Taking Initiative

by Daniel C. Chang | 7/9/01 5:00am

Student activism. For many, the energy and risk aren't worth it. We're living in an era when there is no need to take big risks to effect change. Rather, we mouth off -- at the problem, at the responsible, at each other, crying for change but waiting for someone else to bring it to the doorstep. Day in and day out we say blank phrases without really putting any action into showing our intentions. There is a big difference between telling your parents you love them as opposed to doing something to show them that you do. The same goes for every issue we face at Dartmouth.

Specifically, I'm looking at the infamous Student Life Initiative. It was the plan to revolutionize student life at Dartmouth. But today it is apparent, more than ever, that the SLI has been more destructive than constructive. From the perspective of serving as our president for the last two years, and as an unaffiliated student, I'd like to offer my thoughts on changing Dartmouth, what changing Dartmouth means, and whether change needs to happen. Essentially, I've come to conclude that we lack initiative. We're simply not willing to take the risk to put our ideas and energies into action.

Take a look around you and think: what about Dartmouth has changed since you came as a freshman?

My answer: not much. In light of the SLI, we have more dialogue on campus, which has heightened not only our awareness of Dartmouth life, but also our sensitivity to it. There's been lots of talking, and virtually no doing. On both sides. And to me, there's something inherent in the title "Student Life Initiative" that pretty much spells out one solution we've overlooked: that we the students need to take some damn initiative.

Folks, the Student Life Initiative is failing. But that's nothing new, is it? It has had little or no effect because it was created around changing a deeply embedded social life for Dartmouth students: the Greek system. Fundamentally it sounds like a good idea with good intentions, but it doesn't fit the mold of Dartmouth. The SLI intends to phase out the Greek system and has left out the task of phasing in competitive, working alternatives. The administration is kidding itself, and it's painfully clear: they talk of monumental transformation, but their actions yield subtle alterations -- so subtle yet so controversial as to start an argument with each new policy. You can't rip the foundation out and expect nothing to fall down. We need to build on what we have, implementing things that can compete with the Greek system before even starting to think of weeding it out.

What the administration can, and should do is empower students to construct multiple viable social options that provide alternatives to the Greek system - not just for those who are unaffiliated and are looking for other options but for the campus as a whole.

Face it: we can't always please everybody. If you don't like the options here at Dartmouth, and complain, "All that goes on during weekends are frat parties," you're also in the wrong set of mind. It's you who can choose what you do on any given weekend. Sure, it's based on what is available, but if it's obvious to you that Dartmouth needs to change, then DO something about it. Don't just sit and bitch. Take some initiative and create, act, form, shape the social life around you. We're taught to use the best of what we have, because nothing will ever be perfect. It is you who ultimately chooses what is fun or comfortable or good as a social option -- and it's you who can create and shape new social options.

Now I wouldn't simply assert a theory without backing it up with some evidence. One of the things I've wanted to see happen since freshman winter is some form of Class Olympics, or Class Wars -- sort of a new tradition. If you were here in the Spring, I hope you heard of Class Combat, which happened during Green Key Weekend. It was an all-class event that pitted each class against the others in a series of competitions from the tug of war to mud wrestling, to a clown car cram, to pie eating, and beyond. Not only was I thrilled to see it come through to be such a big event, but I was also glad to have put an idea into action in creating a social alternative for Dartmouth students outside of the Greek system.

What I'm trying to show from this example is that it's possible to create the social life around you, doing what you like to do. If you can't put your finger on something to do, don't hesitate to brainstorm with other people; most of the best ideas come from bouncing thoughts off other people. A simple potluck dinner with guests of different ethnicities, a chess tournament, a contest or gathering of Greek organizations in some way ... the list goes on. Look at yearbooks from the past, and talk to alumni from the 1950s and 1960s, when College President John Sloan Dickey empowered students with the trust to create much of their own social and extracurricular lives. A lot of meaningful organizations have disappeared since then. The Undergraduate Council was started then and was important to all members of the college. Greek organizations flourished: drinking was a definitely a part of their lifestyle, but nowhere near the center of it. Perhaps reshifting the focus of Greek organizations may be something to consider.

Right now, students aren't empowered with the knowledge and drive to effect change. It's time to shift what we call "dialogue" from venting sessions to constructive sessions, working to create viable social options and change Dartmouth. The Greeks can't simply go, because there's no alternative; moreover, the 350 beds from the SLI sure aren't in sight.

In President Wright's remarks on March ninth to the faculty, he spoke of initiative: "... this is a moment when we can transform our own best hopes into reality ... this is not a time for timidity. It is not a time for us to be hesitant. It is instead a time for us to try to move toward our best hopes." He is on the right track. I call on him to see this vision through, taking steps to spark this initiative among students and administration.

The change that's been happening has not been constructive. Neither has the dialogue, because that itself has resulted in these futile changes. I hate to say it, but the way things are going, you could probably run this op-ed in The Dartmouth anytime in the next 5 years. We need to increase service and leadership on campus. Let's make some positive changes happen. I think one thing we need this summer is a Dartmouth Leaders Summit -- where all leaders can come together for a day of conferencing and construct their Dartmouth. In all honesty, we can effect positive change. It's our time, and all it takes is our initiative.

My advice for the summer term: reevaluate what it is about Dartmouth you love and what it is that makes you unhappy. Then act on it. Step out of your comfort zone and do something greater than your self-interest. If you don't know where to start, here are some suggestions. Come to a Student Assembly meeting. Send me a blitz. Or, better yet, just act on your ambition. You're a Dartmouth student -- don't tell me you have no ambition. Just trust yourself enough to act on it.