Monday, October 29, 2007

Blackboard & Dartmouth's Privacy Policy

In regards to the concerns about professors tracking student usage that I discussed in the previous post, I think that the Blackboard tracking feature might violate Dartmouth's computing privacy policy.

The policy states that users have "reasonable expectations of privacy in their use of information resources" and that "the provider of any program or service that gathers information about those who use it must either install a privacy warning or request Computing Services to place the program or service on the list of exempted programs." Blackboard certainly does gather information about student usage, and although Blackboard is mentioned in the list of exempted programs, the exemption only covers simulating Dartmouth ID numbers for testing purposes. On the Blackboard website, there is absolutely no warning about this feature (or a privacy policy of any other sort), and the only way to find out about its existence (as a student) is to dig down deep into its help features for faculty and course administrators.

Student Privacy in the Digital Age

I learned something tonight that truly horrified me. Nearly every course at Dartmouth uses Blackboard, an online software service that lets professors post materials and give online exams for their courses, along with an array of other features. Well, it turns out that professors can track student usage - when each individual students logs in or out of the course website, and when they looked at specific course readings. I'm sure that almost every Dartmouth student has no idea that this features exists. There is no privacy warning on the Blackboard website and no professor I have had has ever mentioned it. For student usage to be tracked without warning is a major invasion of privacy. In comparison to all the hubbub about the Patriot Act, this is a million times worse on a personal level for students at Dartmouth. Students should be free to read or not to read course materials without being spied upon. It might not seem that bad, but consider the equivalent in a non-digital era - surveillance cameras in Baker-Berry library or in study lounges. The importance of online privacy is paramount in this panopticonic age, and allowing professors to track student reading habits without their knowledge is certainly a serious violation.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Absent Student Voice

Brian McMillan '08 wrote an interesting article in The Dartmouth last Friday, representing the views of Palaeopitus. McMillan is concerned about the lack of student voice in the debate over trustee governance and he urges students to get involved. Dan Belkin brought up the same issues in an op-ed several weeks ago, where he said students were disenfranchised and their opinions ignored. But I think the real issue is that students don't seem to care, which is unfortunate but makes a lot of sense. Because our time here is limited to four years, students are naturally going to be focused on short term issues, things that will affect them during their time at Dartmouth. The effects of the trustee governance struggle are unlikely to affect students in the immediate future, which creates an disincentive to care. So while the trustee changes are undoubtedly important, to the average Dartmouth student Da$h in vending machines is probably more important.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Review Reveals Alcohol Documents

In their latest issue, which arrived outside my door a few minutes ago, The Dartmouth Review shares leaked administration documents about alcohol at Dartmouth. The most interesting item was a Powerpoint presentation on Pong. The presentation consisted of 65 slides (17 of which are reproduced in the print edition) which gave such insightful statistics as the number of students who prefer Tree (30.7%) and the typical length of 5 games of pong (3 hours and 45 minutes). It also includes quotes such as "Most Dartmouth students despise Beirut as a derivative form of the game". It must have been a tedious presentation, with one slide studying the correlation between "Pong Excellence and Winning".

The other set of documents is an in depth look at alcohol statistics, comparing Dartmouth to other colleges, and looking at Dartmouth over time. The takeaway is that Dartmouth students get arrested far more often than students at other schools. For example, in 2003, 106 Dartmouth students got arrested for alcohol violations. By comparison, there were no arrests whatsoever at Yale, Harvard, and Brown. Princeton had 39 arrests, but only one happened on university property, while 53 Dartmouth students got arrested on-campus that year. Penn had 4 arrests and Cornell had 16, not even coming close to Dartmouth. Comparing Dartmouth to a peer group of liberal arts colleges, none came within 25% of Dartmouth arrest total.

If these statistics are accurate, then it would clearly suggest that the Hanover Police is arresting students with a vigor that none of their peers do.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Wright at the General Faculty

The Dartmouth has an article today about President Wright's address yesterday at the general faculty meeting. The article focused largely on Wright's suggestion that the college experiment with sophomore summer to utilize the unique opportunity to focus learning towards one class of students at the midpoint of their time at Dartmouth. Here's how The Dartmouth described the suggested changes:
Wright suggested four changes that he said would increase depth and breadth of study: scheduling classes in intensive blocks of three weeks rather than nine or 10, making courses worth three credits rather than one, having professional school professors teach some undergraduate classes and better integrating the Hopkins Center, Tucker Foundation and other campus centers in thematic learning programs.
I just finished sophomore summer, and thought I had a good time, what really struck me was how similar it was to a typical term. There's so much hype about it, but at the end of the day, it's just normal classes. President Wright's suggestion that the college think outside the box with the summer makes a lot of sense.

I'm particularly excited about the professional school suggestion, and I heard from a friend in attendance that Wright mentioned integrating Tuck courses or professors in particularly. I have long believed that it's a real shame that the college does not offer undergraduates anyway to take advantage of Tuck, except for the summer Bridge program which is open to non-Dartmouth undergrads. Ideally, I see Tuck professors teaching two or three introductory level business courses for undergraduates. While I am a strong supporter of a liberal arts education, the criticism about it is that it fails to provide undergrads with direct real world skills. Allowing undergraduates to take several business courses would strengthen their educations without undermining the overall liberal arts emphasis. Furthermore, it would probably make Dartmouth undergrads more attractive to the corporate world by allowing them to gain Tuck experience. After all, it's often said that Penn only does so well in the U.S. News rankings because of the aftereffects of Wharton. While I don't advocate a Tuck undergraduate program, why not share some of the benefits of a great business school?

Update: Here's a link to President Wright's speech

Sunday, October 7, 2007

NYT Debate Analyzer

On their website, The New York Times has a cool interactive feature from last month's Democratic debate at Dartmouth. It lets you search through the debate for specific topics and words, and lets you track responses by candidate.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Wright's Op-Ed in the Globe

James Wright, the president of the college, wrote an op-ed in today's Boston Globe about veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way they are being treated when they return home. President Wright feels that soldiers are less visible than they were in previous conflicts:
I fear, in the midst of the debate over troop levels, exit strategies, and assessment of the war's progress, we have lost sight of the men and women who are fighting this war. To be sure, there is deference to them, but too often they are seen as abstractions, as numbers and not individuals, as heroes or helpless pawns. Those who gave their lives are remembered for but a moment, except in their hometowns. Those who have been seriously injured seldom even have the moment.
President Wright then calls for "a new GI Bill" to significantly enhance education and rehabilitation programs.

I completely agree with the president. Compared with the Vietnam War, and certainly wars of previous generations, this war has had zero impact on college campuses. Around Dartmouth, you would never know that we had troops fighting overseas. For the Ivy League twenty-year-old, this has been a completely anonymous war, and the same is certainly true for the average New Yorker. In the past, war affected a much wider range of people, which served as a deterrent against going to war. People were afraid of the draft, people had to converse, people were afraid of relatives and friends dying. But nothing about my life has changed because of Iraq or Afghanistan. Similarly, I had been disheartened by the lack of anger about the war at Dartmouth. College students drove the consciousness of the nation during Vietnam, but have been largely silent during the Iraq war, which is similarly unjust and misguided.

The answer, of course, is a draft. I certainly do not want a draft, because I do not want to be forced to go to war, but I think without question that a draft is necessary during a time of war. It is only fair that the costs of war should be shared by everyone. The concept of a "volunteer army" is a misnomer. Many of the soldiers fighting today joined the reserves during peace time because they figured they would never see a full-scale war again. Many others only signed up because they had no better options. Imagine if the army was truly volunteer, if anybody could drop out any time if they wanted to. Only that would be a true volunteer army. The absence of a draft has made war politically less costly, and that is a horrible thing. The result, as Wright described, is that this war feels distant and abstract.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Alumni Association's Motion

Here's a pdf copy of the motion filed by the Association of Alumni.

Power's Out

The power is suddenly out throughout campus. No storm in sight. Thank god for laptop batteries. Since I've been at Dartmouth, it's happened only once or twice before, but normally it occurred after lightening and the like. These things don't happen in New York.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Super Long Letter from Alumni Assoc.

The Association of Alumni sent a very long letter to Dartmouth students tonight via blitz:
Dear Dartmouth Students,

We are the executives of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni who are seeking to prevent the Trustees from implementing their highly controversial reorganization of the governance of the College. We owe you an explanation, as we recognize how this affects you today and in the future. At the moment, you are the most important people at Dartmouth. In four years, all of you will be alumni and there will be 4,000 new undergraduates. Our goal in all of this is to protect the core of the Dartmouth experience -- and even the '11s already know exactly what we mean by this -- from administrative overreach and from co-optation by a small (but, we readily admit, very wealthy) group of alumni.

A brief bit of background. Dartmouth's Board of Trustees hires, fires, evaluates, and sets the salary of the president. Of course, they don't decide, for example, which courses are offered in a given term -- faculty decides that -- but they are charged with overseeing the entire College and setting its strategic direction. Their decisions determine what Dartmouth will become. For over a century, half of the Board has been elected by former students of Dartmouth. The moment one's class graduated, one earned the right to vote.

Over the last four years, a remarkable series of events happened at Dartmouth. T.J Rodgers '70, the self-made CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, ran for a Trusteeship and won. Why was that remarkable? Because Dr. Rodgers did not have the administration's sanction. He used a petition process long embedded, and usual ignored, in the election rules. Dr. Rodgers's campaign explained all the good that ha been done at the College -- and all the hard work still required. By contrast his opponents did not offer substantive opinions. Dr. Rodgers won an astounding victory.

The next year, two seats were open. Two more petition candidates -- law professor Todd Zywicki '88 and author Peter Robinson '79 -- ran and won. They focused on issues of free speech (Dartmouth still had a red-light speech code at the time, limiting freedom of speech), and support of athletics (ask senior friends about the attempted cutting of the swim team). Again, these petition candidates won.

As a matter of course, each of these three petition candidates found themselves becoming even better informed in the details of the College and sobered by what they learned. Their concerns have centered on ensuring absolutely the best student experience, by eliminating bureaucracy, increasing the numbers of the full-time faculty available to students, and making sure that traditional out-of-class experiences are not diminished. This made those in power uncomfortable. Instead of addressing these issues head on, the administration became defensive, as you can now see on the infamous Ask.Dartmouth.Edu website. There was, and remains today, a sense that dissent is disloyal. You can still hear some people claim that talking about where Dartmouth needs to improve is akin to harming Dartmouth!

Needless to say, this sort of argumentation -- which echoes what we've heard in Washington over the past few years -- failed to convince many people. The year after Messrs. Robinson and Zywicki were elected, a brand new alumni governance constitution was proposed. Under the guise of changes to the structure of alumni organizations, a few people who feared having more petition trustees tried to change the rules to make it much more difficult for future petition candidates to be elected. The College spent a lot of money attempting to get the document ratified -- even hiring a public relations firm -- and some wealthy alumni hired a pollster to do telephone push polling. But it failed. It needed 67% approval to pass, and it only got 49%.

The next year -- and now we are talking about last Spring -- another petition candidate ran for a Trusteeship under the traditional rules.He is Stephen Smith '88, a legal scholar. (You can still see his website here: He won by a clear majority took his seat as the only African-American man on Dartmouth's Board. His campaign centered on bureaucratic bloat at our College. He noted that the number of assistant deans and vice presidents had ballooned in recent years, that Dartmouth was spending a smaller and smaller fraction of its massive resources on the actual classroom experience. Clearly, Mr. Smith said, there was an entrenched bureaucracy problem. A separate College-commissioned report by the McKinsey consulting firm said the same thing.

Probably you have already noticed this in dealing with the registrar, ORL, the parking people, and a Safety & Security force that is now bigger than the Hanover police department itself. But whether you have noticed it or not, the bottom line is that a fat administration means a lean faculty. Talk candidly with your professors -- particularly those in the government and economics departments -- and they will tell you that Dartmouth just plain needs more profs.

Mr. Smith's victory -- and we apologize for the long blitz; it is almost over -- was the last straw. Asked by The D to comment on his win, then-chairman Bill Neukom '64 said: "We have a new Trustee." His unwillingness to say any more, or anything positive, was just as strong a condemnation of Mr. Smith as if he had said something negative. And implicitly this was also a slap in the face to the Dartmouth community which elected him.

Quickly after Stephen Smith took his seat, the Board announced that it would conduct a "study" to see whether it should reorganize itself. Not surprisingly, the Board decided that indeed it should reorganize itself. This was after hearing from thousands of current and former Dartmouth students -- young, old, men, women, liberal, conservative -- who told the Trustees that they shouldn't try to change the rules for elections just because they aren't winning them.

But, in the midst of this serious debate about the direction of our College, the Board did indeed change the rules -- shutting down the debate in violation of all the academic principles Dartmouth holds dear.

Acting on the advice of its Governance Committee, the Board doubled the size of the unelected part of the Board and kept the duly elected half at the same size. Further the Board delivered a dictum that effective immediately the College will take over the Trustee election process. In effect, the College is now in the hands of a powerful few, and more divorced from the desires of the community than ever.

This is just a short synopsis of what has been a years-long saga at our small, well-loved College. It is the story of tens of thousands of voices coming together yearly to ask for innovation, evolution, and improvement; it is the story of personal politics getting in the way of progress. More than anything, though, it is the story of Dartmouth struggling to keep its special place in academia. You came to Dartmouth, not Williams. And you came to Dartmouth, not Harvard. Some are not so sure Dartmouth should stay Dartmouth. And some are eager to use Harvard's mediocrities as excuses for their own.

In the end, that is what this present squabble is all about. The Association of Alumni, the official organization whose members are all 68,000 living graduates, is not meddling in how to run Dartmouth; instead we are asking for help (an injunction) to prevent the Board from making these harmful and regressive changes.

So that you know exactly what the Association of Alumni is asking of our legal system, here we quote from the official request for a judicial opinion:

"The Association of Alumni of Dartmouth College respectfully prays for:

(a) a declaration of the Association's right to choose one-half of Dartmouth's non-ex officio trustees through the Association's chosen selection process;
(b) an injunction (i) barring the College from adding charter trustees to its board, unless it seats an equal number of alumni trustees chosen by the Association, and (ii) requiring the College to continue seating alumni trustees chosen by the Association;
(c) an order that the College specifically perform its contractual obligations and promises by seating equal numbers of charter and alumni trustees chosen by the Association; and
(d) such other and further relief as the Court deems just."

Please ask yourself if these requests seem reasonable. You will be a Dartmouth student for a very short while, and then a graduate for a lifetime. The Association response, a last resort done with considerable reluctance and deliberation, is intended to secure for you, and for all alumni, the right to participate in defining what you collectively think is best for our beloved Dartmouth.

Please do not hesitate to email us if you have any questions at all.
Well, that's probably the longest email or blitz I've ever received. Obviously, they've seem to forgotten that people tend to stop reading blitzes that are longer than two paragraphs.

The Association of Alumni did a good job of presenting their case. They were smart to emphasize the trade off between administration size and the number of professors. Most students have faced problems with class size or getting into classes, and I think that many students are perplexed about the administration's size. I'm not sure, however, that the average Dartmouth students really cares that much. I don't think students in general are paying that much attention to the alumni hubbub. It's not that students doubt the importance of the debate, it's just that there is a very high cost of becoming informed. For example, I'm not sure that I fully understood every angle of the proposed alumni constitution debate, because it was just so complex (I wasn't blogging back then). Students also have a very different perspective than alumni. Because they are here at Dartmouth now, students are focused on the short-term rather than the long-term. From a long-term perspective, the governance debate is extremely important to Dartmouth, but the chances of it directly effecting students within their time as undergrads is relatively low. For students, issues such as DDS changes might matter more to them, even if they would seem banal to alumni.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Letter from President Wright

James Wright sent out a letter via blitz to the Dartmouth community this morning regarding the Association of Alumni's decision to take legal action:
You may have read in the The Dartmouth this morning that the Executive Committee of the Association of Alumni, by a divided vote, decided last night to have the Association file a lawsuit against the College concerning the governance changes adopted by the Board of Trustees earlier this month and to seek an injunction to prevent the Board from filling any of the new charter trustee seats authorized by the Board.

I am deeply disappointed that some members of the Association Executive Committee have decided to take this action, which can only harm the College. Although the Association's formal legal complaint has not yet been served on the College, the College has been advised by its attorneys that the Board has full authority to enlarge the Board as it did and make the other governance changes that it authorized, and that there is no merit to the legal claims asserted by the Executive Committee members who voted to bring the suit. The College is well-prepared to respond to this legal action.

Ed Haldeman, Chair of the Board, has asked me to share the following statement with all members of the College community:

"While I respect the many different views held by Dartmouth's alumni on governance issues, I think it's regrettable that a small group of individuals would cause the Alumni Association to file a lawsuit against the College, particularly when there is no legal basis for the suit. It's certainly not in the best interest of the College or its students for Dartmouth to be tied up with costly and counterproductive litigation. I would hope instead that thoughtful alumni and friends of Dartmouth would come together in support of our common goal of continuing to build on Dartmouth's world-class academic programs."

While the action by some members of the Executive Committee to sue the College is ill-advised, I hope that it will not prove a distraction to the good work of the faculty, students, and staff. Dartmouth is in great shape and we need to continue to focus on continuing to provide the best experience possible for our students.

I agree with President Wright that the lawsuit is ill-advised. Obviously I am not a lawyer, but it is difficult to see what legal grounds the Association could successful sue on. I doubt that a court would see the 1891 agreement as contractual, to the extent that it calls for a divided board beyond the original 5 alumni trustees.

Professor Kohn Speaks Out Against Board Changes

Meir Kohn, a professor of economics at the college, wrote an editorial in today's The Dartmouth, criticizing the changes the Board of Trustees made to their composition. Kohn, who is both loved and feared for his notoriously hard but rewarding Econ 26 classes, frames governance as the ability to prevent the powerful from excess:
All large organizations — business corporations and government agencies as well as nonprofits like Dartmouth — are run by managers or administrators. Human nature being what it is, these managers or administrators tend to use the power delegated to them for their own advantage. Instead of simply performing the functions with which they are charged, they divert their efforts and the organization’s resources to furthering their own interests. This is not because they are bad people; it is because they are perfectly normal people and so have difficulty resisting temptation. The problem of governance is the problem of limiting such undesirable behavior.
Kohn hones in on the underlying question: what's the point of a Board of Trustees if it is artificially engineered to be docile? What's the purpose of oversight if it's designed to acquiesce? I'm not saying Wright is wrong, or that I agree with the petition candidates (on most points, I don't), but there are larger issues at stake, for the future. How well insulated should Dartmouth's administration be? Shouldn't an alumni feedback mechanism be protected when the future is unknown, when nobody can predict what issues will be at stake twenty, fifty, and one hundred years down the road? Well, I'm going to sleep on that one, but at least it's good to see a professor demonstrate a little academic freedom.

Stumbling in Public

I made the front cover photo of The Dartmouth today... in a moose costume. The good news is that the moose looks great, the bad news is that for the inexperienced mascot (me) getting up and down those Haldeman classroom stairs took quite an effort. The moose mascot is brand new and made its debut during freshmen orientation. As a point of clarification, Student Assembly, of which I'm an officer, does not want Dartmouth to be "the Moose." Instead, we want to remain the "Big Green" while using the moose as a mascot. It's just like North Carolina - they are the "Tar Heels" but they use a ram as their mascot. Also, like every Dartmouth student I know, I love Keggy and he's definitely here to stay. Instead, the moose is meant to serve as a much more politically correct sidekick. Because Keggy is, well, a keg, his potential to represent Dartmouth officially is non-existent. The Moose has the potential of being a visual symbol that can fill an absence created by the end of the Indian mascot. After all, what exactly is "Big Green" supposed to look like?

The article also discusses Student Assembly's proposed new constitution. Perhaps the most significant change is the proposed increase of presidential and executive discretionary spending limits from $300 and $500, respectively, to $500 and $1000. The money can also be used for programming purposes under the new constitution while previously it was only allowed for "administrative expenditures." Normally, a project gets funded by passing legislation in SA's General Assembly, which contains all Assembly members.

So why is this increase important? To some, it might seem like an unwarranted power-grab. But it is definitely necessary. Getting legislation passed is extremely time consuming and often takes 3 or 4 weeks. In a 10 week term, that's a long time. It slows down the ability of the Assembly to get projects done, particularly if many things are going on at once. For example, I'm the chair of the Academic Affairs committee, along with Corey Chu '08, and we currently have 27 projects in the works. If we needed to pass legislation for even half of them, our efficacy would be slashed. Typically, there's only enough time to debate two pieces of legislation per General Assembly. That leaves 18 open slots per term (given that we won't meet during finals), which means that each of SA's four committees will only have four or five opportunities to propose legislation each term. But that assumes that our need for passing legislation is evenly divided throughout the term, which is never the case. So basically, everything gets bogged down in an endless back flow of legislation.

Students want their leaders to get things done, not to endlessly debate small amounts of money in public. Student Assembly has an annual budget of $70,000, so $500 or $1000 is not a very significant amount, given that the General Assembly meets only about 25 times each year. Empowering the Assembly's executive board to make these allocations would ensure that we can move quickly and efficiently on small projects, and spend the needed time in General Assembly to discuss legislation that is important, not secondary not-controversial programs. I just want to get my projects done. Let me do my job.

The Next Round

According to The Dartmouth, the Association of Alumni is planning to file a lawsuit that would stop the Board of Trustees to fill the eight new seats on the board.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

NYT Talks with Professor Farid

The New York Times published an interview today with Hany Farid, Dartmouth's excellent Computer Science professor. I took Computer Science 4, Concepts in Computing (a basic course for non-majors), this past summer, and it was one of the best classes that I've had at Dartmouth. The SA Course Guide confirms his popularity - he's one of the highest ranked professors. But his research is also incredibly fascinating, and the two days of class he spent talking about his own work were among the best. This isn't Professor Farid's first mention in The Times. His work with photographic forgery was listed as one of the Times Magazine's ideas of the year in 2004. For all the students out there, definitely take a class with him.