Faculty letter supports student demands

by Amanda Zhou | 1/7/16 10:40pm

At the end of the fall term, prompted by the negative media attention received by the Black Lives Matter protest in Baker Berry Library, a group of Dartmouth faculty released a petition supporting student activism on campus. The petition calls on the College to follow other Ivy League institutions that have already made financial commitments towards recruiting faculty and students of color. As of press time, the letter had been signed by 155 members of the College’s faculty and staff.

Art history professor Mary Coffey, who helped draft the letter, said that the faculty group thought it was important to make a statement before a negative cycle started again at the beginning of the winter term.

“We felt that it was urgent that we draft something and circulate it for signatures before everyone dispersed because we felt at the end of the term there was a lot of negative publicity that was coming to the college as a consequence of some of the hyperbolic, exaggerated and sometimes fallacious claims that were being made about the Black Lives Matter solidarity protest and the attacks on the vice provost of student affairs Inge-Lise Ameer by the [Dartmouth] Review,” she said.

The purpose of the letter was to announce the faculty’s support for the student activists, both to the administration and to the student activists themselves. The letter addresses members from the administration and trustees as well as members of the Dartmouth community.

“One thing people don’t appreciate is student life, happiness and equality are intertwined with faculty and staff and this is what the letter is pointing out,” mathematics professor Alex Barnett said.

English professor Aimee Bahng cited her own experiences as a student activist in her reasoning for signing the petition.

She said, “[during her time as an activist in college], I found having the faculty that mentored and supported us validated us.”

Barnett also said the support of faculty was valuable to students and staff.

“Successful student movements involve faculty and staff, Barnett said. “Sometimes they have leaders and sometimes the students are leaders — they cross pollinate and inspiration goes both ways. Student culture affects faculty and staff culture, especially whether faulty and staff stay or leave.”

Barnett, Coffey and English professor Lynda Boose all said they signed the petition out of their own social consciences.

“I believe in what it’s saying, that more needs to be done on this issue and I’m happy students are pushing and joining with faculty to get support,” Barnett said. “It’s a good thing. There are so many people on the same page here.”

Boose said the disruptive nature of the Black Lives Matter solidarity was necessary, especially for faculty.

“Those of us who are older and more set in our ways can tend to ignore or unwittingly dismiss,” he said. “Sometimes they need to be thrust in our face a little more. The campus is ultimately made up of the students.”

Coffey said the petition sought to also acknowledge previous students who have led other social movements on campus such as the “Freedom Budget.” She credited those involved as people who moved the conversation to the forefront, resulting in some on-the-ground initiatives.

“We hope in doing this we send a loud and clear message to the administration that despite what they may think, from media and alumni, that academics are in support of students’ demands for social justice and that we’re not persuaded by the ‘free speech’ arguments,” she said.

In terms of future changes, both Coffey and Barnett said they wanted more focus on the hiring and retention of faculty of color.

“It was sort of a more public gesture to stand alongside faculty supporting students are similar institutions,” Bahng said,

Coffey said there are several factors involved in why hiring and retaining faculty of color was so difficult and one of those is Dartmouth’s location in a small town that is relatively lacking in diversity.

Another factor is internal biases, according to Coffey.

“What intelligence and competence looks like and what sort of projects are interesting or significant topics, those factors play a big role in who stands out from the pack and looks like a superstar versus those who seem less promising,” she said.

Coffey said the third factor is that “there are only a handful of faculty of color whom students feel like they can turn to,” so faculty of color are overburdened by service.

“They end up doing a majority of the mentoring and support and they do it happily, but it’s a lot of time and emotional labor which doesn’t get compensated or recognized in any official way,” she said.

She said this can especially impede the progress of their publications or the perception of their work.

“Dartmouth has achieved a reputation nationally as a bad place for scholars of color to go, that it is a place where faculty of color don’t get tenure and that can be a career killer,” she said.

Boose said she wanted the students to play an active part in working with the administration.

“I think it’s important that [the students] not only be the disruptive force but also the force that sets concrete objective and works through the bureaucratic hassle of having to get things put together,” she said. “I think that’s a important role to accept.”

Bahng said that while conversations have been going on, there has been no official response from the administration. She said that a couple of trustees of color have reached out to learn more about the conversation in the group, which she believes is a good sign. She said she hopes for more open communication across different ranks.

“I would like no longer for the stereotypical Dartmouth student to be conjured in people’s imagination as a white frat boy – my understanding of the student body and what it has to offer is a much more diverse range of racial groups and class range and people of very different persuasions and backgrounds of life,” Bahng said. “I would love Dartmouth’s future to embrace that.”

Brian Chen ’17 said that he found the amount of support for the protesters alarming.

“I’m very concerned that some faculty member would express support for the protesters especially considering the questionable things that happened at the protest,” he said.

Sandor Farkas ’17 said that he found the letter ambiguous and did not think it clearly addressed how to achieve its goals of diversity and inclusion.

In December, Yale University announced that it would commit $50 million to an initiative aimed at increasing faculty diversity, in response to student protests on its campus. Brown University will invest $100 million over the next 10 years to address race and inclusivity on campus.