Punishing good deeds at Dartmouth, Part Three

Earlier this week, I described the Departmental Editing Program (DEP) at Dartmouth College. This program, created and funded by Joe Asch ’79, assigned an editor to three departments at Dartmouth — Religion, Art History, and Mathematics. It was designed to address the less than stellar writing skills of today’s students, a problem known to anyone who deals with the written work of graduates of even top colleges and professional schools.
The distinctive element of this program was that the editors, former high school teachers, worked within their assigned academic departments. They weren’t cut off from faculty in a writing center; rather, they audited their departments’ courses, got to know the faculty members, and maintained offices in the individual departments. As a result, they were able to provide truly specialized assistance to students concerning the papers they were editing, in contrast to writing center tutors who might work with papers in a half dozen disciplines in a day.
The effectiveness of the program is captured in the letters from the department heads quoted in my earlier post. The head of the Religion department called the DEP “an indispensable top-tier program for producing Dartmouth graduates with mature writing skills.” The head of the Art History department called that department’s editor “a boon to art history faculty who have large classes” and quoted a colleague who said “I can’t imagine the Art History Department without [the editor].” In the Math Department one professor, whose courses apparently involved a significant amount of writing said, “Given a choice, I would not choose to teach [the course] without [the departmental editor].”
After funding the DEP for the better part of a decade, Joe Asch decided to stop funding it at the end of the 2005-06 academic year. He hoped, reasonably enough given the success of the DEP, that the college would take on and even expand the program, but it declined to do so. Joe then decided to fund the program for another year. The Dean of the Faculty, Carol Folt, accepted Joe’s offer but, in a letter dated June 2, 2006, informed him that “this will be the final year of the program.” Joe asked whether this meant that the college would not accept future funding from him if he decided to pay for it after the 2006-07 academic year. Dean Folt stated, in a letter dated July 12, 2006, that this was the case.
The college’s decision not to take over funding of the program seems like a poor one given the special nature of the DEP, the great results it had achieved for the three departments, and the “drop-in-bucket cost” of paying the three former high school teachers. However, bureaucrats make dubious decisions all the time, especially when it comes to allocating resources. Thus, this decision can easily be viewed as merely a mistake, albeit an unfortunate one.
But what of the decision to stop accepting funding from Joe? Why, after so many years and in the face of such glowing reports, did Dean Folt make that decision?
The answer may lie in an article Joe wrote in the college newspaper five months before Dean Folt’s June 2006 letter. In that piece, Joe argued that college president James Wright should resign. Was the college’s sudden antipathy to the DEP the result of a retaliatory motive?
When the law assesses the existence of such a motive, an inference of retaliation can arise from the timing of the key events alone. I believe that one can infer a retaliatory motive here from these facts: the college permitted Joe to fund the DEP for years, the program received rave reviews from the faculty it supported, and the college changed its position on the program five months after Joe called for the president to resign (at the time he made that call, the college apparently believed that Joe would no longer fund the DEP, so there was no opportunity to retaliate immediately).
An inference of retaliation can be overcome by the articulation of sensible reasons for the decision in question. In her June 2 letter, Dean Folt mentioned another writing program that she claimed had “begun to make significant improvements” in the college’s writing instruction. However, she did not offer this as a reason for not accepting Joe’s program, nor would such an explanation have made sense since the programs were not mutually exclusive. Rather, she seems to have pointed to other program merely as evidence that the college shared Joe’s commitment to teaching writing skills.
In her July 12 letter, Dean Folt cited “concerns” about the DEP. One was that it lacks “faculty prioritization,” whatever that means. Another was that it “operates outside of our normal practices and procedures in a number of areas.” This boiled down to the fact that Joe determined who the editors would be, what they would be paid, and so forth. This had been the case all along, and indeed it was Joe’s good judgment in hiring such extraordinary editors that made the DEP work. Dean Folt was new to the job, and thus reasonably would want to take a fresh look at the program. However, selecting new editors or changing their compensation would have made no sense, and terminating a highly successful program merely because someone else determined these outcomes seems ridiculous.
Dean Folt also noted that the program operates “completely without faculty committee oversight.” However, it was “overseen” by the faculty of the three departments in which the editors were worked. Why oversight by a detached committee would have been preferable is difficult to fathom. Ironically, Dean Folt’s final stated objection was that Joe had soliticted feedback from the very faculty members who were in a position to provide her with “oversight.”
It may be that Dean Folt exalts bureaucratic nicety to the extent her letter suggests; it’s also possible that Joe’s call for President Wright’s resignation entered into her thinking. All we know is that Dartmouth students no longer have the opportunity to benefit from the unique and remarkable program that has received such praise and helped so many.
CORRECTION: Joe Asch did not choose any of the department editors. They were chosen after competitive interviews by the faculty in the three departments.