Looking to Dartmouth's future

DAVID T. McLaughlin -- former football star, Air Force pilot, and chairman of the Toro lawn equipment company -- has for the past four years held the sometimes thankless job of a college president. He's an alumnus of Dartmouth College and only the second of its 14 presidents -- spanning 216 years -- to have come to the post from the world of business. He arrived at a time when this prestigious Ivy League school, like colleges and universities throughout the country, was coming face to face with an array of tough choices.

Those choices have come into clear focus in recent months, as calls for educational reform -- heretofore directed primarily at secondary schools -- have reverberated through the halls of higher education, and federal belt-tightening has jarred campus financial-planning offices. Brows furrowed, men and women in Mr. McLaughlin's position are having to find answers to some fundamental questions:

What are the legitimate components of a liberal education in the 1980s and beyond? How open can, or should, the doors of higher education be at a time of dwindling governmental aid? What kind of a leadership role should colleges and universities assume in today's world?

McLaughlin, a man who looks as if he's still capable of snaring a football, took an hour recently to tackle these questions. Seated at a small conference table in his office, he turned to the question of whether colleges -- like high schools -- should heed the reformer's cry to return to the basics.

``There's been a running dialogue on a need to reestablish and return to the classical liberal education where Western civilization, Plato, and Aristotle are centerpieces on a required basis,'' he notes. ``As I would look at where Dartmouth is, we're probably closer here to a classical liberal arts education than most other institutions,'' but not so close as in the past.

At Dartmouth and elsewhere, he explains, a host of new programs have been ``superimposed'' on that core curriculum. These newcomers range from computer training to various ethnic and women's studies programs. The latter areas, particularly, are frequent targets of critics who see a dilution of learning at colleges and universities.

McLaughlin, on the other hand, views these courses as reflective of change in society, and therefore as needed. But he stands firmly behind the traditional liberal arts curriculum as well. The central ``challenge,'' he says, is: ``Can you do both, and do it effectively?''

Dartmouth is struggling toward a way of ``productively interlocking'' the basics and the newer programs, according to its president. It's a slow, sometimes contentious process that underscores wide differences of opinion among faculty members, he says, but it's ``absolutely essential.''

At Dartmouth, calls for reform have reinforced the value of the traditional liberal arts, but they're ``challenging the institution to say that we've got to adjust to the realities of what our students will face in the next 10, 15, 20, or 30 years,'' says McLaughlin.

This gets at what he sees as one of the major differences between the world of industry and that of higher education: a vastly extended ``time frame for decisionmaking.'' There's no way you can give students all the technical data they'll need over the next 30 years -- it may not even exist yet. But, he says, ``you can, based on fundamental values, lessons of history, and appreciation for those building blocks of knowledge, give the student the tools to address unforeseen challenges . . . and to take what data is then available, synthesize it, and use it effectively in one's life. ``It all begins with the basic liberal arts, but I don't think it can end there,'' he sums up.

And what about the students -- what are their preferences when it comes to course offerings?

Contrary to the national trend, the number of Dartmouth students majoring in the humanities has slightly increased over the last decade, says McLaughlin, with English and religion among the majors gaining most rapidly. He sees this as a positive trend, hinting at a desire for what the president calls ``the classical kinds of educational experiences.''

On the other side of the academic ledger, he notes that many students have fixed their attention on ``what they think are more vocational programs,'' the ones that will help them land a job -- computer science, some languages, and engineering, for example. The clearly monetary motivation behind many of these choices bothers him: ``I'd rather see them motivated by the broadening experience of the liberal arts.''

But even assuming a liberal-arts education is valuable to a wide spectrum of students, isn't the current budget squeeze changing most colleges' perspective from ``Who should get such an education?'' to ``Who can afford one?''

Sixty percent of the students at this Ivy League institution, where the average cost of attending is $13,647 a year, are on some kind of financial aid, says McLaughlin. Thirty-six percent receive money directly from Dartmouth in the form of scholarships. The school's scholarship funds have grown from $4 million in 1980 to $8.5 million this year -- ``an extraordinary expansion which has paralleled the leveling of government assistance,'' says the president.

But even with this growth in Dartmouth's own aid program, a move to an ``admit-deny'' admissions policy may be only a short distance down the road, according to McLaughlin. This means that new classes would be admitted on a ``need blind'' basis, with the best-qualified being accepted. Financial aid would then be distributed up to the limits of Dartmouth's budget. Beyond those limits, aid would be denied, leaving students to make up the difference between what they need and what the school can provide.

The trouble with this, says McLaughlin, is the danger of tilting the student body toward the economic extremes -- students from wealthy families who need no help, and, to some extent, those from poorer homes who can still get substantial funding from Washington. It's the middle class, he says, which is likely to be squeezed out of the picture, and it is the middle class, he adds, ``that has basically built the institution'' and contributed ``so many teachers and other professional people through our graduates.''

A lowering financial-aid picture is one reason the McLaughlin administration is marching ahead with preliminary plans to reestablish a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program on campus, despite opposition from segments of the faculty.

As the president explains, ROTC would ``open up another avenue for funding'' for a number of students, through the Army's educational-aid offerings.

And what about contributions to the world -- could American colleges and universities be doing more to share their educational expertise with the developing countries?

Traditionally, schools in the US have looked to Western Europe for academic exchanges, says McLaughlin. He sees the dynamics of world politics forcing this to change and points with pride to Dartmouth's own program with the University of Beijing (Peking), which transports 20 to 25 students from Hanover to the capital of China each summer. The college also has programs in Kenya and Mexico, but that's not enough, says the president ruefully.

``If you can look at what the next 30 years may well bring . . . we should be doing more of what possibly the West Coast schools are doing, which is an orientation toward the Asian basin.'' He envisions sending ``senior academic administrators'' to such ``terribly important'' parts of the developing world as India so they can better grasp the local culture and intelligently craft educational exchanges. -- 30 --

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