The Wright Stuff

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Last week John and I received a call asking whether we were available for a meeting in Minneapolis with Dartmouth President James Wright this past Tuesday. President Wright was scheduled to address the Dartmouth Alumni Club of the Midwest that evening, and was meeting with alumni during the day. We met with President Wright in John’s office on Tuesday afternoon.

President Wright joined the Dartmouth faculty fresh from his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1969, when I arrived on campus as a freshman. He has been affiliated with Dartmouth for 37 years, and is its sixteenth president.

President Wright seems to have sought us out as representative critics of the Dartmouth administration whom he sought to win over in advance of the vote on governance changes to be submitted to Dartmouth alumni for a vote this fall. President Wright referred to himself several times as a political historian; he is the author or editor of five works of political history.

His political skills were prominently on display in his meeting with us. He was incredibly well briefed on John and me, referring to my daughters and to our work for Power Line. He began by asking how we found time to write for Power Line while pursuing our vocation. He acknowledged criticism we had directed toward the Dartmouth administration. Taking notes, I said that I wanted to convey his message without editorial comment and write something about our meeting that he would feel fairly presented his views. “You’re always fair,” he said.

I asked him about the lack of a core curriculum in Western civilization — even for those students who would pursue such a program voluntarily — and he referred to his having chaired curriculum review committees in 1978-1980 and again in 1990. He cited Dartmouth’s expansion of distributive requirements and stated that the school assumes a background in Western civilization on the part of entering students. He also referred to a year-long humanities course that is limited to 100 students and that emphasizes writing skills.

I asked President Wright what message he wanted to convey to alumni like us. He invoked our mutual experience with the school since 1969. “Those of us who were at Dartmouth in 1969 know it’s a very special place. I loved it from the time I came for a job interview.” He found a true sense of academic purpose and of community that distinguished the school as an “enduring institution” — one of two academic institution recognized as such (the other was Oxford) in a recent study of enduring institutions by Booz Allen Hamilton.

Dartmouth is a far stronger place than many perceive, according to President Wright. It is anchored in the values with which we are familiar from our own days as undergraduates; he seeks to strengthen the institution he inherited from his presidential predecessors even more. How? President Wright referred to increased “diversity,” citing chapter and verse of the increase in diversity among students by race and country of origin.

John asked about the proposed governance changes. President Wright at first professed a certain detachment from the issues, saying the college itself was not involved. He stated that their purpose was “to open up the alumni process.” John asked if he was neutral on the adoption of the constitutional changes to be submitted to alumni. No, he advocated their adoption, although he had not yet seen them in final form. The current election process results in the “churn and burn” of the strong candidates selected as the official alumni candidates.

It is these official candidates who have been rejected in favor of petition candidates T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki in the two most recent trustee elections. The proposed constitutional changes, whatever they prove ultimately to be, if adopted, will make the election of petition candidates considerably more difficult. (President Wright didn’t say that; it is implicit in the rationale he presented for the adoption of a new constitution.) President Wright said that he hated to see the divide among alumni that has persisted for the past four or five years over these governance issues; “it’s not good for us to be fighting all the time.”

President Wright strongly defended the faculty against “caricatured stereotypes.” On the one hand, he found the evidence of a pervasive political liberalism among the Dartmouth faculty in a recent study of the political leanings of university faculties to be weak. On the other hand, he also found the lack of political diversity among the faculty, if it existed, to be relatively unimportant if it was kept from the classroom. He is nevertheless intrigued by the issue. He acknowledged the leftist tinge of the faculty on “lifestyle issues” more than any other points of contention. He rejected what he referred to as proposed (David) Horowitz-like solutions.

President Wright is a former Marine (I know there is no such thing as an “ex-Marine”). In conclusion, President Wright directed us to his profile by Paul Fain in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education: “An Ivy League president grounded by his past.” He drew our attention to Fain’s discusion of his work with injured veterans and his development of a program to help wounded soldiers go to college. A college president in search of consensus, President Wright hit a walk-off grand slam as we adjourned.

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