Conservatism at Dartmouth Then and Now

by Elise Quinones | 11/19/09 11:00pm

Stereotypes, regardless of their validity, have to start somewhere.

Some say that Dartmouth's conservative label can be attributed to the College's staunch adherence to tradition. Others attribute it to The Dartmouth Review's national audience, while still others would say that Dartmouth really just isn't conservative at all.

Regardless of your view, however, the real question is: Where exactly do the roots of Dartmouth's conservative stereotype truly lie?

Jeffrey Hart '51, a member of The Dartmouth Review's advisory board, said that judging from stories from his father's friends, Dartmouth students were rather apolitical during the 1920s. Hart is a professor emeritus of English at the College and is a staunch conservative who still serves as a senior editor at the National Review, a conservative journal.

"People were very happy to be here, and they definitely weren't protesting anything except Prohibition," he said. "Students were interested in maintaining the status quo, and during the depression of the 1930s, Dartmouth students reacted similarly to the rest of the nation as far as their political standpoints."

Hart said that he believes the Dartmouth student body has generally aligned with the views espoused by the nation as a whole, rather than deviating wildly from the norm.

"In 1948 a lot of people here were veterans from the Second World War, and as that was the great war against fascism, so to say, they tended to be very liberal on that account," he said. "Also, there was a good deal of sympathy for the Soviet Union at that time, and there were quite a few publicly Marxist undergraduates."

English professor Donald Pease noted that Dartmouth was "perhaps" a more conservative institution prior to the liberal tide that swept the nation in the late 1960s.

"Dartmouth went through its greatest Civil War' in the last years of [former College President John Sloan Dickey's] tenure, when there was massive opposition to the Vietnam War and the demand that Dartmouth become coeducational, and I think prior to 1968, Dartmouth could perhaps be described as more conservative than it presently is," he said.

In May 1969, 42 Dartmouth students were arrested for the occupation of Parkhurst in protest of the Vietnam War, according to the Valley News.

Although the institution of the Dartmouth Plan initially led to fragmentation among student political groups, under the tenure of former College President David McLaughlin, the D-Plan was restructured to require that freshman and seniors remain on campus for the Fall, Winter and Spring terms, and that sophomores remain on campus for Summer term. This, according to Pease, allowed the formation of interest groups and led to a fiercer political climate.

"I think that a voice appeared on campus during upheaval that should have been heard much earlier, and I wouldn't say that that voice is reducible conservative or liberal, but that the voice merged out of argument between those voices," Pease said.

One of the forums for this debate was The Dartmouth Review, which was founded in 1980 by a former staff writer of The Dartmouth. The Review, which remains the most conservative voice on campus, had attracted national attention in the nearly three decades since its inception.

On Jan. 21, 1986, 12 students, 10 of whom were affiliated with The Dartmouth Review, divided into teams to dismantle the shanties built by a student group called Dartmouth Community for Divestment to protest and discourage the College from investing in companies that did business in South Africa, according to the Valley News.

Ten of the students were later charged with malicious damage to property, disorderly conduct and committing violence, and were subsequently suspended from the College, said Bob Flanagan '87, one of the students charged in the shanty incident and the former president of The Review.

Flanagan said that it was a very "interesting" time, and added that this was "absolutely not a chaotic event, there were trumped-up charges."

"We felt the College was essentially paralyzed by a one-sided group of students who used the presence of the shanties on the Green to speak for the entire college, and our actions to take down the shanties were a response to that," he said. "And then, of course, what happened was an explosion of media and a reaction by the College that, to us, pointed out a double standard that if you had a leftist agenda, you got a bye from the College."

The group launched legal challenges that went to the governor of New Hampshire, and had the history and support of The Dartmouth Review to rally behind them, Flanagan said. As a result, all of the students were readmitted following their suspensions and graduated with the rest of their classmates, Flanagan said.

In response to the shanty incident, the College cancelled classes the following Friday "for the purpose of engaging a campus-wide discussion of racism, violence and disrespect for diversity and opinion, as most recently demonstrated by the act of demolition of the shanties on the Green," according to a press release from the Subcommittee on Agenda.

"That was a typical of mishandling of the entire situation by the College," Flanagan said. "It looks to me that way in hindsight too, that they in fact fueled the issue by taking actions like that."

Throughout the 1980s, The Review made several other appearances under the national spotlight, and soon became known for its opposition to the creation of women's studies, Native American studies and African American studies programs at the College, Pease said.

The dialogue in the paper on these issues which garnered national attention which strengthened the paper's presence on campus by requiring those programs to produce rationales that justified their formation and necessity, Pease said.

"I would say that The Dartmouth Review has a bipolar representation," Pease said. "It has a much stronger image outside Dartmouth than it enjoys in Dartmouth because it took positions that had the interest of national publications like the National Review and could capture headlines like the shanty incident. Most people outside Dartmouth believed that the College was represented by The Dartmouth Review, and everyone inside Dartmouth knew the publication was a minority voice within the institution that was acknowledged and produced deliberative and considered arguments."

The rise of several former staff members of The Review also led people to link the publication with the views of the College, Pease said.

"Frankly, I feel like the conservative movement at Dartmouth is tied up in The Review," James Panero '98, former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review, said.

Panero is also the author of "The Dartmouth Review Pleads Innocent: Twenty-Five Years of Being Threatened, Impugned, Vandalized, Sued, Suspended, and Bitten at the Ivy League's Most Controversial Conservative Newspaper."

Panero, however, noted that the conservatism at the College extends beyond the pages of one publication.

Today, he said, the College remains slightly more conservative than its peers because of its commitment to preserving "conservative-type institutions" like the fraternity system and the athletic program and because of its conservative alumni body.

Much of the discussion regarding conservatism at Dartmouth in recent years has centered on the College's various governance controversies. The 2007 lawsuit brought by the Association of Alumni an attempt to maintain parity on the Board of Trustees between the number of alumni-elected and Board-selected members was funded in part by donations collected by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a conservative, Indiana-based organization. Some alumni who rallied against the suit alleged that the legal effort was indicative of a conservative effort to take back higher education, although there is little evidence to support the assertion.

Several Board members have bona fide conservative credentials: Peter Robinson '79, a former speechwriter for Ronald Regan, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative public policy think tank. T.J. Rodgers '70, the chief executive officer of Cypress Semiconductor, is well known Libertarian.

"I think the trustee issue brought up the issue of who decides Dartmouth's future," Panero said, adding later, "It had to do with whether a kind of entrenched establishment controlled Dartmouth, or a more popular voice, and that popular voice happens to be more conservative."

Still, Panero said, the political climate of Dartmouth has changed since the 1980s.

"I do think that the general student attitude is more accepting of the condition it's in and student culture has become a little more apolitical and more unwilling to voice opposition," Panero said. "The campus was much more activist on left and right, and that certainly has changed."

Pease said that it is impossible to label the campus as either liberal or conservative.

"Students here have a much more complicated relation to politics than cannot be sorted out as liberal or conservative," he said.

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