Jim Kenyon: Playing with house money at Dartmouth

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Valley News Columnist

Published: 09-03-2023 4:47 AM

The Upper Valley’s housing crunch is making it nearly impossible for many employers to persuade workers from other parts of the country to move here.

But Dartmouth College has come up with a remedy.

Granted, it’s no magic bullet. Only an ultra-wealthy institution such as Dartmouth could pull it off. And for a new employee to qualify, they must be high up on the college’s organizational chart.

Since spring, Dartmouth has purchased single-family houses in Hanover and Quechee for $1.4 million and $1.3 million, respectively, property records show.

Hardly workforce housing.

Sara Lester, the college’s chief human resources officer, came onboard in June. She was one of the last big hires of former President Phil Hanlon’s regime.

Before arriving in Hanover, Lester headed up H.R. at Educational Testing Service,a New Jersey-based nonprofit that prepares and administers the SAT and other exams.

Lester, who has a law degree from Duke, and her family moved into a four-bedroom house that Dartmouth bought in March.

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Arguably, Lester living in a Hanover neighborhood that’s within walking distance of campus makes sense. A college executive who is seen out and about in the community can be good for town-gown relations.

The Quechee purchase, which the college finalized in June, is another matter. The four-bedroom house and barn that sits on 5 acres is a dozen miles from campus.

It’s the residence of Jomysha Delgado Stephen, who began as executive vice president and special counsel to President Sian Leah Beilock last month. As chief of staff, a job she performed at Barnard College, where Beilock previously was president, Stephen is considered Dartmouth’s No. 2 executive.

Lester and Stephen aren’t getting any freebies, Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence stressed. The two are paying “rates that cover debt and operating expenses associated with acquiring and maintaining the property,” she wrote in an email.

Lawrence wouldn’t tell me how much Dartmouth is collecting in rent. Lester and Stephen, through Lawrence, declined interview requests.

The college has a “long-standing practicing of leasing houses it owns to employees,” Lawrence added.

With its $8 billion endowment, Dartmouth can afford to play Monopoly for the benefit of its upper echelon.

I hope the largesse continues the next time administrators, including Lester, I imagine, sit down at the bargaining table with the union that represents custodians, carpenters and other blue-collar workers.

They’re the Dartmouth employees who are often living in the hinterlands — paying for gas and wear and tear on their vehicles — because housing in the core of the Upper Valley is out of their price range.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth’s most recent federal tax Form 990 available to the public shows just how good the college’s top brass has it.

I counted 15 executives who earned $500,000 or more in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022.

The most surprising name on the list: Former Athletic Director Harry Sheehy. His compensation package totaled more than $1.7 million.

Sheehy retired in February 2021 at age 68, after 10 years on the job. He turned up on the Form 990 due to a “supplemental retirement plan” which vested when he retired, Lawrence said.

“A significant portion of that plan was funded by an anonymous donation to Dartmouth restricted for that purpose,” she said.

It didn’t take long for Beilock to figure out — or more likely she knew going in — that “administrative bloat,” as critics of higher education spending call it, is not a Dartmouth concern.

Early last month, Beilock announced changes to her “senior leadership team.” Bob Lasher, vice president for advancement, Lee Coffin, dean of admissions, Josh Keniston, vice president of campus services and Justin Anderson, who headed up strategic communications, were all given new titles — and presumably fatter paychecks.

Beilock didn’t merely kick them upstairs. She added an entire new floor to the ivory tower.

When I asked for more details, such as salary increases, Lawrence reminded me that Dartmouth “adheres to a policy of confidentiality concerning personnel matters.”

To gain a better grasp of what’s behind a never-ending spending spree at Dartmouth and other wealthy schools, I reached out to Preston Cooper, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit think tank based in Austin, Texas. Cooper studies and writes about the economics of higher education.

He pointed out that America’s most elite private colleges often spend upwards of $100,000 per student, far more than the national average.

“This high rate of spending is fueled by tax exemptions for donations and endowments, as well as the federal loans to graduate students and parents of undergraduates, which enable elite schools to charge astronomical tuition,” Cooper responded via email.

(Dartmouth’s undergraduate tuition and fees total more than $85,000.)

“In the absence of a profit motive, which encourages businesses to keep costs down, nonprofit institutions such as universities will simply spend whatever they can raise,” Cooper wrote.

“Costs are determined by revenues rather than the other way around. Because elite schools can raise so much money thanks to tax breaks and federal loans, they can plow those funds into projects of questionable value, such as million-dollar houses for senior administrators.”

Who said Monopoly is only a game?

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews .com.