Woodward: Smoke and Mirrors

by Aylin Woodward | 2/9/15 7:35pm

An intense focus on a single issue once again dominates popular discussion on campus — this time “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” arguably the biggest announcement by a College President in recent memory. There are some, however, that question the characterization of College President Phil Hanlon’s new plan as groundbreaking. The proposed changes, hard alcohol ban aside, appear are unlikely to be the biggest changes to hit the College since coeducation. Instead, what I see is a campaign of smoke and mirrors.

I have nothing but respect for all those involved in the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” process. This long-term endeavor to address the College’s student life issues, which began with the departure of former College President Jim Kim and stagnated under Interim College President Carol Folt, finally came to fruition with Hanlon’s proposal.

Yet I cannot help but caution — progress for the sake of progress is not progress. The College must understand that if the drive for this plan stems from a desire to placate a guilty conscience or to reverse a declining institutional reputation, then it is doomed to fail. “Moving Dartmouth Forward” cannot solely express a desire to do what is right — it needs to enact reforms that are informed by substantiated, citable data. Buy-in for the campaign is a decisive factor, and if student engagement does not reach a critical threshold then administrators will not be able to effectively implement these reforms.

Most importantly, a comprehensive reform plan is only as strong as the sum of its parts. One weak component compromises the ability of the plan to succeed as a whole. I am here to contest, quite vehemently, one of Hanlon’s “pillars of change” — what he has termed “academic rigor.”

“Strengthen[ing] academic rigor while enhancing learning outside of classroom… earlier start times for classes on Tuesday and Thursdays mornings.” This is what President Hanlon believes can mitigate the supposed correlation between rising GPAs and the number of nights per week students spend partying — a terrible basis for such a mandate. Perhaps it is predicated on the notion that making classes harder and curbing grade inflation, instructing faculty to teach earlier classes and funneling students into them will somehow temper our peers’ desires to party on weeknights.

Much like myself, many undergraduates will likely read that rationale and snort a little. The naivety suggests that ignorance may be the biggest impediment to the successful implementation of some of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policies. Moreover, this approach as a preventative measure for “partying hard” is blunt and lacks nuance. It’s like “taking a nuke to a problem that should have been solved with a razor blade,” as one of my friends described it to me this past week. Most egregious of all, painting all Dartmouth students — affiliated and unaffiliated, social science and STEM majors, first-time college students with familial legacies — with the same broad brush institutes a type of regime that I like to call the tyranny of the minority. An atmosphere where the actions of a particular, minority subset — the five night a week partiers, the excessive drinkers — dictate the conditions under which the majority have to live and operate.

But policy is policy. “Moving Dartmouth Forward” and the changes it promises are here to stay and largely non-negotiable. Working under that premise, I urge all those involved — especially President Hanlon — to consider the downstream consequences of their proposed change to the College’s academic rigor. Beyond the ambiguity of these proposals, they need to address the elephant in the room — mental health, one of Dartmouth’s biggest problems concerning student wellbeing. While improving academic rigor is all well and good, a campaign to make our College experience even more difficult and stressful needs to be accompanied by a serious effort to improve access to mental health resources and counseling beyond the College’s existing efforts.

President Hanlon must consider how these policies connect with one another and recognize the problem of talking about them in isolation, instead of parts of a collective whole. We may want a better atmosphere of academic innovation and entrepreneurship, but ultimately that can’t happen if administrators are out of touch with all the aspects of the environment in which students live and learn.