teaching for those faculty who wish to use new technologies or new practices in their classrooms. There needs to be more systematic institutional support for this. Our faculty are committed to excellence in teaching, and we have a well-earned reputation for innovative pedagogy. I am delighted that a Dartmouth faculty member once again has won the New Hampshire Teacher of the Year award. Dorothy Wallace from the Department of Mathematics has pioneered a program for integrating mathematics across the curriculum. Last year, Professor John Rassias from the Department of French and Italian won this prestigious award.

Deferred renovation and unmet needs - Dartmouth is in a period of massive construction. Although not unprecedented in our history, the past 5 years have seen several major construction and renovation projects, and the next 10 years will see an even greater amount. Some of our academic facilities do not meet the needs of modern scholarship, our classrooms need to be technologically enhanced, and our residential facilities are crowded and inadequate in number.

The list of projects either undertaken or already underway is daunting: we have completed the renovation and addition to the Fairchild science complex, the construction of the Rauner Library, Berry Library, McCulloch Hall, and Whittemore Hall at the Tuck School, as well as the renovation of Silsby. We are in the midst of a renovation program for the residence halls and have already accomplished much here. We are currently renovating Baker Library, and we have begun planning for Kemeny Hall, a Life Sciences building, two new residence halls, a dining and social space that will be located north of campus, the expansion and renovation of the Arts complex, an expansion of Thayer School's facilities, and likely additional construction at Tuck following the opening of Whittemore Hall this month. We have established our need for additional new and renovated athletic, recreational, and social space, and we hope to move forward with that area shortly. We must also provide dedicated space for the Dickey Center and the Humanities Center as well as improve faculty offices and classrooms on Dartmouth row. This historic heart of academic programs needs to be maintained. We have refurbished 105 Dartmouth, but now we need to work on all of the buildings on the row. Finally, we must ensure that our infrastructure supports the needs of the educational program. For example, the computing environment must be adequate to the needs of our faculty and students.

The quality of the undergraduate educational program - We need to affirm our traditional leadership role in undergraduate education, not only through our commitment to teaching but also by ensuring that the total environment is one that encourages learning. We must provide a diverse environment that allows our students to learn from each other, to understand and appreciate difference, and to have opportunities for international engagement. We must provide opportunities for our students to engage in research with faculty. Students learn best in a hands-on, experiential learning environment.

Dartmouth is already ahead of many of our peers in the strength of our off campus efforts. Dartmouth sends more students abroad on our own programs than does any other comparable institution in this country. This is something that we can build on as we think about how to integrate these programs still further into on campus academic activities. We will also be thinking about how else we can enhance our international offerings.

The out of classroom experience must support and contribute to the learning environment. We must foster both a sense of community and sense of place that will engage and include all of our students. The Student Life Initiative aims specifically at this objective.

We must underline also our commitment to professional and graduate schools. Dartmouth was a true pioneer in the development of professional education. We were the first institution of higher learning in this country to open a business school and the first to have an engineering school, and our medical school, founded in 1797, was among the very first. We have a proud tradition of educating men and women of the highest caliber to take up a profession. Our graduate programs are more recent but fit squarely within this tradition as well as our historic mission to create new knowledge. The professional schools are now engaging more with the Arts and Sciences and with the undergraduate program. This only enriches all of our work and needs to be encouraged.

I face the dilemma of every one of my predecessors in the Wheelock succession: our needs exceed, perhaps significantly exceed, our current and our potential resources!

(No doubt every other President of a university in the US today could make the same observation.) Our aspirations are ambitious, as well they should be, and our resources are finite.

Despite our current financial strength, we will need to make choices. We have made one, implicitly perhaps, now explicitly: Dartmouth is going to maintain a competitive niche with the strongest institutions in the country. We do not aspire to their size, but we will not concede quality - quality in the student body, quality in the faculty, quality in the strength of our programs, or quality in the nature of the experience we offer.

Over the past year we have undergone a major planning process under the leadership of Provost Prager to help us focus on some of our needs as we head into a capital campaign. Each school as well as the Arts and Sciences forwarded a set of priorities to the Provost, who established a committee to discuss and review all of these. That committee summarized its findings in the report that is currently under discussion by the various faculties. The report is not a comprehensive assessment of programs and priorities as much as it is a summary of some needs and initiatives that could make a difference.

This is an important discussion. The faculty have raised and considered some critical questions, as they must do, as we depend upon them to do. The faculty play the critical role in shaping our academic priorities. We have already had some good and vigorous debates that have related to these priorities, and I am looking forward to further discussions as we sharpen our focus for the next campaign. The discussion will continue over the next few months. I hope that we can take an outline of our priorities to the Board of Trustees in February. But even as we firm up our sense of where we must be strengthened, and where we must invest now, we will - we must - continuously discuss our academic priorities, our mission, our purposes as we work to provide a rich and stimulating program to our students. There is no more important task for an academic institution than periodically to review our strengths and to then decide on future directions.

As a liberal arts institution we need to maintain the overall excellence of our undergraduate program. We cannot afford, nor do we want, to strengthen just one area or a few of our programs. We do not want all of our students concentrated in one discipline or subset of disciplines. Nonetheless, we cannot do everything that we might want to, and we will need to make choices. We have, for example, initiated discussions about ways to focus our strengths within the graduate and professional programs. We can only do so much in these areas.

We will need to invest resources across the institution, keeping in mind that the infrastructure required by modern science is much more expensive than is required by the humanities. But while in the near term we may need to put more resources in some areas than in others, this should not be seen as a judgment of the relative values of those areas. It is hard to imagine a liberal arts education that does not build from core strengths in the arts and the humanities. It was in order to build upon this that I proposed to Dr. and Mrs. Leslie that they direct the bulk of their gift to the Humanities. The Humanities Center along with the Dickey Center, the Ethics Institute, and the Rockefeller Center play an important role in supporting faculty research and might bridge this with the Student Life Initiative. It is also the case that Dartmouth's position requires that we not abandon our competitive strength in the sciences. No first rate institution could do this, although we do need to focus and set our priorities with real deliberation.

We are also reviewing opportunities to expand our resources, not simply through the significant capital campaign we are planning but also by looking at all of our resources. We need to examine our current allocation of resources, our debt capacity, our distribution from the endowment, and our sources of income. Many institutions are far more aggressive than we are in leveraging their intellectual resources, some have established incubators for organizing companies; others have systematically taken equity shares in ventures begun by their faculty, students, and alumni; and increasing number have participated in other sorts of partnerships including establishing commercial e-learning subsidiaries. They have started e-businesses to sell their academic products.

I have some reservations about these things. I recognize full well that there are some fundamental commercial and financial forces at work here and that we cannot simply put our head in the sand - or hide behind the pine trees. Dartmouth is a $3.3 billion organization with an annual budget of $425 million and with 3,700 faculty and staff on the payroll. In addition to the undergraduate college, there are three professional programs, and 17 graduate programs in the arts and sciences. We have a critical affiliation with a major regional medical center. We have programs and exchanges with universities around the world. We are part of a global and technological revolution. This is a complicated institution.

Despite all of this, I still think of myself as a teacher and a scholar, as a historian. If I am the last person who still thinks of me this way, it is nonetheless useful to state my assumption. The enduring strength of this institution will not be assessed simply by the size of the endowment, by the number of companies started, or by the square feet of new construction.

While I surely spend the bulk of my time on budgets and fundraising, on personnel and administrative matters, while I spend more time than I ever imagined in airplanes - or sometimes just in airports - my commitment is to protect and enhance the core purposes of the institution, to raise our aspirations and to protect our true heritage. I acknowledge my ultimate responsibility, with the Board of Trustees, for the financial and physical strength of the institution, and I embrace that role and take it seriously, but I also see it as means rather than end, as a necessary but not sufficient objective.

The endowment of this place is about far more than dollars. This is a residential, academic community. We are at a time in our history when we can transform our own best hopes, and those of our predecessors, into a reality that will truly be the envy of other institutions. Learning here is an inclusive and multifaceted phenomenon. It occurs within such diverse settings as classrooms, laboratories, libraries, residence halls, athletic and recreational venues, and campus meeting and activity rooms. A Dartmouth education is centered around the life of the mind and extends beyond the attainment of a Dartmouth academic degree.

We seek to promote a residential environment that will calibrate and learn from our diversity and variety and will contribute in meaningful ways to the educational experience, better preparing our students for lives of learning, as well as leadership and service in an increasingly complex, global, technology-based, interdependent world. To do this, we must remain ever vigilant to the needs of our students and faculty and to the opportunities that lay before us.

Dartmouth began as a gamble. Eleazor Wheelock and Samson Occom took extraordinary risks when they raised the money and scratched out this College in the wildernesses of New Hampshire. Since that founding we have been blessed with leaders who have continued to take chances. One hundred years ago, President William Jewett Tucker moved Dartmouth from a little known finishing school for New Hampshire residents to a national institution. Just over 25 years ago, John Kemeny oversaw the transition to coeducation. We are perhaps too mature to gamble, but nonetheless this is not a time for timidity. We must have, to use a line from Robert Frost, the "courage to be new." I thank you for joining in this important work.

Last Updated: 8/21/08