Students, faculty reflect on campus climate over last four years

by Luke McCann | 6/13/15 5:39am

As thousands of green and white chairs begin to cover the Green, members of the Class of 2015 begin to reflect on their four years at the College and prepare themselves for the world outside of Hanover. As the old adage says, each student at the College will have their own Dartmouth experience before their graduation. There are, however, events that undoubtedly affected the lives of almost every student on campus — from national attention coming after the “Rolling Stone” article detailing alleged fraternity hazing to a protest of the Dimensions of Dartmouth show and a sit-in at the President’s Office.

For David Brooks, the New York Times opinion columnist slated to deliver the Commencement address to the graduating class this Sunday, these events may represent students who “are driven by noble impulses to do justice and identify oppression,” as he described in his June 2 column, “The Campus Crusaders.”

Regardless of what the impulses of students at the College were, the last four years have seen the campus climate dominated by conversations of student safety and inclusion, and the Class of 2015 will leave campus as the College begins to usher in new policy initiatives and undergo significant changes.

Economics professor Charles Wheelan, who was a member of the Class of 1988 and began teaching at the College during summer terms in 2006, started teaching full-time in the 2012 fall term, when most members of the Class of 2015 were sophomores.

“It’s certainly a time of change and uncertainty,” he said of the last four years at the College. “Change, literally, you have President Hanlon coming in, and you’ve got uncertainty on campus around a number of big issues.”

Though there are differences, he said that they are not drastic.

“There’s a little bit more certainty, but it doesn’t look dramatically different in terms of campus environment,” he said.

Physics and astronomy professor Ryan Hickox, who began teaching at the College during the winter of 2012, echoed Wheelan in his sentiment that the College largely remains the same as it was four years ago.

“I think, overall, the tenor of the student experience here really hasn’t changed that much,” he said.

Many of the students interviewed made similar statements, and they said that while the last four years have seen a major shift in some of the College’s policies — including more stringent punishments on hard alcohol and an increased attention to sexual assault prevention — student life has remained largely the same.

“I would say a lot of things are very much the same, especially with the day-to-day aspects of campus. I’d say the general vibe of campus is very similar, there have just been some changes to the specifics of what people are doing,” Yesuto Shaw ’15 said, citing examples like the hard alcohol ban and the growth of social alternatives to the Greek system, such as BarHop or Collis After Dark, as some of these changes.

For other members of the graduating class, however, it is more difficult to assess whether the shifts they witness in their lives are endemic of larger ones within the College’s climate or reflective of shifts in their own perspectives.

“It doesn’t feel that different,” Shoshana Silverstein ’15 said. “I think what’s different is who I am and how I see campus.”

Theresa Smith ’15 shared a similar sentiment, and she said it was difficult to determine just how much the campus climate had evolved during her time here because of the different perspectives from which she saw it.

“You just see campus so differently as a senior than you do as a freshman,” she said. “It’s hard to say if campus has changed that much or if the change is the way I see it now as a senior.”

Despite students feeling as if the campus climate is not indicative of an overarching change in the way students interact and carry on from day to day, they noted a distinct shift in the way the College has begun to interact with a number of issues, citing the three pillars of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative — binge drinking, sexual assault and inclusivity — as major areas in which one can see new developments.

When asked how he thought the last four years will be remembered, Shaw said he believed it would be remembered as “a very significant period of transition” in the College’s history. Shaw, Smith and Silverstein all mentioned the various College presidents during their time as a clear indication of the amount of transition at the College.

Hickox also said that the members of the Class of 2015s’ time on campus marked a “positive shift” in the way that the College addresses student and residential life.

“I think there’s been a realization in the four years that have come to a head that Dartmouth has been forced to reckon with the fact that we could do better,” he said. “In some respects, in particular in having that sort of deep, intellectual experience all the time that students come here for, we can do better in that respect.”

The members of the Class of 2015 experienced a “transition” toward a campus where intellectual pursuits are more integrated into student life, he said. Hickox, who was a member of the presidential steering committee for the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative and one of the six new house professors, cited President Hanlon’s arrival as a driving factor for this shift.

Wheelan also credited President Hanlon’s appointment, as well as “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” as signs of greater “resolution” regarding campus climate issues. Though, he added, the implementation of the various policy initiatives remain unclear, he is confident that Hanlon will remain at the College and see those initiatives through.

Wheelan contrasted his time as an undergraduate with the last four years, noting that during his time he felt that campus was divided on many issues including Greek life, Apartheid and diversity.

“The campus climate wasn’t great during that whole period, but if you think back to Dimensions, I think things could have spiraled in a bad direction after that,” he said. “Ironically, or maybe coincidentally, they did during my time.”

Wheelan praised the students who have been on campus for the last few years for addressing controversial issues in a more collective way.

“I think this group managed to kind of hold it together in a way that was healthier [than when I was a student],” he said.

Hickox agreed that students have faced major campus issues in a collaborative way, saying that “there are a lot of small things that students have done collectively that I would definitely say have been transformative.”

“A lot of student organizations thinking a lot about what constitutes justice, fairness and equal representation has been really important,” Hickox said.

Wheelan said that the defining features of the members of the Class of 2015s’ time at the College will include Hanlon’s appointment as College President, the Dimensions of Dartmouth protest and the subsequent campus response, the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative and its inception and the “Rolling Stone” expose surrounding Andrew Lohse’s ’12 hazing allegations against Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

Of the latter he said: “All that really did was call national attention to things we were already dealing with privately, but we kind of flung open the closet and said, ‘Hey, come look at our dirty laundry.’ I would not say that forced ‘Moving Dartmouth Forward,' but I think it probably did give it a sense of urgency.”

Several students interviewed also cited the student protest at Dimensions in the spring of 2013, along with the events that followed the “Rolling Stone” expose, as the more-defining moments of the last four years at the College.

Like Wheelan, Shaw said that the national attention focused on Dartmouth influenced the way in which students and administrators discussed delicate or difficult issues, like sexual assault or diversity.

“It was a time when a lot of serious issues were addressed and became public and nationally well-known and something we had to deal with together as a school,” he said.

To some degree, Shaw said, very public and often negative events have marked the four years that his class has spent on campus, although the said he believes the response has generally been for the better.

Ilenna Jones ’15 said that these discussions and the attention placed on issues of student safety and inclusion have been some of the most important parts of the campus climate during her time here.

“I think one of the most important things has been the attention on sexual assault,” she said. “There was a lot of attention on the Dimensions protest, going into the sit-in in the President’s Office and basically overseeing the birth of a support network for minority students.”

For Jones, the campus climate over the last four years will be one that is remembered for pushing to ensure that each student at the College feels as if they have a place on campus.

“It has been a time to help students who the College wasn’t necessarily made for,” she said.

Both students and professors mentioned that these issues, particularly those around the inclusion of minority students and the prevention of sexual assault, were not unique to the College, and suggested that our campus climate has been reflective of a larger trend.

“I feel like it’s part of a national trend, and we just happen to be here during this time in our nation’s history,” Shaw said. “To some degree, it’s not unique to Dartmouth, even though it’s unique to our time at Dartmouth.”

Though their time at the College will soon be coming to a close, several of the seniors said they were hopeful for the direction in which the campus climate is headed and what incoming classes will be able to do as they matriculate.

Cynthia Madu ’15, who said she began to find her comfort zone at the College after becoming an undergraduate advisor, said that seeing the passion with which incoming freshmen classes are coming to Dartmouth has made her excited for the future.

“From [an undergraduate advisor] perspective, I’m so excited to see more open freshmen coming into Dartmouth. The excitement is back in their eyes, and there are so many freshmen who are coming into this place that are actually passionate,” she said. “I’m kind of sad we’re leaving because I want to see these new classes coming in with to much excitement to do something they’re passionate about.”

Shaw believes the Class of 2015 tends to cling to the past and the ways things were when he arrived on campus, saying that his class was the last one before the College’s “crackdown” on hazing and sexual assault.

“I think as we leave, there will be more acceptance of change and acceptance of new ways to do things because you won’t have people hanging onto the traditional ways that things were when they came in,” he said.

Hickox said that the members of the Class of 2015 contributed significantly to “Moving Dartmouth Forward” and that their voices were some of the most important ones the committee heard, particularly because of their experience on campus and the ability to look back on their four years with a critical eye.

“I think their stamp can really be felt on the long-term,” he said.