Verbum Ultimum: Retracing Dartmouth's Roots

Dartmouth must reflect on its past to shape its future.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/25/18 2:15am

Take a trip down memory lane, back to 1769, when Dartmouth was taking its first steps. The College was founded to serve as an institution to educate Native Americans. Despite this, Dartmouth’s relationship with Native Americans has been complicated; the College had no more than 20 Native students throughout the first 200 years of its history. Perhaps to pay homage to its past, and in recognition of its changing cultural values, Dartmouth has now enrolled more Native American students than all other Ivy League institutions combined, and the College’s Native American Studies program has become one of the most highly regarded in the country. 

Why, though, did it take 200 years for Dartmouth to start taking proactive measures to reframe its original mission? Rather than pioneering efforts, many of Dartmouth’s major institutional changes over the years seem to have been reactions to the social, political and cultural climate of the time. Coeducation came during a time that was rife with social movements gunning for the rights of women, minorities and indigenous peoples. Furthermore, coeducation was a bandwagon that many schools had already jumped on. And, in a sense, the major concerns leading to coeducation focused more on the future wellbeing of the all-male, mostly-white student body than the greater social good; College President John Kemeny, who initiated Dartmouth’s move toward coeducation, was concerned that Dartmouth would “be turning out a generation of male chauvinist pigs who would not be able to work with women as equals in the professions.”

What makes Dartmouth slow to change is its sustained and pervasive culture of entitlement. English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Ivy Schweitzer said it best in a May 2016 interview with The Dartmouth: “Privilege reproduces itself, and doesn’t want to give up its power or open its doors to others.” Dartmouth has sustained a resistance to reframing and erasing harmful traditions and status quos. Dartmouth students are expected and pushed to grow during their four years here, and it is necessary to hold that same standard to the College on an institutional level. Being reactionary is not enough — Dartmouth must cultivate an attitude that proactively considers its own future and the implications of its decisions.

Fast forward to today’s campus. Women are now fully integrated, and Dartmouth has the largest representation of Native Americans in the Ivy League. The College has begun to actively examine its past transgressions and their current implications. The student body no longer resembles the all-male, mostly white demographic that it once was; over time, the College has welcomed more students of color, first-generation college students and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than ever before. Alumni from the 80’s who return to campus will find that while the Green has remained just as green, those who claim it now look vastly different from those who claimed it in the past.

Hopefully, Dartmouth will continue to grow into a home for any student who values the experience of a liberal arts education. Going forward, however, the College must recognize that implementing positive change will not suffice if the implications of such a change are not weighed. Consider the aftermath of coeducation: today, Dartmouth grapples with pervasive sexual violence and imbalanced gender dynamics. Although these issues are also pervasive in society at large, they are exacerbated on campus by the lingering historical traditions and sentiments of entitlement and masculinity. Dartmouth failed to consider the implications of transitioning to coeducation on the wellbeing of female students, which would have necessitated the sustained implementation of a revised social and organizational infrastructure on campus. The right resources must be put in place in preparation, not as a reaction to change.

It’s time for Dartmouth to start turning tables before they turn themselves. All those affiliated with the College must be more thoughtful about Dartmouth’s identity and ethos and its evolution as an institution going forward. This requires every member of this community to reflect, ask the right questions and decide if they are willing to accept the discomfort that follows change. The College has taken a step in the right direction through a historical accountability project, part of the Inclusive Excellence Initiative, piloted by the Rauner Special Collections Library. This project aims to confront and learn from the College’s past in relation to marginalized groups, and the stories and histories that will emerge from this project will serve to positively shape Dartmouth’s future. 

Of course, no individual will see Dartmouth through the same lens as another — but if everyone can all agree upon a guiding set of values, the College can move ahead with the ability to enact meaningful, proactive and longlasting change, all while maintaining a cohesive identity. Let one of this campus’s guiding values be active and thoughtful growth, demonstrated by students’, administrators’ and faculty’s willingness to act. As Dartmouth continues to expand its identity, it must practice constant reflection in order to sensibly integrate new identities.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.