College reflects on 1986 shanties

by Aaron Lisman | 3/5/96 6:00am

Against the backdrop of international protest against apartheid in South Africa in 1986, Dartmouth erupted when a group of students destroyed the shanties which had been constructed on the Green to protest the College's investment in South Africa. The incident vaulted the College into the national media spotlight.

Ten years later, 400 Dartmouth students rallied against intolerance on campus.

On the incident's tenth anniversary, The Dartmouth asked professors, students and administrators who were at the College in 1986 to look back at the events of that year. In the fall of 1986, a student group called the Dartmouth Community for Divestment built four plywood shanties on the Green to protest apartheid and the College's $64 million worth of investments in companies that conducted business in South Africa.

The shanties were built on the Green on Nov. 15, 1985, and stood undisturbed until Jan. 21, 1986.

An instant replay

The Village Voice called the destruction of the shanties "the college event of the year."

At 3:35 a.m. on Jan. 21, a band of 12 students acting under the name of the Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival, drove a U-Haul truck onto the Green and in five minutes demolished three of the four shanties with sledgehammers.

Two members of the DCD were sleeping in the one shanty that was left standing.

Two factors that enhanced the magnitude of the outcry against the action were that 10 of the 12 attackers were staff members of the Dartmouth Review and that the attack came the morning after the College's official celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday were. The Dartmouth Review is an off-campus, conservative weekly.

The destruction of the shanties was surely one of the most sensational incidents in Dartmouth's history.

Newsweek magazine ran the headline: "Shanties on the Green, The Dartmouth family is embarrassed again."

The DCD hung a banner across the wrecked shanties reading: "Racists Did This." This image appeared beside stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. All the major television networks covered the incident.

Supporters of the DCD claimed that the events of that morning, and even the shanties themselves, were evidence of controversy that extended far beyond apartheid and divestment to issues of diversity, tolerance and the responsibility of a college administration on Dartmouth's campus.

Administrators and students take a look back

The College administration's decision not to take immediate action against the students who destroyed the shanties led to a campus upheaval that many still remember vividly today.

In 1986, current Dean of Residential Life Mary Turco had left her job at the College's admissions office to work on her Ph.D. at Harvard University.

When she read about the shanty incident in The Boston Globe, she said she drove up from Cambridge specifically to witness the unfolding events.

Turco said she saw "a contemporary campus at odds with itself and its past. What was happening was that people were calling into question whether the non-traditional student was welcome on the campus."

Primarily, the DCD existed to protest apartheid but it encompassed many students who felt the College needed to be made aware of more than the plight of blacks in South Africa. These students felt the attack on the shanties was a deliberate suppression of their voices at the College.

A house editorial, written by The Dartmouth, summarized the reaction of some students to the incident: "Whether Tuesday's attack was specifically an act of 'racism,' as many students believed, is debatable. What is important is that [some students] viewed it that way. Numerous others saw the attack as another in a long line of insensitive actions that the administration has allowed to go unpunished."

When then-College President David McLaughlin and then-Dean of Students Edward Shanahan refused to take immediate executive action against those who destroyed the shanties, or even to publicly condemn their act of violence, 100 students accompanied by a handful of professors occupied Parkhurst administration building.

Shanahan told The Dartmouth he was not sure whether the attackers could be directly disciplined by the College administration without a hearing before the Committee On Standards.

"I find it quite disturbing that questions revolve around what the administration will do," Shanahan said.

"I think [the College community] is mistaken to think the administration should have an answer to everything," he said.

History Professor Bruce Nelson was inside Parkhurst during the sit-in.

"Quite rightly, the activist students around the issue became incensed," Nelson said. "They felt the administration had offered an implicit [apology] for what the Reviewers did, and that's when they occupied McLaughlin's office."

After occupying Parkhurst for 30 hours the protesters got their wish: classes were canceled for one day and more than 1,000 students, faculty and administrators filled Webster hall to discuss issues of racism, violence and diversity.

Nelson said he felt the administration acted in a cowardly manner.

"They were afraid to take a stand, to say this is the right thing to do and we're going to do it," Nelson said. "That's not the way McLaughlin operated. He was a politician and he tried to cut deals wherever he could."

Turco said at the discussion one student after another stood up and told their personal stories.

"The incident drew the attention of the faculty to the tremendous unhappiness of the non-traditional minorities, the students of color, the women and the homosexual students," Turco said.

The forum furnished more than 50 proposals, including calls for more student and faculty input to the College's Board of Trustees and administration.

Physics Professor Delo Mook is still critical of McLaughlin.

"I'm not sure that McLaughlin completely understood the academic gravity of [the attacks]," Mook said.

"That is, to have these kinds of things going on really adversely affected the ability of people to teach and to learn," he said. "When you have an atmosphere of fear and students feel there are other students who hate them and are becoming violent, that's not an atmosphere conducive to learning."

Mook said he felt the only appropriate reaction from the administration would have been immediate expulsion for the attackers.

But not all community members saw the event as such a watershed.

History Professor Jere Daniell, the College's historian, blamed much of the controversy on "small but vocal factions" on both sides of the issue.

"So much was going on then that had to do with a general ideological and theatrical antagonism between those who saw themselves as conservatives and radicals," Daniell said.

He admitted McLaughlin's administration "had many strengths and weaknesses," but defended the administration's resolve to maintain business as usual.

"Those who are responsible for the management of an institution don't get distracted by theatrical stuff," he said.

But many professors felt McLaughlin was so out of touch with the concerns of the College community that 104 signed a letter which seriously called into question the president's ability to lead the College. The faculty of Arts and Sciences debated a vote of no confidence in the president, but it did not pass.

The Review cornered the administration from the other side. It held all along that the shanties were an unallowable protest.

After the shanties were destroyed, the Review defended those who had torn them down.

The Review's first cover after the incident read: "Two months too late." The Review jokingly advertised the sale of limited edition, commemorative sledge hammers.

In addition to terming the protesters "Preppie Pinkos," the Review had dealt the DCD more serious criticism in a Jan. 11 editorial by Editor-in-Chief Roland Reynolds '87.

"The demonstration has moved our attention away from the evils of the apartheid regime and placed the role of the enemy on our own administration," Reynolds wrote.

Keith Boykin '87 was the editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth at the time of the incident.

"I didn't think [the administration] was doing a very good job. The faculty was up in arms against the president and the students who weren't apathetic were up in arms against each other," he said.

"The significance was that it was a wake-up call for the community, including the faculty, students and administration that we had all better take seriously the issue of diversity," he said.

Boykin said regardless of which side students took in 1986, "We all needed to think more carefully about how we needed to get along. To be respectful of all those ideas. Obviously, we weren't doing a very good job of that."

Boykin said the tactics of the DCD also fed the controversy.

"They weren't all saints and angels. Some of the people had lot of growing up to do," he said. "There were always people who would tag along to push whatever they wanted to push."

"The editorial board of The Dartmouth all shared [the DCD's] goals and concerns but we didn't agree with their tactics," Boykin continued. "I went to one or two of their meetings and I was appalled at the kind of decision making that was going on."

But many students did not share the DCD's conviction that divestment was the only moral South African policy.

In a poll conducted by The Dartmouth at the time, only 45 percent of students said they were for the DCD's policy of total divestment and only 46 percent felt the shanties were appropriate forms of protest.

Before they were destroyed, the shanties had stood on the Green for more than two months. As the protest continued into Winter term and the movement radicalized, support for the DCD dissipated and left many of its members feeling isolated.

Nelson commented on this sense of isolation felt by many students he considered his friends and some of the most "ethically sensitive" and "courageous" people on campus.

"The movement became much more counter-cultural. There was an attack on the Greek system. Frankly, at that point, the movement became so diffuse, so thoroughly alienated from everything about the mainstream campus community that building bridges became increasingly impossible," Nelson said. "That certainly was the point at which I lost interest in being an active part of the movement."

Nelson said he always supported the protesters but "felt if you were going to have divestment, you had to maintain dialogue."

On Feb. 12, 1986, the COS suspended four of the students who had destroyed the shanties indefinitely, seven for two terms and one for a single term. The shanty attackers appealed.

On April 14, former New Hampshire Governor Walter Peterson, who McLaughlin had brought in as an ombudsman, recommended that the sentences be commuted.

Arguing for compassion and saying the attackers had "experienced significant hardship" as a result of national publicity, McLaughlin lifted all but four of the suspensions, and those he reduced to one term.

Despite scattered protests and a mostly ignored occupation by the DCD of the bell tower, the shanty affair came to a close by spring. The Trustees did not divest until 1989. But many said the shanties changed the College and that the events surrounding them still resonate at the College.

Resonance within the community

Boykin said the unfolding of the shanty saga made his Dartmouth class far more open to change than the preceding classes and even classes to come, but some professors say this year's incidents of hate speech echo the 1986 events.

"You can't possibly underestimate the dramatic change going on during that year," Boykin said. "When I started out as a freshman, the Indian symbol was still very popular and the school's song was still 'Men of Dartmouth.' By the time I left, both had changed."

Boykin said he noticed an evolution of students' attitudes.

"Freshman year, my roommates were very conservative, while I was very liberal," he said. As a result of the events, "we all ended up moving to the center. We all realized that extremity wasn't always an answer and that there had to be common ground."

"I hadn't known there was something so wrong with Dartmouth. I think it was a healthy sign that we could have that kind of debate. I was glad there was a Dartmouth Review and liberal institutions like the DCD," he said. "People were invested in making the institution something that was good. I think that's always positive. If you're fighting for the direction of the College, that means you're concerned about it."

Alex Huppe, then-director of the College News Service said he remembers when the campus was crawling with reporters from national news organizations. Last October, Huppe moved to Boston where he is now Harvard's director of public affairs.

"Despite all the theatrics, it was an important part of the maturing of Dartmouth," he said. "And I think something good has come out of that confrontation. Dartmouth is a more self-confident and mature institution. Students feel more confident about expressing themselves and that's a good thing."

However, Huppe said the national press portrayed the College unfairly and exaggerated the incident.

"The television coverage was really pretty sensational," he said.

Huppe said Dartmouth has since overcome many of its reputation problems but "whenever the word 'racist' and an institution are associated it's never easy to overcome that."

English Professor Ivy Schweitzer, who was integrally involved with the DCD in 1986, said she feels the shanties helped initiate many positive changes, but that the campus environment has not changed all that much.

"In the years after [the incident] lots of women got tenure and that really changed the way power was held," she said. "That didn't happen as a direct result of the shanties, but it was all part of an evolution on this campus. I think it was part of the evolution from what I call the old Dartmouth to what I call the new Dartmouth."

Schweitzer said the old Dartmouth was "a single sex, tradition bound campus," and at the new Dartmouth "you don't have to be a 'Dartmouth Man' and fill a very narrow set of criteria to be successful, happy, or get a good education."

But some professors said issues that arose this year like the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity poem, the racist scrawlings and homophobic acts make 1996 at Dartmouth College look strikingly similar to 1986.

Schweitzer said many of the old issues of intolerance keep resurfacing.

"I think the [February's] Rally Against Injustice was responding to some of the same issues that have not changed since 1986," she said, listing indifference, intolerance and a sense of privilege as residual vices at the College.

"The Alpha Chi play is a perfect example," Schweitzer said. "This group of men who are perfectly capable of critical analysis have no critical distance on their activities, the language they use or the jokes that they make. Part of their privilege is to deny what's going on."

Turco said after 20 years at the College she has noticed a pattern of protest, usually breaking out during Winter term.

"The racial incidents this year were an echo of 1986," she said.

Nelson said he felt the administration's response to recent incidents of intolerance were an improvement on the McLaughlin administration.

At Rally Against Injustice, "you had a broad base of support and you had the president and the dean of students out there standing there listening. That's certainly different," he said.

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