Faculty show support for campus activism

by Sonia Qin | 2/12/16 12:52am

On a campus where most students do not stay longer than the usual four years, faculty members who stand with student activists in the push for increased diversity, inclusivity and equality at the College are the drivers of continued dialogue at Dartmouth. In the fall of 2015, following the Black Lives Matter protest in Baker-Berry Library, 150 professors and staff members demonstrated their solidarity with student activists by signing a letter of support addressed to the College administration.

Several faculty members who signed the letter had different reasons for taking part in this initiative.

Geography professor Abigail Neely said she wanted to sign the letter of support because an inclusive campus is fundamental to the kinds of education that should be provided at universities.

“An inclusive campus to me doesn’t mean a campus where everybody is happy and comfortable,” Neely said. “It means a place in which we can have difficult conversations and exchanges of ideas, and when there are multiple different positions and different positionalities.”

History professor Walter Simons also thought the contents of the letter addressed important issues for higher education.

“I think [the letter] addresses fundamental problems in higher education that need to be corrected on a large scale in a concerted effort with other institutions,” Simons said.

History professor Annelise Orleck said that the letter was intended to foster a positive climate on campus regarding diversity and student activism, and that it was important for faculty, who are in a more powerful position compared to students, to express their support for student activists. She said that she applauded the students’ courage.

“I wanted to sign it because oftentimes my students who have been activists have been subject to really terrible harassment, including email threats,” she said. “I think sometimes faculty support is important for students emotionally and intellectually.”

English professor Ivy Schweitzer signed the letter because she thought it was important for faculty to support groups of students and staff members on campus who had been trying to bring issues of inequality and discrimination on campus to people’s attention, she said.

“Things had gotten so complicated in the fall that there was a lot of misinformation about what had happened,” Schweitzer said, referring to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that happened last term.

Evelynn Ellis, vice president of the Office for Institutional Diversity and Equity, said that the letter was the most concrete form of activism in concert with students that she has witnessed. Ellis has been at the College since 2008. She said that the letter sent a clear message to the community that student activists are not alone.

Ellis said that for the majority of faculty at Dartmouth, their activism tends to show in the classroom.

Naming a lecture she recently attended about African-American women in convict camps, Ellis said that the number of courses and guest lectures that address inequity and discrimination has greatly increased in the past few years.

“I think the most powerful part of [faculty] activism is how they support students away from the view of everyone else,” Ellis said. “It is just as powerful, what they put out there for students to learn.”

The people who are teaching students are critical, because they will impact what students will learn, Ellis said.

“If people can claim ignorance, then they can be silent,” she said. “Then they don’t have to come up with an action.”

Schweitzer was part of the teaching collective that taught the Black Lives Matter course in spring of 2016. The course, called “10 Weeks, 10 Professors: #BlackLivesMatter,” was co-taught by several departments, including the geography, English, anthropology, history, women’s, gender and sexuality studies and mathematics departments and the African and African-American studies program. She has also done work with community-based learning courses. In one course, her students do work with local jails and drug rehabilitation centers, collaborating with inmates on joint projects.

“For me, that’s a very practical way of addressing issues of difference and the invisible walls that separate us,” Schweitzer said.

Neely was also part of the faculty that taught the BLM course last spring and helped to organize the class.

“[The class] is a node of agitation and activism on campus,” Neely said. “It’s a node that is institutionalized through the curriculum.”

Neely said that Dartmouth is not a bubble, but is actually part of a larger world.

“People mistake things happening at Dartmouth as specific to Dartmouth, but often they are about larger issues in higher education,” she said.

Change at the College is part of a bigger social change that is needed, Neely said.

Orleck said that faculty should be doing more with respect to issues addressing faculty diversity, and that the fight continues.

“The issues that matter to you, you fight for throughout your life,” Orleck said. “Very few times can you say ‘Victory! Time to go home.’”

Orleck said she has been active on campus in terms of recruitment, mentoring, speaking out to administration to express her views, supporting student activists, faculty diversity, reforming the Greek system and overall making the campus safer and more comfortable for many different kinds of students.

She said that the College needs to take a close look at itself in terms of tenure and promotion, and the hiring of a critical mass of faculty of color.

“I think that this campus, like many others, has a problem,” Orleck said. “I think that Dartmouth needs to pay special attention — not only to recruitment but also to retention, not only to raises, but really thinking about the climate of the campus.”

Ellis also said that addressing issues like inequality and discrimination can be more effective with the recruitment and retention of more diverse faculty members.

“I want us to get to a place where it’s not required for the faculty to sign a letter,” Ellis said.

Simons said that one of his reasons for participating in faculty activism is that in the last 10 years faculty have lost quite a lot of say in how their institutions are being governed.

“The role of the faculty in general, especially in small institutions, has been much reduced recently,” he said. “We need to find other ways to participate in governing the institutions.”

As tenured faculty at an institution like Dartmouth, we are incredibly privileged, Simons said.

“This requires us to think about and speak out on very fundamental issues with a long-term perspective,” he said.

Simons said that activism at the College is not always easy.

“It’s a relatively small institution with very strong traditions and it’s an institution that’s very hard to change,” he said, adding that it is sometimes hard for faculty to unite on certain issues.

Schweitzer said that faculty activism is important in the context of a college campus because faculty are an important constituency in the College and they model activism for students.

“I think it’s important that we takes stands, for those of us who have tenure,” she said.

Neely said that faculty activism is important on campus because of the transience of undergraduate students, meaning faculty have to sustain the conversation.

“Social movements aren’t about individual sets of protests, they’re about long, hard work and a sustained attention,” Neely said.