Faculty discuss results of student survey on activism

by Noah Goldstein | 2/12/16 1:07am

Dartmouth has seen its fair share of activism in years past — from the Dimensions protest in 2013 to the Parkhurst sit-in in 2014 to the recent Black Lives Matter protest during fall term. With the increasing calls for social justice, The Dartmouth released a survey to gauge student reactions to activism at Dartmouth and beyond.

Three hundred and seventy Dartmouth students responded to a survey regarding activism on campus. Questions ranged from those asking about personal participation in activism to personal opinions and feelings about activism at the school.

Respondents evenly represented each class, and 60 percent identified as female, 38 percent male and 1 percent as other.

In order, the most important issues to students were socioeconomic issues, political ones, environmental ones and race-based ones.

Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Julia Rabig, who studies social movements, said she was not surprised by the results, because the issues reflect not only what is happening at Dartmouth in regards to activism, but also what people are more broadly concerned about in the election year.

Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Michael Bronski, who studies the practice of media and activism, said that he would have expected students to care most about race-based issues, due to recent discussions of diversity on campus and the Black Lives Matter movement. He noted that responses depended on the make-up of respondents, including if students of color answered the survey.

Sociology professor at Stanford University Doug McAdam said that he was not surprised by which issues were important to students, as he thought that they are ones that young people are often interested in. For example, he said that the Sanders campaign is an area that shows students interests in socioeconomic issues.

Vice president of Institutional Diversity and Equity Evelynn Ellis said she was not surprised by the issues listed because socioeconomic, political and race-based issues are all connected by education, an aspect of society that effects everyone.

Fifty-eight percent of students said they had not participated in any form of activism. Of those who have, the majority of those who responded took part in race-based activism. At the same time, 75 percent of students agreed that activism is necessary in order to enact change.

Rabig thought that the difference was a result of the many barriers to activism, including the difficulties of organizing action, fear of repercussions, the demands of student life or even just having the issue click within ones consciousness.

Ellis said this disparity could be in part due to the brief and packed nature of Dartmouth terms, which make it hard for students to take action. For example, Ellis noted that going to a rally would be hard for her due to her own work schedule. Some people may not care, she said, but there are also people who have legitimate excuses.

Bronski was not surprised by the difference in these statistics, as he said that the pattern would probably remain constant throughout the entire country.

“I think Americans in general have a clear understanding of how social changes happen, but, for a variety of reasons are apprehensive to identify themselves as engaging in it,” Bronski said.

McAdam said that he actually thought that 42 percent students have participated in some form of activism was “extraordinarily high.”

“Serious activism demands a hell of a lot out of an individual. Most of us get up in the morning and organize our day around taken for granted routines. We don’t even really think about stepping outside of those routines very much, and activism asks us to do just that,” he said.

When asked if the culture at Dartmouth fosters activism on a scale of extreme disagreement to extreme agreement, 37 percent disagreed, 23 percent were neutral and 39 percent agreed.

McAdam said that college students have typically always been involved in activism. However, he does not think that is attributed to the institutions themselves. Rather, he said that students have a more flexible schedule where they can engage in activity. Additionally, he said the ecology of college campuses is ideal for mobilization.

Ellis was initially surprised by these results because they contradict her expectations for the College.

“We are the brightest of the brightest, although I might be wrong,” Ellis said. “We are small enough that we can really create change. We have dissidence enough that we are reminded on an almost daily basis that we need to change. For me, that should add up to it being the place [to foster activism].”

To address this, Ellis said that there should be a curricula environment in which students learn that activism has a proper place on campus and allow for it to be executed in a proper form.

Bronski said that Dartmouth’s relatively isolated location makes activism harder. Additionally, he suspected that the social structures at Dartmouth do not actively encourage people to engage in activism.

Rabig said that historically, the College has been known as a place to foster conservative activism, but past activism at the school has been complicated.

The statement “the administration reacts well to student activism” saw 63 percent of students disagree, while 11 percent of students said that they agreed.

Ellis said that she would expect those numbers to remain the same over a long period of time, because of the imperfect nature of communications between schools and the students. Oftentimes, students do not know about discussions that happen within an administration about its goals and the College does not talk with the students enough about their own problems, she said.

Ellis said that she thinks Provost Carolyn Dever recognizes these communication issues and that she is trying to foster a culture of communication.

Rabig said she understood where student views were coming from, as many of the issues are ingrained problems that change at a slow pace.

“If students felt that the administration did respond well, then there probably wouldn’t be the same sort of need for activism to push the administration in a certain direction,” she said.

Bronski said that he would expect a majority of responses by colleges to activism from the 1940s on would be negative and unwelcome.

“College administrations by their very nature are conservative,” Bronski said. “Any administration of a wealthy non-profit or a business is going to be hesitant about social change. Is that true of Dartmouth? Sure. When it comes to its own change, any organization is going to be conservative. So it doesn’t surprise me that Dartmouth, or any college, does not embrace political activism, even though they may agree generally with the impulse behind some of the need for change.”

Seventy-nine percent of students said that activism relating to race changed their perspective on issues relating to race.

In response to this statistic, Ellis said that activism tends to create curiosity in people as to why people might be taking action, thus encouraging them to look into it and better understand the problems being addressed.

“We respond to things based on our limited knowledge of why that occurs, why they are responding in a certain way.” Ellis said. “We have so little information from which we draw conclusions.”

Rabig said that those involved in a protest, either as a member or a bystander, will often have their views changed by the events themselves.

When students were directly asked about how they felt in regards to activism at Dartmouth, 38 percent had a negative view, 25 percent had a neutral view and 37 percent had a positive view. When asked about activism outside of Dartmouth, 10 percent had a negative view while 61 percent had a positive view.

Ellis said that the current campus climate in regards to activism needs improvement, which she noted was possible.

Another concern Ellis raised was whether or not Dartmouth was supplying a safe, diverse and inclusive environment for students. She said that the school’s priority should be students feeling safe, although the definition for safety varies for students.

“We are productive when we work as a whole community, where everyone is putting in their 100 percent because they feel safe to do it and they feel appreciated to do it,” Ellis said. “We did not say we would get you ready to work in Hanover, or even to work in Boston. We said we would get you ready to be world leaders. To do that, the world needs to be your teacher.”

The best way to address these issues is to carefully choose the staff, she said. She noted that the staff should come from backgrounds similar to the students they work with, she said.

“Students going through the Dartmouth academic community really should see a reflection of themselves periodically,” she said.

Ellis said this kind of representation will encourage students to have a mindset that they can do anything they set their minds to. She added that the changes should come from within the faculty search committees to take diversity further into account when judging quality alongside academic aspects.