Below we convey the substance of our conversation with Dartmouth President James Wright on Tuesday in Minneapolis. President Wright struck us as a fine man and sincere friend of some of the great teachers who have graced Dartmouth over the past two generations. He looks like a college president sent from central casting; we liked him. Our disagreement with him and the Dartmouth administration has nothing to do with him personally. Nevertheless, one can observe in his remarks both the complacency and the political correctness that hobble Dartmouth today.
When I asked President Wright what message he wanted to convey about the college to our readers, he invoked Dartmouth tradition updated by the benefits of “diversity.” The only diversity he mentioned, however, was the vastly increased racial and ethnic diversity of the student body today over the student body of our years at the school, with respect to which he cited the relevant percentages then and now. He asserted the educational benefits of the increased racial and ethnic diversity of the student body. He distilled the academic party line on “diversity” into its 200 proof essence.
When it came to political and intellectual diversity among the faculty, however, President Wright was an advocate of the status quo. Superficial diversity of skin color among the student body is deemed to advance the educational process in some undefined manner, while increased diversity in political, intellectual and cultural views among teachers is deemed relatively unimportant to the educational process. How to say it? The time is out of joint.
In defending the college’s lack of even an optional core curriculum in literature, philosophy and history, President Wright asserted that the college presumed a background in Western civilization on the part of entering students. Yet he immediately conceded that he probably overestimated the attainments of entering students in this respect. Here again President Wright is a forceful advocate of the status quo.
Given the primary duties of a contemporary college president, President Wright’s views would be appropriate if all was well on important matters at the college. The proposition that all is not well on important matters at the college was the centerpiece of the campaign of the three recently elected insurgent Dartmouth trustees — T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki. No one supported the candidacies of Robinson and Zywicki more strongly than we did.
The three of us who write for Power Line are Dartmouth alumni who share feelings of gratitude for the educational experience the school afforded us. We naturally took an interest in the 2005 trustee election after Robinson and Zywicki qualified to run by petition, and we thought the story would be of interest to a wider audience during a famously dark season for the academy. We heard from many readers, both alumni and non-alumni, who expressed interest in the story as we covered it and we thank the remainder of our readers for indulging us.
I interviewed both Robinson and Zywicki as well as alumni council staff for the Daily Standard column I wrote on the election as Robinson and Zywicki were collecting petitions to qualify for the trustee election ballot: “Bucking the deans at Dartmouth.” We followed the roller coaster ride of the election campaign in subsequent posts on this site (former students of Jeffrey Hart and Peter Bien: see if you can spot the allusions and motifs!):
I stand by every word I wrote over the course of the trustee campaign, such as it was under the restrictive campaign rules. The election of Rodgers, Robinson and Zywicki to the board seems to have struck the powers-that-be at the college as a case of lèse-majesté. They mean for it not to happen again.
The real issue in President Wright’s meeting with us seemed to be governance, and on this question President Wright presented the matter as a kind of administrative question for alumni that was of little interest to him as president. John asked, “So you’re neutral on the proposals?” No, he acknowledged, he supported the pending changes — changes that would work to prevent future Rodgers and Robinsons from throwing a spanner in the works.
We think it a great virtue of the present system of governance that it allowed for the eruption of alumni discontent with affairs at the college to manifest itself in the election of insurgent candidates with a constructive purpose. President Wright is involved in a serious effort to keep it from happening again. If President Wright prevails, the opening represented by the election of Rodgers, Robinson and Zywicki will be Dartmouth’s Prague spring.