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The Wheelock Succession

By Aziz G. Sayigh and Boris V. Vabson | Sunday, October 1, 2006

Wheelock’s Early Successors

Webster’s fiery orations brought renewed calm to Hanover. The College, its very character once endangered, entered into a period of normalcy. A pair of short, inconsequential presidencies was followed by Nathan Lord’s accession to Parkhurst. Serving for 35 consecutive years, Lord expanded enrollment, in addition to constructing Thornton and Wentworth, the buildings flanking Dartmouth Hall. Lord’s open endorsement of slavery, however, provoked a rising tide against him. In 1863, faced with the prospect of removal, Lord opted to resign his office. Rev. Asa Dodge Smith was appointed as replacement. The College’s previous annexation of the Chandler Scientific School (America’s first specialized scientific institution) was complemented, under Smith’s mantel, by the creation of the Thayer School of Engineering. This period was also marked by the establishment, in Hanover, of an agricultural college. Wallowing away for twenty years south of East Wheelock Street, the institution subsequently relocated to Durham, later becoming the University of New Hampshire.

Asa Dodge Smith’s successor, Samuel Bartlett, established a pattern frequently imitated by administrators to follow. Alienating legions of faculty, students, and alumni, Bartlett found his position in serious jeopardy. Unlike future leaders, however, Bartlett also possessed a magical touch, almost seamlessly repairing the rifts he had sown. His critics were left speechless. Serving until 1893, Bartlett would oversee Rollins Chapel’s construction, in addition to pushing the endowment past the million dollar mark.

Safeguarding Dartmouth’s continued survival, in the face of unforgiving wilderness, was the great triumph of early college leaders. Yet, succeeding leaders would facilitate equally lofty achievements. Under their guidance, Dartmouth would not merely endure, but rise to the very pinnacle of education in the New World.

The 20th Century

It was throughout the early 20th century, when stakes were highest, that the greatest of Dartmouth presidents came to power. The College, at that juncture, constituted little more than a finishing school. Its student body numbered 300, with serious scholarship in short supply, and facilities antiquated. While contemporaries fared little better, Dartmouth’s leaders understood the direction the future necessitated. Assuming the presidential office in 1893, William Jewett Tucker was the first seeking to bring Dartmouth into “the modern era.” His storied accomplishments included an overhaul of the physical campus. Construction of over 20 buildings was undertaken, and the steam plant was erected. Wood stoves on campus thus became relics of the past. The curriculum also was targeted for change, as it was “broadened” and somewhat secularized. The student body’s size expanded to 1,100. Tucker, like his contemporary Charles Eliot at Harvard, was a persistent advocate for progress in American education. He wished for America’s academic institutions, particularly Dartmouth, to befit the country’s greatness.

In 1909, Ernest Fox Nichols entered the presidency in Tucker’s stead. The first since John Wheelock to not belong to the clergy, Nichols affected further secularization at Dartmouth. His tenure was also notable for the founding of the Dartmouth Outing Club and Winter Carnival. The Carnival has particularly entered the stuff of lore, often termed “Mardi Gras of the North.” The setting of a 1939 motion picture, and scene of countless depravities, it also served host to a drunken F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1916 saw Ernest Martin Hopkins appointed as president. In addition to developing the physical plant, Hopkins introduced selective admissions in the early 1920s.

After almost 30 years at the helm, Ernest Hopkins was succeeded by John Sloan Dickey. Though previously an attorney and high ranking State Department official, Dickey was hardly a bespectacled academic. Rather, he was a man of breadth, to be found not only in Parkhurst, but also in full exertion among New Hampshire’s wilderness. He sought to hone mind, body, and spirit, and made the same demands of every Dartmouth student. Under his watch, the ideal of the Dartmouth Man, as one well-formed, balanced, and vigorous, reached its fruition. Dickey furthermore wished the Dartmouth man to be outward gazing, and cognizant of the world at large. In this vein, Dickey strived to develop a curriculum international in scope, and established numerous foreign study programs. As Dickey told a Dartmouth audience, while the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in memory, “The world’s problems are your problems…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” When Dickey departed from Dartmouth in 1970, his was a towering shadow. He left Dartmouth the strongest it ever was. Great love had been instilled among Dartmouth alumni, by Dickey, for their alma mater. Almost 70% gave funds to the College in any given year of his term, a percentage since unequaled.

Replacing Dickey as Dartmouth president was John Kemeny. Co-creator of the BASIC computer language, Kemeny had brought technology’s forefront to the College, as well as provided students access to it. Now, he would preside over co-education’s controversial beginning, with 1972 marking the first year of female admittance. To meet the needs of this expansion of the student body, Kemeny instituted the D-Plan, a year round schedule of operations existing to this day. It was, in the words of some, a means by which to fit 4000 students into 3000 beds. Yet, even until the 1980s, men made up as much as 80% of those 4000 spots.

The Modern Era

David T. McLaughlin succeeded Kemeny, and was himself followed by James O. Freedman. These fellows were rooted at opposite poles of the spectrum. McLaughlin, a businessman by occupation, proved unable to adapt to the world of the academy, and eventually tendered his resignation. Freedman, meanwhile, was an academic, fixated only on the life of the mind, and wishing others at Dartmouth to follow his example. His inaugural address demanded greater representation of the “creative loner” at Dartmouth, and of “students who march to a different drummer….for whom a library is dukedom large enough.” With these words, Freedman set out to cultivate a student body that was a far cry from Dickey’s ideal, substituting balance for lopsidedness. The raising of SAT scores’ importance in admissions was one consequence of Freedman’s quest. The East Wheelock Cluster, that glorious den of failed social engineering, stands as another monument to his efforts.

James Wright, Dartmouth’s current head, is most notable for his efforts to abolish single-sex Greek houses, and effectively do away with the college’s Greek System. This proposal, announced in 1999 as the Student Life Initiative, met fierce opposition from students and alumni. This opposition has led the proposal to fester away, unlikely to figure prominently in the near future. Wright has also faced controversy for fiscal mismanagement, for presiding over a bloated bureaucracy, and for ineffectively addressing overcrowded classes in certain departments (notably Economics and Government).

Such were the grievances aired by three different petition candidates, vying for spots on the Board of Trustees. TJ Rodgers, Peter Robinson, and Todd Zywicki by name, these petitioners bemoaned Dartmouth’s abandonment of the ideals of breadth, well roundedness, and balance. Each of these petitioners was subsequently elected, Rodgers in 2004, and Robinson and Zywicki in 2005, by alumni to the board. Their significant margin of victory served as a repudiation of Wright’s tenure.

The fate of Dartmouth, that enduring institution, has not only been engineered from the past. Rather, it is also being shaped in the present, by all who attend or associate with her. You too, coming ’10s, will add your own contributions to this storied institution’s history, an institution counting among its alumni a former Vice President, Chief Justice, Robert Frost, and Dr. Seuss. As even James Wright will tell you at your convocation, you shall become a part of Dartmouth, just as Dartmouth shall become a part of you.