Packer: Safety is a Variable

by Ben Packer | 2/1/15 6:45pm

Although administrators have framed Dartmouth’s policies in terms of student safety, this is not the bottom line for the College. They calculate their decisions in the interests of the institution itself. I assume most readers already have an understanding of some of these interests, centered on things like institutional financial stability and college rankings. Last April, then-Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson responded to the criticism of College President Phil Hanlon during the Freedom Budget protests by characterizing the his primary responsibility as fundraising. Despite Hanlon’s newfound passion for student affairs, we have no reason to believe that his priorities have changed in the past few months.

As a result of the rational perspective of the institution, all inconspicuous campus issues are simply not a problem as long as they remain inconspicuous. The events that lead President Hanlon to decide the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” process was necessary were not the problems themselves, but their increased publicity. I don’t mean to imply that Dartmouth administrators do not care about the well-being of the students on a personal level, but rather that their positions require them to consider those concerns within the institutional framework.

The lack of transparency in this process has been criticized extensively, but an understanding of the disconnect between the goals of the process and the rhetorical goals allows us to comprehend the motivations for its secrecy. In President Hanlon’s speech on Thursday morning, for example, he said that the committee reached a researched conclusion that the eliminating Greek life would not reduce the identified problems. The necessary data to support this research, however, was not present in the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” presidential steering committee’s report.

Consider a hypothetical situation in which administrators, based on data, predicted that abolishing the Greek system would stop a certain number of sexual assaults a year. Administrators then consider the value of that reduction in sexual assault. Since the bottom line is the interests of the institution, I would anticipate that for the institution, these sexual assaults are only negative if they contribute negatively to the College’s image. I expect that administrators would then have to compare that cost versus the likely reduction in alumni donations and the potential drop in applicants attracted to the Greek scene. This perspective treats the situation much like an equation, in which the probability of a public case of sexual assault or major protest is weighed against the decline of alumni support. As long as that equation favors alumni support, the Greek system will continue to exist. Since I think the College views sexual assault as negative only in its publicity, this creates the perverse incentive to reduce the probability that it enters the public sphere, allowing more sexual assaults to happen before it becomes in their interest to accept the financial consequences of abandoning the Greek system. After such a decision, what do you imagine administrators would tell the public? If their perspective saw sexual assault as an equation, what would they do with their initial data?

This hypothetical situation designed to make you uncomfortable with the institutionalization of caring reveals when the need for secrecy may arise. As a result, I suggest that we not accept the claims of the administration, particularly President Hanlon’s claim that the identified problems persist at colleges “regardless of the history and intensity of the Greek scene.” Supporting such a strong claim would require some transparent scholarship, which the committee did not provide.

To affiliated students at Dartmouth who quietly believe that their organizations are the source of our woes but are waiting for change to come from above, don’t treat the results of the steering committee as reassurance that you are not the problem. In the debate about whether the Greek system should continue, the data-less suggestions of an institution whose ulterior motives are take precedence should not assuage your guilt.

Finally, I hope that students do not accept the status of their well-being as a variable and allow publicity stunts to substitute for progress on issues they regularly confront. To students who continue to assert that Dartmouth does not have any problems, please step up and let everyone know that you don’t want to “move Dartmouth forward.”​

Ben Packer '17 is a guest columnist.