Verbum Ultimum: Not Just Student Activists

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/11/16 6:30pm

Much ink has been spilled about student activism and the role it should have in policy discourse both on campuses and on a national level. From the coverage of the Dimensions of Dartmouth protests in 2013 to the media explosion surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests this past fall, Dartmouth has been one of the colleges at the center of the conversation about student activism. The discourse about the merits and methods of these actions and others is incredibly important, and it’s one that we hope can continue to exist in a constructive way. However, a discussion about another form of activism, the effects of which are equally as important and arguably longer lasting than that of the student variety, seldom takes place. Although it rarely comes up, we cannot ignore the importance of the role of faculty activism on campus and beyond. Between their continuous presence at the College over the years and the power and influence their positions afford them, faculty members can have a huge impact. As students we must recognize the role of faculty in activism and ensure that we do our part to help create an environment in which faculty members are comfortable publicly voicing their beliefs.

While student demonstrations, petitions and other attempts at social change can, and often do, have a large effect on policies and attitudes on campus, the fact remains that most of us are only going to be here for four years. Although certain ideas and initiatives carry over from one class to the next, the departure of influential student activist leaders often means a decrease in enthusiasm for the cause. A charismatic professor can help shepherd a cause for years, taking what students who have come before have accomplished and helping current and future students build upon it. They can use their longevity on campus to establish and maintain relationships with important figures within the administration and the community, both of which would be essential to the success of any lasting activist movement. The position faculty members hold comes with a certain type of influence students simply don’t have. Although our points of view are equally as valid, people simply tend to listen to and respect faculty members more than college students. Their involvement lends another level of legitimacy to activist movements both on campus and in the eyes of the national media.

Of course, there are examples of professors engaging in activism in the past. This past January, a faculty group released a petition in support of the Black Lives Matter protest, which was signed by more than 150 faculty members. Earlier this month, professor Annelise Orleck spoke out in an article in The Dartmouth about the fact that the school has yet to establish and Asian-American studies department, despite pressure from students and alumni.

These examples demonstrate the influence professors can have. However, they can play and even larger role in activism on campus. One reason that many faculty may not be visibly and actively engaged in activism is that they aren’t tenured and they fear that speaking out in a way that shines a negative light on the school may cost them their positions. As students, we must help create an environment that allows professors to speak up. Admittedly, the administration arguably plays a more important role in doing so.

Although we should encourage professors to be more actively involved with causes that they believe in, the power they leverage isn’t without consequence. Professors hold a great deal of influence in a classroom setting, especially in a discussion-based class in which they can shape the rhetoric. Although activists should encourage faculty members to engage in social initiatives alongside us, it is incredibly important that their views do not overpower students. Of course, any person teaching a class, especially a more subjective discussion based one, is going to interject their viewpoints even if unintentionally. Professors must be vigilant that the activism they participate in doesn’t discourage students from sharing opinions in class that may be contrary to the professor’s. All professors, but especially socially active ones, need to consciously encourage diverse dialogue and multiple points of view. It is then up to us, as students, to be rational enough to separate the viewpoints that a professor advocates outside the classroom and the information they are imparting to us inside the classroom.

If we are to see any lasting change on this campus, it is absolutely essential that students are active and speak out for their beliefs. However, we should also encourage our professors to be active. They can guide movements through the years and add legitimacy to them in the eyes of onlookers. Done responsibly, faculty involvement in student activism could change the way we think about activism and usher in even more tangible and lasting change.

The Editorial Board consists of the Publisher, the Editor-In-Chief, both Executive Editors and an Opinion Editor.