Verbum Ultimum: Searching for Substance
On Monday afternoon, College President Phil Hanlon spoke to the faculty regarding student life. His speech focused on residential life and student safety. While Hanlon articulated some good points, many of his statements, especially those pertaining to residential life, lacked specifics. We are left eagerly anticipating more discussion of these ideas in the coming months.
Toward the end of Hanlon’s speech, he made two concrete proposals regarding sexual assault. The College will hire a survivor advocate to help victims, and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson and her office are working to create a more specialized process with a trained judicial panel to adjudicate sexual assault cases. Both represent steps in the right direction and address past criticisms leveled by victims. To highlight the new Committee on Standards procedures, however, we believe that it would be wise to stage another mock hearing in the spring so that students will be informed about how the new process works.
Hanlon also lauded and proposed the expansion of two current student-safety programs, BASICS and the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative. While both may be good ideas, we believe that Hanlon is likely over-selling what they can reasonably achieve. Hanlon claimed that BASICS is highly effective by noting that self-reported drinking declines amongst participants over the course of the program’s check-ins. However, many students view BASICS as a form of punishment, and it seems highly implausible that the program’s forced participants give completely truthful answers regarding their drinking habits. Meanwhile, even though DBI-style programs have met success at other institutions, here it is in its infancy. At this point, we can merely hope that better statistics than just the number of students who would recommend the training to their peers become available in the future.
Regarding residential life, we agree with Hanlon’s broader aims, but are unsure of or disagree with many of the details. For example, Hanlon stated that he hopes to achieve consistency in residential communities. In particular, he hopes to smooth undergraduate enrollment over the academic terms to alleviate pressure on the housing stock, while grouping students of similar majors and interests in the same dormitories. While we agree with the former goal, the success of this proposal will be determined by the details, and Hanlon has yet to posit any. Moreover, we would disagree that grouping students by interest is desirable, particularly among freshmen. Undergraduates should interact with other students of differing interest and majors in their residential communities, not merely those of similar academic and personal profiles. If the College wishes to make substantial residential improvements, it might consider a residential college system. Hanlon’s current proposal is but a band-aid for a larger problem.
As another example, Hanlon said that non-Greek student organizations can and should provide alternatives to the Greek system. In particular, he suggested that a new arts district contain a social component. This could be an important development — in practice, there are currently no locations other than Greek houses where non-Greek groups can host events for their members with alcohol. Providing non-Greek spaces for students to congregate, perhaps by resurrecting something like the Lone Pine Tavern, would be a productive move. But it is unclear whether this is what Hanlon’s proposal envisions.
On the whole, Hanlon’s speech contained some interesting ideas, but was often lacking in specifics. Several important issues — hazing, the ongoing Title IX investigation and drinking in dormitories — were left unaddressed. We can only hope that more information is forthcoming over the next few terms.