Verbum Ultimum: A Refusal to Arbitrate

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/21/13 10:00pm

On Friday evening, a small group of protesters forcibly entered the Class of 1953 Commons and interrupted the Dimensions show. These protesters were opposing racism, sexism and homophobia, which they cited as pervasive problems at Dartmouth. On Saturday, Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson sent out a campus-wide email condemning threats that were made against the protesters. Both the protest itself and the subsequent threats against the protesters are utterly unbecoming of Dartmouth students. But what is even more disappointing is the administration's paltry and tame response to these events.

While the protesters admittedly seek to address very real issues, rudely interrupting the welcome show was absolutely the wrong strategy. Their actions were unfair to the students who worked hard to create a great Dimensions show for prospective members of the Class of 2017. The protesters willfully disobeyed the instructions of College employees who, among other things, sought to enforce safety regulations. Moreover, we fail to see how this protest helps advance the ends that the protesters claim to seek. Through their overtly combative stance, the protesters have surely alienated a significant portion of the student body, who also wish to prevent future sexual assaults and acts of racism and homophobia, but object to such dramatic action in front of prospective students, who lack any of the relevant context to understand the problems that we face.

It is also unacceptable for other members of the Dartmouth community to respond to these ill-conceived actions with threats against the protesters. This is not a community that tolerates vigilante justice, and Johnson was correct to quickly and clearly condemn any such intimations. Our community adheres to much higher standards, and we should be facilitating conversations that acknowledge a range of viewpoints, even if we do not agree with all of them. Unbridled anger will only cause the situation to further deteriorate.

Yet even amid the controversy, the administration has abdicated its responsibility to the student body, as usual. We remain indignant at Johnson's refusal to arbitrate a dispute that gravely threatens our most basic notion of community. In her message to campus, she not only described the protesters' actions in the most charitable terms possible, but also mentioned the individuals involved in the show in a way that felt like an afterthought. Let us not forget that the protesters broke a number of College rules in the course of their actions, which would seem to imply that they should face some disciplinary action. Yet Johnson did not even go so far as to express disapproval of the protesters' actions, nor did she express sympathy to the students involved in the Dimensions show who saw their work ruined. She could not be bothered to address the hundreds of prospective students who were expecting to learn why they should attend this school and were instead left with far more questions than answers.

Conversations about race, homophobia and classism are not about taking sides. They involve efforts to understand friends' and peers' perspectives. We cannot escape the conclusion that the College is far from doing enough to foster this sort of dialogue. Two lines in an email that thank the protesters for their concerns and compliment those involved in Dimensions are such an inadequate response that we are forced to wonder whether the administration is even trying. This campus is clearly reeling from Friday night's events, but all that the College has managed to come up with is an exceedingly mild email. Instead of forcibly engaging the student body, the administration appears to be running for cover. Between the lines of Johnson's email, there is a subtle fear of inflaming criticism, and every implication that the administration is choosing to hide in Parkhurst Hall and ride out the storm.

In recent days, many have said that Dartmouth has problems. The stark divisions among our student body are indeed a great shame that we must work together to fix. But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that our administration is officially too afraid to confront student life issues. We demand a meaningful response from the College not one that tells students to not harass each other or call Safety and Security if they feel unsafe, but a serious and thoughtful plan for how to help a fractured student body heal.