• 193rd Alumni Council: A Call for Communication

    Thursday, December 7, 2006
    News Type

Three messages emerged from the 193rd Dartmouth Alumni Council: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Eighty-two current councilors, including 28 new ones just starting their three-year terms, and 16 former councilors attended the semiannual meeting, held Thursday through Saturday, November 30–December 2, in Hanover. President Martha Beattie '76 led members through a very full agenda that was set by the Executive Committee and addressed effective alumni engagement.

Councilors discussed the undergraduate–graduate academic continuum with the graduate and professional school deans, heard a report on incidents of racism on campus, and held sessions on other aspects of campus academic and social life. Tending to governance matters, they approved a slate of candidates for the alumni trustee seat opening in June on the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees and established a communication channel between the board and the council's College Relations Group. Given the defeat in October of the proposed new alumni constitution, they also turned their critical-thinking skills on their own organization, questioning its form, function, and next step. There was time for a little fun, too: the councilors honored Otho Kerr '79 and Kelley Fead '78 with Dartmouth Alumni Awards in a festive dinner at which President James Wright ‘64a and trustee chair Bill Neukom '64 spoke. The Dartmouth Aires beguiled all at a reception at the Top of the Hop before dinner.

The need for wide-ranging communication—between the Alumni Council and fellow alumni, the College administration, and the board of trustees, as well as from the College community to the public—was voiced repeatedly, beginning with Beattie's introductory remarks on Thursday night. In the wake of the contentious constitution vote, she said, “We need to capitalize on the 38 percent voter turnout and a growing awareness of alumni issues, drawing as many people into the process as possible. Implicit in this is the need to engage those who opposed the constitution and to truly understand what sparked their opposition. We need to bring diverse voices together [and] engage effectively with as many alumni as possible, sharing the gift we have been given of knowing the Dartmouth of today.”

Beattie noted that Dartmouth was recently named by Booz Allen Hamilton's as one of the world's two most enduring educational institutions, which the consultants define as institutions that have "changed and grown in unswerving pursuit of success and relevance and yet remained true through time to [their] founding principles." The other educational institution is Oxford University.

Getting more alumni to engage in the contemporary Dartmouth, as well as the Dartmouth of their era, was emphasized by a number of participants, including President Wright, who said, "Dartmouth has never been better. The time for silence about this is over.”

The Academic Continuum at Dartmouth

In a panel convened by the council Executive Committee, the four graduate and professional school deans reported many ways alumni are involved in their academic enterprise, starting with the integral role they play in mentoring students professionally. Contact often starts in students' undergraduate years, in workshops held on campus and around the country; is sustained by well-established online resources; and may continue in apprenticeships.

Many alumni also serve on the schools' boards of overseers. Joseph Helble, dean and professor of engineering at the Thayer School of Engineering, noted that a number of Thayer graduates are also College alumni, and 17 of the 19 overseers are College or Thayer alumni. He drew laughter when he commented, “The board of overseers was founded in 1867, at the same time the school was founded, so actually the alumni board existed even before there were faculty and students.”

A question-and-answer session kicked off with a councilor's inquiry about graduate programs that benefit undergraduates. The deans responded that undergraduates benefit from the porous accessibility of faculty.

“The College is a continuum. There's no such thing as a ‘graduate faculty' and an ‘undergraduate faculty,'” emphasized Paul Danos, dean and Laurence F. Whittemore Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business. “In a world-class academic environment like ours, there's no market for faculty who teach at just the graduate or undergraduate level.”

For example, noted Stephen Spielberg, dean and professor of pediatrics and of pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth Medical School, undergraduates who want to start a research program in the Norris Cotton Cancer Center “can just walk over, and any faculty will sit down with them and help them.” This isn't the case in most other schools. Upcoming new courses in anthropology and global public health will combine undergraduate, graduate, and medical students in the classroom, he added, and he teaches three undergraduate courses himself.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “Whereas most graduate students are aware of the hierarchy, and think, okay, this is the dean here, the undergrads are blissfully unaware of it.”

Responding to a question about how much time graduate teaching assistants spend teaching undergraduates, Charles Barlowe, dean of graduate studies and professor of biochemistry, said, “Our graduate students don't teach courses. They TA. They oversee lab sections, assist with grading, or lead discussion groups. But they don't direct courses." The sole exception is in the mathematics department, where advanced doctoral students participate in a program founded by former president John Kemeny that requires teaching a course as a culminating experience. In Thayer, Tuck, and Dartmouth Medical School, no classes are taught by graduate students.

Asked whether the cost of adding undergraduates to research programs is high, Barlowe said it's generally not prohibitive. "If faculty members want to get an undergraduate into a graduate research program," he said, "and need funding to cover it, they'll ask the dean or try to find it themselves—they'll try to find a way to make it happen." He added that the Presidential Scholars Program, which was endowed by John (Launny) Steffens '63 and funds opportunities for juniors to work as research assistants to faculty in graduate research programs, has recently had more demands for funding. And alumni sponsorship is greatly needed for students' research travel, he noted.

“Just Show Us You Care”

Drawing on fact-finding meetings with President Wright and other College administrators, Councilor Carmen Lopez '97 gave a detailed report on racist actions directed at Native American students this fall. The incidents ranged from the intrusion of some fraternity members into a drummers circle during the campus pow-wow in October to the publication in late November of an image offensive to Native Americans on the cover of the Dartmouth Review (a conservative newspaper that is not affiliated with Dartmouth College.)

Lopez, who is executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program, serves as the 2005–2008 Native American Alumni Association of Dartmouth representative to the Alumni Council. “Dartmouth is still seen as the premiere institution in the country to send Native American students to,” she said, “but recently I've had calls from alumni across the country, asking, 'What's going on there?'”

Lopez described the “Solidarity against Hatred” rally, which was organized by students within a day of the publication of the paper and drew hundreds of people, as an “affirmation of Dartmouth.” This view was also taken by President Wright, who said, “The rally was unlike any other I've seen in my 37 years on campus, in that it did not stress hurt and anger, but instead commonality. Hurt and angry though they were, these students showed they embrace their College and its purpose.”

Nevertheless, Lopez cautioned, minority students' “academic experience is at stake” when their own and the faculty's energies must be diverted to these issues. “Students want the administration to take steps,” she said, “and what these steps are is up to President Wright and [Acting Dean of the College] Dan Nelson.

“But what can we do as alumni councilors?”—Lopez struggled to gain control of her emotions as she spoke the next words—"I asked the students, and they said, ‘Just show us you care. Send emails. It's good to know you're thinking of us.'

“We need to move away from our alumni issues,” Lopez said , “and come back to student experience right now. We need to have answers for alumni who ask us what's happening on campus. I'm asking you to think about your sphere of influence. Educate and network your alumni. And ask your student, what do you think of what's going on?”

Redefining the Role of the Alumni Council

The council approved a slate of three candidates—Richard "Sandy" Alderson '69; Sherri Carroll Oberg '82, '86Tu; and John Wolf '70—presented by Nominating Committee chair Rick Routhier '73, '76Tu for the alumni seat that will open on the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees in June 2007, when Nancy Jeton '76 retires.

As chair also of the College Relations Group, Routhier announced the establishment of a formal communications channel between the group and the board of trustees. Future council sessions will include meetings of members of the two bodies.

In discussions led by President Beattie and President-elect Rick Silverman '81, a number of councilors reported alumni constituents' views on the fall constitution vote and offered their thoughts on the vote and how the council should move forward. With the failure of the proposed constitution, which would have amended the Association of Alumni constitution to merge the association and council into one organization, the Alumni Council still stands. (The Alumni Governance Task Force, which drafted the proposal, was dissolved.)

Councilor John Engleman '68 reported that alumni thought the trustee election provision too convoluted and this was the key issue affecting voting; other councilors said they heard this also. Others reported that alumni disapproved of the "robocalling" done by off-campus groups to get out the vote, thought the constitution document was too complex, or perceived it as an initiative of the administration and rejected it out of disapproval of former actions of the administration. Still others who perceived the constitution as an administrative initiative didn't vote because they're happy with the administration and don't want change.

Many alumni were unaware, until the vote, of the existence of the Alumni Council, and many still don't know it exists. One reason for this is the obscurity around how councilors come to their posts: Depending on their individual constitutions, some classes elect their councilors, and others appoint theirs. Several alumni suggested that all councilors should be elected.

Former councilor Beth Krakower '93, now a member of the College Relations Group, said the group had just drafted a resolution to that effect. Presented at the close of the meeting on Saturday by Councilor and College Relations Group member Todd Hemphill '78, the resolution states that the Alumni Council will encourage all bodies that send representatives to the council to evaluate their election/selection process and take steps to make it more democratic. It was approved. Hemphill described this as “taking baby steps” to promote democracy in lieu of major constitutional change.

Councilors were of many minds about how the Alumni Council should go forward. A number were interested in a detailed plan that Councilor John Daukas Jr. '84 presented in the “hope that we could implement the many noncontroversial provisions [of the failed proposed constitution] that increase democracy and the ability of alumni to communicate with trustees and the administration through the Alumni Council constitution.” At the other end of the spectrum was Councilor J. Michael Houlihan '61, who said he thought constitutional change “should be put off indefinitely.”

At the suggestion of several participants, including David Spalding '76, vice president for Alumni Relations, a working group was formed to study the mission of the Alumni Council and perhaps create a strategic plan.

The immediate focus of the councilors is now the alumni trustee election, which runs from April 1 to May 15.