Chun: Risk and the Undergraduate

Stifling all risk on campus does a disservice to students and the College itself.

by Steven Chun | 10/6/17 1:10am

stevenchuncolumn_courtesyofdartmouthcollegephotofiles
Source: Courtesy of Dartmouth College Photo Files

This column was featured in the 2017 Homecoming Issue.

The Dartmouth administration would much prefer if fewer deeds were dared. Deeds — and particularly those of the daring kind — on college campuses are common sources of litigation and bad press. Indeed, the line in our “Alma Mater” is anachronistic in our current collegiate atmosphere. It celebrates risk, whereas risk is increasingly vilified in the modern university. While the administration has a responsibility to dissuade students from engaging in harmful and pointless risks, by discouraging all risk-taking, the College is relegating itself to mediocrity. It’s time that Dartmouth — administration and students alike — learn to love risk.

To be clear, this is not a “good-old-days” argument. Plenty of collegiate behavior was, and is, simultaneously risky, worthless and dangerous. However, restrictions on student life have crossed from the sensible to the stifling. This isn’t unique to Dartmouth; in fact, Dartmouth may have been one of the last holdouts — having a thousand freshmen run around a bonfire is plenty risky. But therein lies my point: The bonfire is a seminal Dartmouth experience that holds immense symbolic importance in the hearts of all students. Yet, to any administrative risk officer, the bonfire is a liability nightmare — surely something to axe.

At some point, it becomes virtually impossible to minimize risk without killing that which is essential to any worthwhile deed. Facebook was infamously founded in the aftermath of Mark Zuckerberg’s administrative board hearing concerning hacking school servers at Harvard University. I can’t fathom the number of successful or morally impactful businesses, projects or movements which were based in rule-breaking.

Across the United States, colleges are moving to minimize risk and maximize order, safety and good press. This paternalism often takes the form of dismantling spaces the college finds risky. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has closed its Senior House, an alternative dorm whose annual Steer Roast party reunites its alumni — alumni who have contributed significantly to encryption technology designed to protect dissent. The California Institute of Technology once kicked out the members of its Ricketts House, well known for pyrotechnics and its inverted pentagram mural.

The more rules that are imposed, the more counter-culture seeks to break them. You cannot regulate counter-culture, so instead administrators have elected to kill it and its art, innovation, dissent and willingness to challenge the status quo. Yet the dissolution of risk on campus affects the egghead as much as the hippie.

In the 1930s, Ed Forman, Frank Malina and Jack Parsons accidentally set off a small explosion in their dorm at Caltech while testing a rocket — a technology that, at the time, was ridiculed as impractical. The school initially kicked them off campus, but then welcomed them back with mentorship and a new laboratory. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was born that day. I’m afraid the tradeoff between safety and innovation is a zero-sum game. You cannot remove risk without killing originality — which, by definition cannot be “approved.” Original, status-quo altering thought fundamentally runs contrary to the rules and common sense that we would seek to use to minimize risk.

I have no doubt that on a campus that regulates summertime swimming in the Connecticut River, so much as soldering a breadboard in an unapproved space is worthy of expulsion (much less mixing rocket fuel).

But the promotion of this cowering mediocrity is also the students’ fault. Harvard Law School professor Mihir Desai wrote about elite students’ pursuit of “optionality” — a term borrowed from finance which Desai described as “the state of enjoying possibilities without being on the hook to do anything.” Consulting, finance or an MBA all confer optionality — surely once you have the resources or experience you’ll pursue your novel, startup or NGO. There’s no risk in a well-paying job that can serve as a launching pad for countless other careers, but there’s also the insidious lure of acquiring ever more optionality.

“Dare to be Different” declares Dartmouth’s Center for Professional Development as the Center’s slideshows flash: “Crack the Case Interview” and “Finance Interview Prep 1:1.” Its employer listings are a feast of optionality. The irony is somewhat sad. There’s a very low bar for difference at Dartmouth, but don’t worry: That bar has certainly been run by Dartmouth’s legal counsel.

Former College President John Sloan Dickey once wrote, “There is no more vulnerable human combination than an undergraduate.” But rather than advocate for the undergraduate’s protection, Dickey stated the necessity of failure, risk and reward, saying, “An undergraduate who has not yet known these things in his own life can sometimes borrow from the total store of human woe and joy, and by using the tools of the intellect he can begin to lay out a pattern of belief for himself, but it will be a sharper etching after the bite of life’s acid is on it.”

Experiencing risk, tragedy and triumph are not benefits of a Dartmouth education; they are its very purpose. And while rising tuitions, college rankings and an increasingly corporate world will continually pressure colleges to serve the most palatable four years possible, it will come at the cost of the undergraduate.

Colleges used to know this. They trusted their undergraduates, let them fail and helped them back up when necessary. This isn’t about college students being “snowflakes;” in many ways, the students who have vigorously debated, protested and flaunted rules in the name of their beliefs are the risk-takers we aspire to be.

Dickey saw this, saying, “It is no false bravery to say that having watched both his [capacity for good] and his contagion for trouble, I am prepared to take my chances with the kind of world the undergraduate creates when he works at it.” There is no danger in mediocrity, no controversy in the sanitized, but there is little life in what’s left.