Woodward: Wherefore Art Thou, Mr. President?

by Aylin Woodward | 11/17/14 5:42pm

“It is time for Dartmouth to change. And as your president, I will lead that change.” College President Phil Hanlon said these words at his April presidential summit, when he launched a process of reform to end harmful behavior in the areas of sexual assault, high-risk drinking and a lack of inclusivity, driven by the mechanism of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” steering committee. He cited “the grave disconnect between our culture in the classroom and the behaviors outside of it” as the basis of necessary change, and I’m certainly inclined to support him in that notion. However, our president must also recognize that there is now a grave disconnect between our student culture and the perceptions of administrators working to change it. In this time of uncertainty, veiled animosity and seemingly pointless resistance to the inevitability of change, the Dartmouth student body requires stability, receptivity and solidarity in the dialogue with the powers that be.

In my last column (“Mend the Schism,” Oct. 30), I called for a revitalization of deteriorating dialogue. Following that piece’s publication, I have begun to view the source of our current campus atmosphere as stemming from more than just distrust. At the heart of that distrust lies a greater issue — a lack of identifiable, definitive leadership that students and administrators alike can look to for guidance. In a debate with so many players — “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” the president’s senior leadership team, the Board of Trustees, alumni, parents and finally Dartmouth students and their organizations — it seems impossible to determine who has the final word concerning change. And therein lies the problem. Presently, nobody can answer that question with any sort of confidence.

Now I recognize that my status as a mere undergraduate does not equip me with an apt understanding of the subtle interworking of administrative politics and infrastructure. However, I do know this; you, President Hanlon, are charged with the leadership of this institution. And thus far your efforts and your vision have been inspirational, progressive and bold. You have been a much needed and appreciated paragon of passionate engagement at Dartmouth. But it is time to do more. It is time to call the shots in a visible manner. You are the only individual on this campus with access to all the information about our problems and the strategies with which we can address them. You are the only individual with means and prerogative to act on that information decisively and judiciously.

In the coming months as you begin to announce reforms, you must work to mitigate collective anxiety and anticipate students’ natural tendency to be distrusting and reactionary. How can you accomplish that obvious mission? You need to change the perception of the amorphous “black box” that is “Moving Dartmouth Forward.” Many people’s issues with the steering committee originate in the contrived and non-transparent process that created them. “Moving Dartmouth Forward” has said nothing yet regarding impending recommendations, but is getting blamed for the lack of transparency concerning those still nebulous recommendations. So you need to publicly and assertively demonstrate your support for your advisory committee and assure the greater Dartmouth community that the committee is doing an incredible job accomplishing its task.

I call on you to reiterate your commitment to the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” machine. The bold move I’m asking you to make is a statement — one, now, at the end of a long term, that affirms your commitment to “Moving Dartmouth Forward” and assures us all of its legitimacy. This would in turn help mitigate anxiety and incendiary moves, like the co-option of the “movingdartmouthforward.com” domain name. Thus far you have been silent on the issue of your steering committee being under fire. I maintain that a speech or a renewal of purpose statement from you personally — a message promising positivity and receptivity, indicating who’s actually calling the shots — would be enough. It would help create a legitimate community buy-in for the steering committee process by reiterating how it is an extension of your vision for leading this school.

I understand the reasoning behind both your and the steering committee’s reluctance to release recommendations piecemeal before January. Dartmouth will gain the most by presenting a coherent plan for change in its entirety — it’s best from both a logistical and a media standpoint, certainly. But with that concession, I call upon you to at least reassure us. Show us that this impending announcement in January isn’t some publicity stunt, isn’t motivated by external factors, but is in fact by Dartmouth, for Dartmouth. Remind us that you were once a student here too, and tell us, “I’ve been where you’ve been and lived what you’ve lived, and now I want to make Dartmouth a better place than the one I left behind and make sure you do not make the same mistakes I did.” Explain that you know “Moving Dartmouth Forward” is still the vehicle for that mission.

“Like so many Dartmouth alums, something stirs deep inside me whenever I see this hallowed Green, with Baker Library presiding majestically at its north end.” You said this in your inaugural address last September, emphasizing a deep and personal connection to Dartmouth as a member of the Class of 1977. From that day on it has remained evident that, in all the ways that matter, you are one of us. And now, at the culmination of this contentious term, remind us of that fact. Remind us of your role as keeper of the Dartmouth flame. Your steering committee stands with you. The Board of Trustees stands with you. The students will stand with you, too. So lead us into a new era of Dartmouth, but do so in a manner that prizes the strength of our community, establishes collective trust and greets our future in a climate of solidarity.