Punishing good deeds at Dartmouth, Part Four

Today, I conclude the unfortunate story of the demise of the Departmental Editing Program (DEP) at Dartmouth College. This was a program created and funded by Joe Asch ’79. It was designed to improve the less than stellar writing skills of today’s college students. It did this by hiring editors and assigning one to each of three departments at Dartmouth. There, the editors, former high school teachers, provided writing assistance to students taking certain courses. Unlike writing center tutors, these editors were closely integrated into specific departments, auditing classes, getting to know the faculty members, and maintaining offices right there. Thus, they were able to provide truly specialized assistance to students writing papers in courses taught by their department.
In this post, I documented the remarkable success of the DEP, as described by the heads of the three participating departments. In this post, I told of how, soon after Joe had written a letter to the college newspaper arguing that the president should resign, the college decided no longer to permit Joe to fund the DEP. In this final installment, I’ll recount Joe’s unsuccessful efforts to keep the DEP alive in the face of the college’s sudden hostility towards it.
Hoping to save the DEP, Joe, in conjunction a member of the college’s Afro-American and Native American societies, explored the idea of housing the DEP instructors in a residence hall for African-American students, and limiting the program to such students. This concept made sense at several levels. First, the residence hall in question has a learning center, though the students told Joe the college has never staffed it. Second, the DEP had achieved great success helping students who entered Dartmouth less well-prepared than most others. As the head of one department involved with the DEP put it, “some students perceive the DEP as leveling the playing field; those who believe themselves to have inferior academic preparation are grateful for the chance to catch up. The more time they spend working with [the DEP editor], the better their writing becomes.” It’s no secret that African-American students from less affluent backgrounds tend not to receive the same quality of preparation for college as more affluent Dartmouth students. It’s also no secret that, using racial preferences, Dartmouth admits African-American students whose test scores suggest a gap in writing skills.”
Third, offering the DEP as a method of helping African-American and Native American students held the possibility of making it more attractive to the administration. If the administration were to reconsider its decision, Joe could continue to help Dartmouth students, and his editors could keep doing the work that, by all accounts, they love.
Joe presented his idea to the leadership of the Afro-American society, which rejected it. The society’s president, Robert Cheeks, objected that Joe was not addressing “other more pressing needs of the black community.” But Joe had never developed a program to promote racial sensitivity, end hunger in Africa, or whatever Cheeks thinks he should have been concerned with. All Joe had to offer was a proven method of helping students improve their writing, and thereby greatly improve their prospects for academic and career success. In rejecting that offer on the grounds he articulated, Cheeks appears to have placed his desire to engage in racial posturing over the needs of Dartmouth’s African-American students.
However, something else may have been at work. Joe and his wife say they were told by Cheeks and a Native American student that the college had indicated the Afro-American and Native American societies risked having their funding cut if these organizations supported Joe in his effort to keep the DEP alive. Joe mentioned this comment in a letter he wrote to Cheeks soon after their meeting, to which Cheeks did not respond. On the other hand, Cheeks later denied making the comment, and Dean Folt has said that no risk of a funding cut existed (which is not exactly the same thing as denying that someone in the administration made a threat).
I take no position as to what Cheeks told Joe. In Cheeks’ scenario, he made a bad decision for a ridiculous reason. In Joe’s scenario threats from the college may have contributed to that bad decision. Either way the outcome is quite sad. And either way the administration is implicated. If it had allowed Joe to keep funding his highly successful program as constituted, he would not have needed to pursue the Afro-American/Native American option.
I’ll give the last word to Joe who surely has earned it through his generosity to Dartmouth:

I said goodbye to the three Editors this week. They had worked really hard over the years for the faculty and students – the kind of hard work that you can do when you really love and find meaning in a job. Shame on this unimaginative and vindictive administration for not allowing such people to make a valuable contribution to the Dartmouth community.

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