Skip to main content

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

Remarks by President James Wright to Class Officers

October 12, 2007

Welcome back to Hanover. Susan I are so pleased to be here this evening in good company. I know you have a busy agenda and I hope you enjoy your time back on campus.  

I would like to thank Mary Conway for her work as president of the Class Officersâ€"her leadership and her support of Dartmouth have been tremendousâ€"as well as Ellie Loughlin '89, Laura Mattson '89, and the Class Officers Executive Committee for all their work in planning this weekend. Thank you.

It is also very special to be here with Bill Mitchell, and Susan and I would like to add our congratulations to him for receiving the Alumni Award. His is a wonderful Dartmouth family. My good friend, and Dartmouth's oldest alumnus, Hal Ripley from the Class of 1929 along with his wife Mary are with us. And we have five members of the Class of 2007â€"our youngest alumniâ€"here tonightâ€"if you could please stand.

I want to acknowledge also all that you all do for Dartmouth. You step up in so many ways to engage your classes and to support your College. I hope you have had a chance to walk around the campus today and to see our new facilities. (To be sure the weather has not been as welcoming as I would have liked.) I trust you saw too the energy and enthusiasm of the students, faculty, and staff and their commitment to this remarkable enterprise.

And I would like to recognize the wonderful pledge announced earlier this week by the great Class of 1978 to raise $43 million by next June to name the Life Sciences building. The Class of '78 had broken all reunion giving records at their 25th reunion, and now this. It is a wonderful testimony to the strength of their love of Dartmouth. Thank you!

As you know, in September the Board of Trustees approved a number of governance changes as a result of a comprehensive review conducted over the summer, which included receiving a great deal of feedback from alumni, faculty, students, and others. I do not intend to spend a lot of time on this tonight but I would share with you what I said to the faculty earlier this week in my annual report on the state of the College:

Much of the debate since [the Board meeting] has been predictable, even understandable. I know and respect many alumni who disagree with the Board action. I have less understanding of those who have fought this debate in the national media over the summer, holding this good school up as a divided place that is unsure of its direction. I have trouble understanding those who seek to tie the College up in the courts now. I particularly regret the efforts of some to engage students in this controversy. Dartmouth students should enjoy being students and I am confident that they are capable of making up their own minds about the quality of their experience. They always have been!

It is crucial for everyone to understand that Dartmouth is not divided in our values and sense of purpose, and we are quite certain of who we are and what we aim to be. 

Several Trustees, including board chair Ed Haldeman have visited various clubs around the country. There are surely differences of opinion on the Trustee action and surely reasonable people may disagree about this. But the Trustees did what was in their judgment best for the College. And that, finally, is what defines trusteeship. Please read the report issued by the Governance Committee.

Last year, and the year before that, I talked to you about my concern about the strife within the alumni body and I told you, "I don't care what the ideology is, my Collegeâ€"our Collegeâ€"is not, and should not be, a pawn." As Jeffrey Hart wrote recently for the Dartmouth Review, " The internal workings of such an institution as Dartmouth should not have a national political coloration." I could not agree more. 

At their September meeting the Board also affirmed their support for the work of the faculty, for the synergy at Dartmouth between research and teaching, and for the intellectual value of the graduate programs. But how do we know how we are doing? How do parents and students think about how we are doing? What is the value added of a Dartmouth education? It is these questions that I would like to reflect upon this evening.

Over the past couple of decades there has been an increasing emphasis on accountability and transparency in higher education. One quick and easy way that parents and students compare schools is the U.S. News and World Report annual survey of colleges and universities. U.S. News began this survey in 1983, as an attempt to provide parents and students with some data on just how good various colleges and universities were. That first year, we ranked 10th in quality of undergraduate education and in the years since then we have fluctuated from number 11 to number 6, and we are currently placed again at 11.

Quite frankly, there is no way that Dartmouth College is not in the top 10 institutions in the quality of the undergraduate education it provides. I would submit it is more to the top of any such list. But my assertion stands as an example of the subjective nature of these rankings.

U.S. News collects data in 16 different categories including overall academic ranking, and some admissions data that includes admit rate, student-faculty ratio, size of classes, resources spent on academics, overall financial resources, and alumni giving. U.S. News then computes this data using a weighted formula and determines an overall score for the institution.

These rankings have come under a great deal of criticism from colleges and universities. In the 1990s Gerhard Casper, the long-standing president of Stanford University, pushed U.S. News to be subtler about the rankings. He wrote "the method is not nearly that precise ... and the difference between #1 and #2 - indeed between #1 and #10â€"may be statistically insignificant." And he asked, "Could you not admit that quality may not be truly quantifiable?" Donald Kennedy, who preceded Casper as president of Stanford, complained, quite correctly, that the academic reputation piece, which accounts for 25 percent of the overall ranking, was simply a "beauty contest, not a serious analysis of quality." This criticism has picked up in recent years, led more by the small colleges than schools in our comparison group.

I have long had some real misgivings about the rankings. Nine years ago when I became president I went down to visit with the U.S. News editorial board to discuss the way they measured us and to suggest some improvements. I told them they were not really measuring the quality of the undergraduate experience. That year we fell in the rankings, and my colleagues have not let me go back! This past year, we fell from 10th to 11th despite improvement in most of the categories, including class size and acceptance rate. But we dropped in the peer assessment scoreâ€"the "beauty contest"â€"and certainly some insist our ongoing public squabbles may have contributed to that.

My questions from 1999 remain. Is the peer assessment truly an informed score of quality? Is the set of metrics used by U.S. News the right set to really determine the quality of the education undergraduates receive? Does it make sense to include faculty who do not teach undergraduates in the student-faculty ratio? Does it make sense to include the amount of money an institution receives from federal granting agencies? Does it make sense to include admissions yield without taking into account the number of students admitted through early decision? And do any of these metrics really measure the quality of the student experience in the classroom? And, if not, how should we do that? What impact do the size and scale of an institution have on the peer review ratings? How do the total resources of an institution relate to the quality of the undergraduate component? And on and on. 

But it is too easy for us to simply dismiss U.S. News for bringing an inappropriate ranking system to higher education. The reports have provided transparent data not previously available, and they have pushed higher education to develop its own set of metrics and to be more open with data. It is also a central part of my responsibility as president to consider how we measure up to our own ambitions and metrics. That is in part why we spent so much time last year discussing our mission and revising the mission statement, as well as time spent on the McKinsey process. Both of these initiatives have helped us to identify our core values and where we still have some work to do.

Let me share some of the ways we stay informed about the competitive place and quality of Dartmouth. We monitor the incoming class and compare that data to national data. We are in a continual market test involving the college choices of the best, the most creative, students in the country. From the very outset, the size of our applicant pool, the scores and other information about those students, and our yield all tell us annually how we are doing in attracting the best and the brightest. Over the past ten years we have seen the pool and selectivity increase, as have the academic credentials and the diversity of the incoming class.


We survey incoming students as part of a national effort. Last year we learned these things:

  • Dartmouth students are among the most talented in the country.
  • They participate more frequently in service opportunities than their national peersâ€"92 percent today.
  • The top reasons they gave for attending Dartmouth were to learn more about things and to gain a general education.
  • They are much more likely than their national peers to expect to be satisfied with their college (81 percent compared to 53 percent).
  • They are more likely than their national peers to rank high their academic skills and their self confidence.
  • Their top life goals in college are to understand other cultures, to raise a family, to help others in difficulty, to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, and to become an authority in their field. Whereas their peers at national four-year institutions put raising a family and being well-off financially at the top of their goals.

This is really the remarkable raw material of the Dartmouth experience. I have first-hand experience having met the '11s at Moosilauke, at a picnic in our garden, at matriculation, and elsewhere around campus. The other day I had lunch with a wide-ranging group of '11s. We talked about their expectations and their first initial experiences. They were unanimously positive. I was able to talk about housing, dining, events, academic schedules, classroom experience, and much more. I learn from these occasions.

Once students are here we have various mechanisms to hear from them ranging from the informal (I do lunches and other events with students several times a week) to the formal. My colleagues and I meet with various groups, including Palaeopitus and Student Assembly, with sports teams, captains, and CFS leaders. Students participate in committees and other forums for discussion. And from this comes a great deal of feedback. We have tried to be responsive to this. For example, based on student feedback, surveys, and requests we have:

  • Extended hours for the Collis Center and the library
  • Created a Kosher-Halal dining facility
  • Undertaken a review of alcohol policies
  • Subsidized tickets to performances and athletic events
  • Built a state-of-the-art fitness center
  • Started a review of the COS system
  • Provided more support for club sports

I have said many times Dartmouth is a work in progress. We need to continually adapt and evolve to meet the needs of our students. And believe me, their interests are evolving all the time.

Graduating Seniors:

At graduation we give our students another surveyâ€"the Senior Surveyâ€"that asks a range of questions about their experience here. The survey covers their academic experience as well as their experiences with various offices around campus and their willingness to recommend Dartmouth to their friends. We track the alternate year survey because this provides us with a comparative assessment that is useful. In 2006,

  • 98 percent were satisfied with faculty availability
  • 94 percent expressed overall satisfaction
  • 85 percent had a willingness to recommend Dartmouth to others

And we have seen significant improvement from 1998. But we also have some challenges. Our lowest score is in premajor advising, where only 35 percent were satisfied. For sure, this is up from 28 percent in 1998, but it is not good enough. Since the Class of 2006 matriculated, we have reorganized the office and given it some additional resources so that we can improve on this. Advising in the major is at 68 percent satisfiedâ€"but this too could be improved. I have spoken with the faculty about this.

The next lowest score is the administration's responsiveness to student concerns, at 56 percent satisfaction. Career Services is at 64 percent, and the climate for minority students at 66 percent. I would like to see us do better on all of these measures. I have spoken with incoming Dean of the College Tom Crady and have met with the Career Services officersâ€"they really do a good job in a rapidly changing environmentâ€"as well as with other colleagues in administration and with the faculty about these matters. We can do better. We need always to commit to that.

We also survey parents. We have found that they tend to be even more satisfied than are the students, which is good as they are the ones who are paying the bills! Parents are most interested in the quality of the faculty and the range of course offerings. They are eager to be involved with the College and follow their child's education closely.


We seek faculty input on a range of issues, working primarily with faculty committees but also through informal means. We set a goal of bringing faculty compensation up to above the median of a set of peer institutions. We have met this. We have also met our goal of increasing the faculty by 10 percent and we will continue to add faculty in a number of areas. Another issue that we are considering is what more we can do for spouses and partners of faculty.

We evaluate faculty to assess how we are doing. That begins of course when we hire someone for a teaching position here. We are fortunate in that we attract an extremely impressive caliber of faculty. People want to come to Dartmouth because of the quality of the students. In our annual market test, we get our first choice of faculty member.

Once our faculty are here, there are various reviews that take place. A few years ago we formalized the teaching evaluation system. Most faculty did teaching evaluations, but we have now standardized the system. This provides important feedback for faculty.

Before a faculty member receives tenure, we undertake an extensive and thorough review. One of the most important groups at Dartmouth is the Committee Advisory to the President (CAP), composed of six senior faculty members I select from a group nominated by vote of the Arts and Sciences faculty, with the dean of faculty serving as agenda officer and the provost, by invitation, attending as a non-voting member. This group considers all promotions and tenure appointments within the Arts and Sciences faculty, upon recommendation of the home department or program, with full evidence of scholarly standing and teaching effectiveness. It is a very responsible group that understands so well the importance of its decisions, for Dartmouth as well as for the individual under review.

Last year, the promotion materials for faculty included the following comments from students: the "best course" at Dartmouth; "This course makes me think in a different way;" "[x] cares about his students and their progress;" "The best teaching I have seen;" "Amazing;" "Masterful;" "did an amazing job at playing the devil's advocate for every side of an argument, which kept us thinking and challenged us to question accepted ideas." These faculty affirm Dartmouth's future and they strengthen my conviction that Dartmouth is the best. As one student said, "I have learned things that I feel most undergraduates would not normally have the opportunity to learn."

There are many other metrics that we look at, but our students and faculty are at the center of everything we do. What is the value added of a Dartmouth education? A recent student wrote to Susan Wright:

Once upon a time I thought, what am I doing here, in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire, without the sun?

I guess somewhere in the ups and downs of my college experience, somewhere between the piles of leaves outside my Choates room, the snowy mornings to drill, the icy slips on the way to East Wheelock, the crashes down the ski slope, I found my way - to the brunches at Lou's, dinners at professors' homes, and meetings with the deans. I found my way to office hours, lectures, and random discussions. To hockey games, lacrosse fields, frat parties, and Sanborn's afternoon tea. There in the communal bathrooms, floor meetings, Collis couches and Novak tables topped with vanilla chai, I grew up. There in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire, I found my own kind of sun - in the brilliant Fall leaves, in the glittery February snowflakes, in the fat cooling rain drops, and warm summer breezes. This middle of nowhere New Hampshire became the somewhere that changed my life.

My focus, my interest, my concern is to make certain that the members of the Class of 2011 have the same experience that this student had, as will the Class of 2015 after them. That is the Dartmouth way and the Dartmouth story. Thank you for your commitment to this story that has no end.







Last Updated: 6/25/09