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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015
Email: james.wright@dartmouth.edu

Remarks to the Alumni Council By President James Wright

December 3, 2004

Welcome back to Hanover. It is my great pleasure to welcome you here each fall and spring, to thank you for all that you do for Dartmouth - which is a great deal - and to talk with you about the state of the College. This semi-annual gathering provides an occasion for more than simply reporting back and forth - it is also a festive occasion as we welcome you back to your alma mater and we jointly celebrate our connection to this College on the Hill.

Tonight is especially festive. We celebrate fifty years of the Alumni Award - an award that recognizes the outstanding service of graduates to his or her alma mater. The first award was given in 1954 to Ernest Martin Hopkins and of course there was no greater advocate of alumni involvement than Mr. Hopkins. And so this is a particularly special gathering when our ranks are enriched by so many who have done so much.

Why is Dartmouth, Dartmouth? Look about this room. Read the wonderful summaries of awardees pulled together, lovingly and painstakingly, by Steve Waterhouse. Thank you Steve. This is Dartmouth. A place that for two and one-third centuries has been enriched by graduates who cared. And for the past 50 years the Council has recognized them for their caring. This is Dartmouth.

Tonight I would like to reflect on a subject that has been implicit in my past addresses but has never served as the main subject. This occasion provides a perfect opportunity to talk about you and your relationship to the College - and even, if I might, your responsibilities for the College.

I do this, of course, in the context of conversations between the Alumni Council and the Alumni Association about how you might more effectively combine your efforts. These discussions have at times become contentious but I know that there are good people on both sides who are working hard to find a resolution. I would like to applaud the effort and commitment of Joe Stevenson and his committee.

I will not presume to give you my sense of the issues but would simply suggest that these discussions are very important to all alumni and indeed to the College.

This past September, as you know, the Board of Trustees established a working group chaired by my fellow Trustee Karen Francis to look at alumni relations. Trustees Michael Chu, John Donahoe, Jose Fernandez, Nancy Jeton, Bill Neukom, and T.J. Rodgers will all participate as will the vice presidents for Alumni Relations and Development. I hope that they will be able to report back within the next several months with some recommendations. The working group grows out of a desire to strengthen communications between alumni and the college.

We can do things better. We must do things better. Alumni are part of this College: they serve as the memory of the best we have been and as the hope for the best we can be. Your voices need to be heard. In turn, you need to be able to represent the College to your fellow alumni. And, as I think about how we can do this better, you will not be surprised, that as a historian, I believe that our history provides some important lessons.

It is a history that I have observed first hand for the past 35 years, during which time I have been fortunate enough to teach many, many of you, to visit most alumni clubs, and to meet with this council on numerous occasions starting many years ago when I was the faculty representative to the Council. And it is a history that I have enjoyed getting to know through reading the old texts and the histories of this College.

The history of the modern, formalized alumni movement really began with President William Jewett Tucker (1893-1909). Clearly there were alumni organizations before his administration and alumni volunteers - alumni willing to help the college. Daniel Webster obviously comes to mind and his efforts in 1819 to defend the College before the Supreme Court where he declared, "when I see my alma mater surrounded like Caesar in the senate house, by those who are reiterating stab upon stab, I would not, ... have her turn to me and say, ... 'and thou too my son.'"

A general association of alumni formed in 1854 at the encouragement of President Lord and he was unequivocal about its purpose: to raise money for the College. While I would never downplay this critical responsibility, we all know there is more to alumni responsibility for the College than that.

In addition to the general association organized in 1854, there were clubs - a New York Association founded in 1863, the Boston Club in 1864 and between 1864 and 1893, when Tucker became president, alumni established 11 clubs including Washington, St. Louis, and Chicago. These provided local gatherings for alumni but they were, generally, distant from the work of the College.

For the most part the relationship between alumni and the College for much of the nineteenth century was unstructured and sometimes contentious. Many alumni wanted to be involved, they wanted to have more than simply a fundraising role. They wanted explicit alumni representation on the board of trustees. Although all the board members were alumni, they were chosen by the board itself and served for life.

It was President Tucker who changed this dynamic. The more I understand him, the more he is one of my heroes in Dartmouth's history. He had a vision for what the College should aspire to be and he had a goal for what the relationship between the College and its alumni should be. He understood the relationship of the one to the other. And he worked to implement both. An 1861 graduate of the College, he was one of the first Trustees the Board appointed through an alumni nominating process in 1876 and he supported the later changes to the nomination and election process in the 1880s. In his inaugural address he laid out just how important he thought the alumni were to Dartmouth. He wanted Dartmouth to be one of the foremost educational institutions of its time - and he knew that he needed alumni engagement to accomplish this.

He aspired for Dartmouth to be a larger, national school. He assumed the obligation of leading Dartmouth so that it would provide an education to students that would best enable them to succeed in the world. He supported the movement to supplement the traditional classical education with modern history and literature courses as well as evolution and economics. He hired faculty with advanced degrees and built more modern science facilities. He opened the first graduate business school in the world, with the Tuck School. His college was one that aimed to expand knowledge in addition to passing on what was already known. He built new residence halls and improved the old ones through the addition of indoor plumbing and better heating systems.

Tucker's Dartmouth was known as "The new Dartmouth." When his successor, Ernest Fox Nichols, talked of "The newer Dartmouth," Tucker said, "That was right; the new is always passing over into the newer. So doing, it lives. If it were not for this process, a college would not grow old, it would grow stale." And alumni were part of this transition. Tucker warned alumni not to overestimate the extent of change, because while Dartmouth needed to continually enhance its educational program, it also needed to honor and celebrate its history. He established Dartmouth Night in 1895 precisely for this purpose - to bring alumni back to campus and to bring them into "sympathetic and intelligent" contact with the current students.

And President Tucker reaped what he had sown. Alumni rallied around the College in one of its hours of direst need. On a cold winter night, February 18, 1904, Dartmouth Hall burned to the ground. One of the very first buildings at Dartmouth, completed in 1791, it housed all of the recitation rooms as well as the student rooms, the library, and the museum. For a time, it even housed the medical school.

It had survived students firing a cannon through the front door and the herding of cattle into its basement. Daniel Webster had roomed there as did Salmon P. Chase and Thaddeus Stephens. Dartmouth Hall was the College.

Built of wood instead of brick, wood well aged after 115 years, with a design borrowed from that of Nassau Hall at Princeton, it represented the humble beginnings of this College in the wilderness. When it burned down in 1904 it was as if part of the very fabric of this institution was lost. The hall was one of Dartmouth's iconic symbols.

When news of the loss reached alumni in Boston, even as the old timbers smoked and smoldered, Melvin Adams of the Class of 1871 secured a hall and called his fellow alumni to a meeting, writing, "this is not an invitation, it is a summons." You all know the story!

Alumni quickly rallied to the cause and within 24 hours of the burning, they had started to raise the money to rebuild the hall. Within a year they had done just that.

At the rededication of Dartmouth Hall in February of 1906, Melvin Adams said,

We men of today, until the morning of Feb. 18, 1904, had never looked straight in the eye the responsibility of a College crisis. ... In losing Dartmouth Hall, the alumni of Dartmouth have found themselves.

That affection for Dartmouth, that inspired response, did not just happen. As President Tucker moved Dartmouth to become a stronger institution - one that, in his mind, better served a new generation of students - he was careful to secure alumni support, both financial and spiritual. And he expected alumni to both understand and support his vision. It did resonate well with the younger professional and more secular alumni because ultimately it came down to making Dartmouth better for future generations of students.

President Tucker entrusted his vision for alumni relations to Ernest Martin Hopkins who had served as his presidential intern in his senior year. Mr. Tucker had an enormous respect and affection for the young Hopkins. In 1905 - just four years after Hopkins's graduation in 1901 - Tucker asked him to develop a stronger and more unified structure for alumni relations; one that would bring Dartmouth alumni into the fold and would capitalize on their many talents and interests.

Mr. Hopkins began with the Secretaries Association, which created the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, and he went on to help with the founding of the Alumni Council. The Secretaries Association had as its purpose "to inform Dartmouth men everywhere of the policies and needs of the College, and to open the channels through which the alumni could bring outside sentiment home to the College." This later evolved into the Alumni Council in 1913 with much the same mission - to act as conduit between the College and the various alumni groups and associations.

When Mr. Hopkins himself became president in 1916, he carried with him Mr. Tucker's philosophy and his own experience of working closely with alumni. In his inaugural address he set out just exactly how he thought about alumni involvement with the College.

There has been no phase of college activity which has been of such personal interest to me as has been the alumni movement; there has been none in which I have believed greater possibilities of good to exist. I am convinced, however, that this movement will fail of major usefulness unless it bases itself, and is based by the college, upon intelligent understanding of the problems which education must face. Ö Knowledge of conditions in the time of a man's own undergraduate course will not be sufficient. He must know the problems of today, and foresee the general characteristics of those of the future, and his efforts at all times must be rigidly to hold the college to its highest ideals.

We can do no better than to return to this vision of alumni relations - an informed and engaged alumni body committed to Dartmouth's highest ideals. Tucker and Hopkins worked with alumni to develop structures and communications vehicles. Our challenge is to find the structures and vehicles that work for us today.

To be sure, our time is different from that of 1900 and even 1969 when I first came to Dartmouth. We have 60,000 plus living alumni and we have different technologies available to us. Your lives are busier than ever, and we all juggle multiple responsibilities. But we must do better.

And we need to make it possible for the Council to fulfill its role as conduit between the alumni and the College and vice versa, by seeking your views, answering your questions candidly and by sharing information. We must create forums where you can have meaningful input, ensure that alumni processes are respected, and to recognize and celebrate all that you do for the College. If this does not happen, we will have failed in our purpose.

We are going to disagree from time to time, and you will disagree among yourselves. My task is to remind people regularly that we share an important responsibility toward current and future students, a responsibility anchored in our history. The stakes are high and the answers are never straightforward or easy. But we should be able to trust each other enough to recognize a mutual love for this College and be willing to listen to rational argument.

Some critics have suggested that alumni who volunteer their time by serving on this Council or with the Association, or who have otherwise worked with the College, have somehow been co-opted. I disagree. Becoming informed about Dartmouth today, appreciating its strengths, recognizing nuances, and understanding its complexities, these are not bad things. In the spirit of Presidents Tucker and Hopkins, we need to work together for the betterment of Dartmouth.

I am always struck when I look back at Dartmouth's history the extent to which in a world of change, including our own evolution, we stay true to our purposes. What Tucker and Hopkins wanted for the Dartmouth of 100 years ago is not much different from what he are looking to do today.

They were ambitious for Dartmouth just as we are today. They wanted to ensure an education that met the needs of their students in their world, just as we do today.

They wanted to create a learning and residential environment that helped students reach their full potential, just as we do today.

They wanted to hire the sort of faculty that would make all this possible, just as we do today.

They wanted to create in President Dickey's later words "a community of learning," just as we do today. And they needed alumni support and engagement, just as we do today. If the size, the nature, the profile of Dartmouth have changed, we stay true to our fundamental purpose.

Last month we kicked off the Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience. Some of you were able to join us in New York for what was a wonderful and inspiring occasion, organized so ably by Carrie Pelzel and her staff. The campaign goal is a mind-boggling $1.3 billion of which over $450 million has already been raised. But as I said to the faculty a few weeks ago and as I said at the kickoff itself, a campaign of this magnitude, indeed any campaign, requires the primary question: "to what end?"

This campaign is about making a strong Dartmouth stronger. I have repeatedly affirmed that Dartmouth aims to provide the very best undergraduate experience anywhere.

We attract incredibly bright students and the most talented faculty who are at the forefront of their fields. Our undergraduates receive a liberal arts education that is bolstered and strengthened by the presence of strong world-class, albeit small, graduate programs. The scale and size of Dartmouth encourages independence and initiative in a culture of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. This culture and this physical place foster a unique sense of community, of belonging, and of friendship. This is Dartmouth. And it is to protect and advance this that we have entered upon a campaign.

At the end of this campaign, we will have further assured our need-blind admissions program, we will have strengthened our support of the faculty, and we will have built and renovated facilities that support the academic and residential programs.

Each year, on many different occasions I tell students that they have an obligation to thank the alumni who have made their experience possible. They are not consumers but are rather beneficiaries of a long historic legacy. Their education is subsidized by the generosity of generations of alumni, parents, and friends who have given to Dartmouth.

It is those gifts - your gifts - through the endowment and the annual fund, that make possible the sort of education that Dartmouth provides.

There is a lot of history on this campus. There is a lot of history in this room. But Dartmouth is Dartmouth not only because of its history. It is Dartmouth because of its hopes, its restless insistence that we will excel in our goals, in our work!

Dartmouth has been fortunate in its graduates - your support, generosity, and undying devotion have nurtured this College through good times and bad. You have volunteered your time and your expertise. Through the alumni award, the College has recognized generations of alumni who have similarly worked toward the betterment of Dartmouth, who have given of their time and their wisdom to help Dartmouth.

One of the highlights of my semiannual visits to the Alumni Council is seeing Harold Ripley, Rip '29. I have known you now for a lot of years. You have served as class secretary, executive committee member, assistant agent, enrollment worker, and Alumni Council member. Your service, your love of this college, has made us better.

You have lived up to President Hopkins's highest ideals and to the ideals of the Alumni Award - and you have modeled them so well for us.

One hundred years ago, Melvin Adams talked of alumni finding themselves. Over the past century, Dartmouth has benefited immensely from the connection formed then. And as we stand at the beginning of a new century, I am confident that the connection between alumni and college is a strong as ever. It is our common legacy and it is our shared responsibility to make it so. As I say to students every year at Convocation; we have work to do, you and I. Let us begin.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 8/21/08