Conservative Climate?

by Emily Fletcher | 11/19/09 11:00pm

Coming from a city where it's actually illegal not to recycle and where being a tree-hugger is considered a compliment, I was ready to ride my symbolic donkey across the country and stand up against the moneyed men of Dartmouth in the name of liberalism upon my matriculation at the College.

Let's just say my naivete became apparent pretty quickly.

Many Dartmouth students I talked to, in fact, said that the idea of Dartmouth as a college of traditional conservative ideals is in many ways inaccurate.

"I had heard that Dartmouth was more conservative than other schools," said A.S. Erickson '10, editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review, a traditionally conservative campus publication. "I was skeptical, and I think my skepticism has more or less been rightly placed."

The majority of students at Dartmouth are "way left of center," Erickson said.

"The nature of colleges in general, people tend to be idealistic and young, and those are components for neoliberalism," Erickson said. "It was like that four years ago, it's like that now."

Still, many outsiders see Dartmouth as classically right wing.

"My friends who didn't go to Dartmouth, I get the sense that they think it's an old boys, conservative network-type school," Emily Esfahani-Smith '09, former editor-in-chief of the Review, said.

Why this perception of conservatism is so pervasive even in the face of evidence to the contrary is harder to nail down.

The Dartmouth Review has gained widespread national attention over the years, and David Irving '11 speculated that this attention caused some people to believe the paper's editorials mirrored the beliefs of the campus as a whole.

Yet, both Erickson and Christine Tian '10, the paper's current executive editor, said they don't consider themselves politically conservative.

"I think a lot of it has to do with Dartmouth's roots being an all-male institution," Irving said. "Dartmouth has a lot of very successful business people who, financially, are probably are on the conservative side."

When people think of conservatism, they most often think of politics, Erickson said, but Dartmouth is conservative in ways that aren't necessarily political.

"There are all these other ways that a school or person can be conservative, and I think many of those other things fit Dartmouth much better," Erickson said.

The College's emphasis on traditions, for example, which Erickson described as "inherently conservative," may lead some people to view it as conservative as a whole, he said.

"There are those who care deeply, and quite vocally, for the traditions of Dartmouth and preserving the status quo, but they lack the radical and populist strains underlying modern-day Republicanism," Bret Vallacher '10 said.

It's important to differentiate between terms like conservative and Republican, and to realize that these categories are not always as black and white as some people like to believe, Esfahani-Smith said.

"[Those terms] have a lot of connotations that a lot people pick up without knowing the nuances within each category," Esfahani-Smith said.

Although several self-described politically conservative students said the political atmosphere on campus does not feel hostile toward conservatives, they said that it can be difficult to engage in open political dialogue with more liberal students.

"Often times conservatives will be labeled as ignorant or not forward-thinking or not open-minded," Irving said. "I see it a lot more in the classroom: professors presenting ideas and maybe shutting down more conservative viewpoints and not allowing certain opinions into the greater discussion."

Esfahani-Smith said she had to be "more prudent or cautious" when the topic of politics came up. Some of her friends had trouble reconciling her conservatism with the other aspects of her life, she said.

"I had one friend who was gay and one friend who was Native American, and they couldn't understand how I could be their friend and still be involved in The Review," Esfahani-Smith said.

Danny Kim '11, president of the College Republicans, said that being in the political minority actually makes his beliefs stronger. He said, however, that he wishes that conservative students in general felt more comfortable voicing their opinions.

In the past, differing political opinions have created conflict on campus. Most of the political controversies occurred before current students arrived to the College, but several seniors recalled in interviews the uproar over the cover of one issue of The Review during their freshman year.

The cover of the Nov. 28, 2006, Dartmouth Review depicted a Native American holding a scalp and the words, "The Natives are Getting Restless!" The Dartmouth previously reported. A rally held in the wake of the event featured speeches by administrators, including College President James Wright. He did not address The Review by name, but referenced the publication in his comments when he said Dartmouth College "condemns the deliberate mean spiritedness that was demonstrated in the publication released yesterday."

"That wasn't really a conservative thing, it was more of a good taste thing," Tian said. "For a while after that, it was very uncomfortable to be associated with that [issue]."