Admin. views: Wright speaks on drinking, diversity

by Dax Tejera | 10/13/04 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the first in a multi-part series on the College's senior administration and the issues facing Dartmouth today and in the future.

Now well into his seventh year at Dartmouth's helm, College President James Wright continues to deal with a multitude of complex and controversial issues. While the immediate effects of the Student Life Initiative and recent controversial budget cuts have passed, certain issues remain omnipresent. In his efforts to bridge the gap between students and College administrators, Wright told The Dartmouth that he remains open to suggestions and receptive to a diverse array of opinions.

Student-Administration Relations

The overarching concern of students critical of the College involves student-administrator interaction. Few would deny that a great number of students view Dartmouth's administration as a group unresponsive to student needs and requests. With some difficulty, Wright accepted that students often claim discord and strained relations and added that it was his belief that his administration ought not be defensive about it.

Wright stressed that openness is the most effective way in which relations can be improved. But openness is a two-way street, and he urged students to actively express their opinions.

"It's critical for students to share with us," he said.

Wright admitted he doesn't think his administration has drawn students into the decision process enough, most especially in shaping the long-term vision of the College. When their opinions are solicited, however, students often remark that their advice goes unheeded. Wright disputed these claims.

"It's not that we don't hear these things," he said. "Do we always do what students ask us to do? No, sometimes we can't -- sometimes it's not advisable to do them. But I do think we owe students a dialogue about those things."

In his defense, Wright cited the recent adjustment in rush dates and the appointment of a Dean of Pre-Major Advising as examples of the administration attempting to be responsive to student desires.

Alcohol Policy

Perhaps one of the most divisive issues between students and administrators is the College's infamous alcohol policy. The recent change in Dartmouth's keg policy sent shockwaves throughout the Greek community, and general pessimism lingers about the post-Student Life Initiative crackdown. When asked whether there was any possibility to reach common ground on issues of alcohol policy, Wright said he "hoped so."

"Quite frankly, though, as long as there are students and administration and alcohol, and a state that has certain restrictions on the use of alcohol, there are going to be tensions."

Wright stressed his personal belief that students should be treated as adults, make their own choices and be held accountable for their actions.

Wright said he has told Dean of the College James Larimore that he does not find "alcohol policies that deal more with counting and estimating" useful, and that they increase tensions instead.

"Students, naturally, will try to outwit and outfox. I don't want that relationship to exist."

Wright said he has encouraged the Dean's office to simplify the alcohol policy and ease the strain between students and the administration.

Last month, in an editorial in The New York Times, former president of Middlebury College John McCardell Jr. wrote that the drinking age should be reinstated to 18, arguing that the current age of 21 provoked irresponsible drinking and was unreasonable. When asked whether he concurred with McCardell's conclusion, Wright, a sitting president, was resolute in his response.

"I think we would all be better off if the drinking age were 18," Wright said, recalling the days before the drinking age was raised to 21, when departments had open houses and served sherry, or when students commonly gathered with faculty over a bottle of wine. "I think it's unfortunate we find ourselves in the position that we enforce a law that most of us believe doesn't treat students as adults."

Wright continued, adding that if the nation could send 18-year-olds to Iraq and if the College could send its students to off-campus programs in places where drinking was not regulated below age 21, then it should be deemed reasonable that students be able to drink legally at age 18 in the United States. Still, Wright expressed doubt as to the likelihood of a national policy change.

Campus Demographics

Since taking office in 1998, Wright has promoted several highly visible initiatives, not the least of which has included creating a more diverse student body. In the Class of 2008, a record 7.2 percent are international students and 30.4 percent are minorities.

Wright acknowledged that during his presidency Dartmouth has welcomed a more racially-inclusive community, but said he does not have a goal "in terms of composition or numbers."

"I think the student body is richly diverse today, and will continue to evolve as the demographics of the country change and the applicant pool changes -- and it should do that."

Wright said the hallmarks of a diverse campus are student interaction and exposure to peers with distinct attitudes, views and tastes. Yet with ethnic sectors of the student body continuing to grow, a consequence of Dartmouth's diversity has been what is commonly known as self-segregation. Wright admitted he was aware of the phenomenon, and though he said he worries about sufficient interaction among various groups on campus, he noted he would never act to restrict the trend from taking place.

"I have no interest in perfecting [this trend]. You should go to Thayer Hall with whomever you want to go to Thayer Hall with. That should not be a matter for the College to engineer."