Vandermause: A Steering Success

by Jon Vandermause | 2/1/15 6:45pm

College President Phil Hanlon’s decision to eliminate hard alcohol on campus has dominated the conversation surrounding Thursday’s speech. Some observers have rallied around what they consider a bold way of curbing underage drinking. Many students have instead rallied around their Captain Morgan handles, laughing off the ban as a quaint throwback to the Prohibition era.

It’s a shame that so much attention has been showered on hard alcohol, as the final report of Hanlon’s presidential steering committee — a 72-page beast that can barely be bound with a staple — is overflowing with thoughtful and thoroughly researched ideas about how to improve student life at Dartmouth.

As the committee correctly observes in its report, many Dartmouth students split their lives in two. The student who spends his Friday mornings offering thoughtful comments in an honors seminar is often the same student who spends his Friday nights hitting ping-pong balls into cups of Keystone with a severed paddle.

The committee hopes to bridge this rift between social life and academic life by swapping the “work hard, play hard” mantra so common among students with a superior alternative. Through the new house system, undergraduates will no longer be left to fend for themselves in the dorms. Graduate and postdoctoral students, along with faculty members, will join the residential communities. Thanks to the committee, we can expect a massive uptick in funding for student programming and social spaces, supplementing the monotony of pong in fraternity basements.

Further buried beneath the publicity surrounding the liquor ban are the committee’s proposals to improve student well-being. Through the Dartmouth Thrive program, the committee hopes to extend Dartmouth’s educational mission to include a holistic approach to student development, encompassing the body and the mind as well as the intellect. The program will promote mindfulness, wellness and student health. If the details of Dartmouth Thrive are properly fleshed out, it may represent the College’s most serious effort at promoting mental well-being among students.

The committee has also made a serious effort at addressing one of the biggest setbacks to strong community at Dartmouth — a lack of continuity. Under the current system, students form tight bonds during DOC First-Year Trips but often rarely see their tripees after freshman year. They form deep friendships with their freshman floor but are flung across campus come sophomore fall. Under the new residential house system, house affiliation will last all four years and the enrollment will be organized around Trips, allowing tripees and their leaders to be members of the same house. Perhaps equally effective, though less publicized, is the committee’s proposed overhaul of the current D-Plan. If implemented, the new D-Plan will give students the option of having a traditional academic calendar.

Equally exciting are the committee’s proposals on inclusivity. They found that Dartmouth, as an institution, is inclusive only to those in the highest income brackets, noting that 59 percent of Dartmouth students come from families in the top six percent of the national income distribution. To correct this, the steering committee proposed several hard-hitting measures, including a capital campaign for financial aid, a redirected admissions pipeline that targets low- and middle-income students and a new admissions policy that gives these students a boost in the admissions process. These proposals offer hope that, in the future, our college will welcome all high-achieving students regardless of their parents’ income.

While these reforms are just a fraction of what is in the full report, the report’s riches do not refute concerns about the liquor ban. Students and professors alike have expressed concern that banning liquor will drive its consumption underground. I asked the chair of the steering committee, English professor Barbara Will, about this concern. In her view, the numbers just don’t support it. She wrote in an email that other schools that have instituted a hard liquor ban have seen significant decreases in hospital transports. This correlation, she wrote, was a compelling reason for this recommendation.

As the report notes, the committee’s proposals alone cannot transform campus. While President Hanlon’s plan will mark a series of new changes for the College and its future, his announcement on Thursday morning is not the final step in moving Dartmouth forward. As Will said in her email, Hanlon’s announcement marks a new beginning for Dartmouth. We must continue to discuss and debate the proposed changes. Now that the steering committee has laid out their opinions, it is time for the Dartmouth community to carry on the work they began.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get started.

Jon Vandermause '16 is a staff columnist.