Wright sends letter to community, focuses on Native Americans

by Hillary Wool | 11/21/06 6:00am

College President James Wright discussed his concerns about recent acts of racism toward Native Americans at the College in a BlitzMail message to the campus on Monday.

"I wanted to share a letter with the community," Wright said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "I think that we need to do a better job of talking about our history and reminding people about how important the Native American students are to our history and ... that Native American students are more than some sort of abstract mascot."

Wright's letter followed a series of incidents that some members of the Dartmouth community have criticized, including what the Crew team called a "Cowboys and Indians" themed formal, the disruption of a Columbus Day drum ceremony by two intoxicated students and the College's distribution of the 2006 Alumni Fund Calendar, which featured a picture of an alumnus offering an Indian-head cane to a graduating student.

Wright met with a group of Native American students to talk about their distress regarding the "series of racist and insensitive incidents."

"Over a period of a few weeks, there have just been several things hitting all at once. They start to worry whether they are welcome here, worry whether people care," he said. "They have not felt supported by the administration or by the community during this time. I assured them that they were not alone and I told them that I would publicly affirm this."

Wright said that he believes the administration supports the Native American student population, but that the current vacant positions in the Office of Pluralism and Leadership and the Office Institutional Diversity and Equity are "not helpful" in this situation. He said he expects appointments to the open positions soon.

Although the letter targeted offenses toward Native American students, Wright explained that his message also applies to other students who have recently been the subject of racist and sexist comments. Malicious acts against any group harm everyone, he said.

"When any one individual or group is singled out to be demeaned or diminished, the entire community is the victim, and we all should share in the response. I apologize on behalf of the College," Wright wrote.

While Wright emphasized the role freedom of expression plays at the College, he also said that "mutual respect" makes Dartmouth thrive.

"Free speech includes the right to say and to do foolish and mean-spirited things. We have seen several examples of this exercise this fall," Wright wrote. "But free speech is not a right exclusively maintained for the use of the mean and the foolish -- It is not unless we allow it to be, and then the free part has been minimized."

Wright said he believes it is condescending to insist that individuals who have been affected by certain acts should not be offended, or that it is somehow their fault.

"And it is the worst form of arrogance for anyone to insist that they will continue to offend on the basis of a 'right' to do so," Wright wrote, noting that while communities depend upon rights, they also thrive upon mutual respect.

Staff reporter Amanda Cohen contributed to this story.