College critic makes voice heard
By Mitch Davis, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, September 24, 2009
A little over a month into his tenure writing for the Dartmouth-centric web site Dartblog, Joseph Asch ’79, an outspoken and often controversial fixture of Dartmouth alumni political discourse, has already disputed the College’s calculation of the student-to-faculty ratio, questioned recent appointments to the College administration and challenged plans to revise the Board of Trustees election process.
Asch, who some have speculated will enter the upcoming Board of Trustees race as a petition candidate, is frequently criticized for his fervent arguments on College issues. Yet even his detractors take note of the extent of his interest in Dartmouth and the force with which he advances his viewpoint.
In Dartblog, Asch has found a new — but no less controversial — outlet for his commentary.
A DISSENTING VOICE
Asch’s earliest direct involvement with the College as an alumnus began in 1998, when he founded and personally funded the now defunct Departmental Editing Program. The program provided academic departments with professional editors who worked with students on their assigned essays. Asch, in an interview with The Dartmouth, described the DEP as a pilot program to improve student writing that he hoped would eventually be taken over by the College.
The DEP began in the art history department. Asch said that the program was successful enough that several other departments sought their own editors.
Asch generated controversy, however, when he proposed moving editors into Cutter-Shabazz residence hall to provide the service specifically to African American and Native American students.
The program was discontinued in June 2007. There remains disagreement between Asch and the College over the reasoning behind that decision.
Asch began contributing columns to The Dartmouth and other campus publications in 2001. In his writings, he has regularly criticized what he sees as the unnecessary growth of the College administration to the detriment of the quality of the faculty and the student experience.
Asch said he writes commentary because he has a “unique” perspective on College operations that allows him to fill an informational void in public discourse. Asch added that he believes his experience as an alumnus and a business consultant means that he can critically assess modern Dartmouth.
As someone able to still audit courses on a regular basis, Asch said he is close enough to student life to see lurking problems.
“I don’t think there is anybody who is as close to it,” he said. “I just don’t see anyone else who has approached it that way.”
Asch was an outspoken supporter of T. J. Rodgers ’70, Peter Robinson ’79, Todd Zywicki ’88 and Steven Smith ’88, the four recent petition candidates elected by alumni to the Board of Trustees. The four trustees, like Asch, have been unabashed in their criticism of College policies.
Asch was also a signatory on a petition advanced by the Committee to Save Dartmouth, an organization that sought to maintain parity between the number of Board-selected and alumni-elected trustees.
A NEW PRESENCE ONLINE
Dartblog, founded by Joe Malchow ’08 in 2004, has in recent years become one of the more prominent blogs chronicling news and controversy at the College. In his own posts on the blog, Malchow was vocal in his support for the petition candidates running for seats on the Board, and often echoed their criticisms of College policies. Malchow now works on “strategic initiatives” for Rodgers’ companies, he told The Dartmouth this week.
Asch began writing for Dartblog in August.
The blog, Asch said, affords him greater flexibility and allows him to react more immediately to developing issues than did other print publications.
“I just figured I had too much to say, and with Dartblog, we could get things out there,” he said.
Malchow, who said he first met Asch in a government class in 2004, said Asch brings an important perspective to the blog.
“I felt that what we needed was a consistent, muscular, consultant’s sort of view for the management of the College, specifically for the aid of the incoming freshmen,” Malchow said. “He is uniquely able to provide a manager’s eye, a manager’s point of view of the administration.”
In his analysis, Asch has often seized on statistics circulated by the College or by independent sources. In one series of posts, he calculated the College’s student-to-faculty ratio using the published student enrollment and faculty size, arriving at a substantially different ratio than the one publicized by the College.
Asch’s interpretation of College data has in the past drawn fire from College officials: In February 2009, a guest column Asch wrote in The Dartmouth outlining what he believed to be evidence of irresponsible spending at the College led Provost Barry Scherr to craft his own direct response, refuting Asch’s use of data in the piece as “selective, misleading and often wrong.”
Critics have also charged that Asch’s recent commentary is driven by personal motivations, rather than an objective interest in College business.
“It appears pretty clear to me that [Asch] is running for trustee already, as a petitioner,” former Alumni Council President John Daukas Jr. ’84 said.
Asch said he has not yet decided whether to run.
While Daukas said that Asch has had some helpful ideas, lauding him for financially backing the DEP, he argued that Asch has been needlessly combative in advocating his agenda.
Association of Alumni President John Mathias ’69 told The Dartmouth that he has no problem with Asch personally, but that he disagrees with most of Asch’s positions on College affairs. He dismissed Asch’s “preposterous” argument, as he described it, that the four petition trustees have been more effective than the full Board and questioned the benefits of his regular access to students.
“He’s an unrelenting critic of Dartmouth, almost pathologically,” Mathias said. “Everything seems wrong, according to Joe.”
Asch has been part of a long-standing dialogue that has a negative and divisive effect on the Dartmouth community, Mathias argued. Separating Dartmouth alumni into “good” and “bad” camps obscures the contributions of the alumni body, writ large, he said.
Most of Asch’s Dartblog posts have directly challenged College policies, administrative decisions or aspects of Dartmouth’s public relations efforts. At times, his criticism has focused on specific individuals and or has advanced charges without presenting explicit evidence.
“[Former Dean of the College] Tom Crady’s departure is coming into sharper focus,” Asch wrote in a Sept. 8 Dartblog post. “Needless to say, he did not depart ‘to spend more time with his family’ or ‘to pursue other opportunities,’” referencing a letter from Crady to the Dean of the College’s Office staff released by the College’s Office of Public Affairs.
Asch speculated that Crady’s push for various policy changes made enemies of “permanent bureaucrats” in the College administration.
Opponents likewise attack Asch personally instead of taking issue with his statistics, Nathan Bruschi ’10 said. Bruschi, who writes on The Little Green Blog, said in an interview with The Dartmouth that he met Asch when Student Assembly began discussing the DEP’s impact in 2007.
“He’s seeing a college that he cares about, and [he finds] it’s not being run as well as it kind of should be,” Bruschi said in the interview. “Where he has the power to make change, he does; and in cases where he doesn’t have power, I think that’s why he blogs.”
Bruschi is a former staff columnist for The Dartmouth.
Asch said he was less involved in campus affairs as a student than he is now. He spent several undergraduate terms off-campus, including transfer terms at other universities and terms in Language Study Abroad programs, ultimately only living in Hanover for eight terms, he said.
Asch continued his studies at Yale Law School, before beginning a two-year stint at Bain & Company, the management consulting firm, in 1983. His work for Bain took him to Africa and Northern Ireland, where he worked as a consultant for various computer hardware manufacturers, information services companies and Guinness brewery.
Following his work for Bain, Asch continued to live abroad until 2004. During that time, he founded paramedical products a firm, based in Europe, that manufactures and sells medical supplies internationally. He subsequently invested in the River Valley Club, a health club in Lebanon, N.H., and later assumed ownership of the club after the founder mismanaged the project, leading to its bankruptcy, he said.
Staff reporter Kate Farley contributed to the reporting of this article.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Asch's European-based firm was named Paramedical Products. In fact, the company itself sells those paramedical products.