HANOVER, N.H. — WITH its tree-bordered green and its white clapboard buildings, Dartmouth is an Ivy-League postcard. But over the years that image has competed with other, less positive ones: a hotbed of conflict between minorities and youthful conservatives, an impossibly expensive place to go to college, and a "party school."
James Freedman became president of Dartmouth in the summer of 1987, after five years as president of the University of Iowa. He came with strong liberal credentials (staunch defender of affirmative action, law clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall), degrees from Ivy League rivals Harvard and Yale, and a mandate for change.
All that immediately set him at odds with conservative elements at Dartmouth, says Michael Heyman, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and outgoing chairman of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees. Mr. Heyman refers to "the paranoia of the far right on campus, who thought [Freedman] would restructure Dartmouth and make it into Harvard."
Such concerns were more than "paranoia," says Dinesh D'Souza, a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. An editor of the right-leaning Dartmouth Review during his student years, Mr. D'Souza says Freedman arrived at Dartmouth with "ferocious energy," which has since dissipated.
Whether or not the president ever had in mind transforming the proud old college into a university, Freedman's tenure has brought significant change - not least of which is an increased number of women at the school.
"It's quite remarkable," says David Riesman, a professor of education at Harvard who has written widely about the challenges facing college presidents, "especially for Dartmouth, given its outing club and its athletic and fraternity traditions. It says something about his aims." Next fall's freshman class will be nearly 50 percent female. According to Dr. Riesman, Dartmouth is leading the Ivy League in this regard.
Yet Dartmouth trails other Ivy League schools in the proportion of minorities on campus. This year, the figure is about 24 percent. Freedman places this issue in a broad social context: "Next to the military, universities are the institutions that have brought people of different races together," he said during a recent interview in his office. He calls conservative broadsides against political correctness (PC) "a reaction to efforts of communities like ours to attract minorities."
Freedman acknowledges the persistence of "separatism" on campuses, with black students and other groups gravitating toward separate organizations, living quarters, and even lunch tables.
"I see those manifestations as transitional, as a consequence of a lack of self-confidence," he says, noting that all incoming students, not just minorities, tend to cluster with people of similar backgrounds and experience. Dartmouth has a residence house for African-Americans, but limits the number of terms a student can live there.
"There is no watering down of academics for minorities any more than for other students," Freedman says. "People would be struck by the achievements of the strongest minority students here. They go on to Harvard Law and other top graduate schools. They're doing the same now as Jews and other groups in earlier times."
As for criticism that the great works of Western civilization are being pushed aside to make room for books by authors of various ethnic backgrounds, Freedman says it's overstated. Changes in reading lists are natural, he says. "In the '50s, we read Camus and Kierkegaard and Sartre. That's all tailed off. Freud was everywhere. I suppose that was the `PC' at the time.... Faculty assign what they find intellectually important and suggestive. Why is it such a big issue today, if it wasn't then?"
Answering his own question, Freedman observes that student bodies in past decades were much more homogeneous: "You didn't have to worry about the `others,' because they were no `others.' " He remembers how surprised his own children were to look through his 1957 Harvard yearbook and find only white, male faces.
The diversity issue easily slides into the affordability issue. Freedman points out that Dartmouth is one of 12 schools in the country that have "need blind" admissions - students are accepted regardless of their ability to pay. It's a system that the president is determined to maintain, even though it means a huge outlay for financial aid.
Like other colleges, Dartmouth is constrained by the rules Washington sets for government student loans. "But we have money, not federal, that we can give regardless of federal rules," says Freedman. Since he took over at Dartmouth, the financial-aid budget has risen from $12 million to $19 million.
But the rate of growth of tuition - which now hovers around $25,000 a year - has gone down for the last four years, the president says. (Former trustee Heyman warns that it could go up again, as the school wrestles with ways to keep a growing budget in balance.) Forty percent of the students at Dartmouth receive financial aid, with the average package being $12,000 to $14,000 a year, Freedman says.
"If higher education is going to charge these prices," he adds, "it has to justify it - we are the vehicles for upward mobility."
Freedman says the actual cost of educating a student at Dartmouth approaches $50,000 a year and ticks off some reasons for that figure: the competition for highly paid faculty, as well as for specialists in fields like computers and library science; the expense of building new labs, libraries, and medical-school facilities; the recent mandate to provide new services for students, such as counseling and treatment for eating disorders.
What are Freedman's views of President Clinton's proposal to link direct government student loans to a national service program?
"I hope it's wildly successful," he says, but quickly adds that he has doubts about the plan's relatively small scope, the suitability of kids fresh out of college for some of the "service" jobs envisioned, and the cost, which has been estimated at $15,000 to $20,000 a year per participant. "We'll want to be sure they put that much back into the economy," Freedman says.
Financial matters are a preoccupation for any college president, but Dartmouth's chief has immersed himself in academic reform as well.
Last year the school announced the first major reworking of its degree requirements in 70 years. Freedman makes no bones about his desire to banish the image of Dartmouth as a party-prone, hard-drinking place in the woods of New Hampshire. "The message of the last six years," he says, "is that we want to be seen as a more academically and intellectually serious place than in the past."
In carrying out his plans, Freedman has had to walk a line between competing parts of the Dartmouth community, Riesman says. "The liberal faculty and the loyal, traditionalist alumni in Hanover create a kind of volatile environment," he notes. "But Freedman seems to have overcome it."