Activism and Student Turnover

Dartmouth activists must think beyond their four years here.

by Avery Saklad | 5/18/18 3:05am

Colleges breed social activism. Thousands of young people from every corner of the country and beyond live together on one campus, bringing with them unique perspectives on issues both personal and political. In this melting pot of opinions, viewpoints collide to create either unity or tension, and movements take root under the leadership of inspired activists. Students arrive here bursting with ideas that they’ve brought from back home, many of them eager to share these ideas with their new community. They’re fueled further by an expansive liberal arts education and exposure to all kinds of new people. Perhaps most importantly, perceived injustices within the very institutions people attend motivate them to create change at the local level.

Unfortunately, the nature of university systems like the American one makes it difficult for college social movements to blossom. Although many alumni remain connected to Dartmouth long after graduation, each student’s physical presence on campus is temporary. Every four years, the College cycles through a new student body. This benefits the community by adding new and often more expansive minds, but it also means that the strongest leaders of any campus-sprung social movement leave after just a few years — and progress takes time. This jeopardizes the ability of campus movements to enact real change. Currently, the administration can often defeat an inconvenient or disagreeable student-led social campaign by simply waiting out its strongest leaders.

Take, for example, Divest Dartmouth, a student organization founded in 2012 in order to convince the College to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. Divest Dartmouth’s student activists have succeeded in making their cause visible to campus; they held public events such as 2016’s Big Green Rally, and they created a petition that generated over 2,500 signatures. In addition, activists have repeatedly communicated with College President Phil Hanlon at his office hours; released a report on the College’s investment in fossil fuels, including options for divestment, in 2016; and met with several members of the Board of Trustees. The students’ concerns have been heard far and wide on campus. Alternative investment plans exist; the negative impact of Dartmouth’s implicit support for fossil fuels has been publicized. It’s now up to the administration to use this information to make the right decision.

But in 2017, Dartmouth College invested over $66 million in S&P Oil & Gas Explore & Production. After five years of putting every effort forth to convince the College of the harm it causes by supporting the fossil fuel industry, the students were unceremoniously ignored, President Hanlon asserting that the college’s investment opportunities should not be restricted for political ends. Divest Dartmouth still retains widespread student backing and surely will continue to fight against Dartmouth’s contribution to environmental degradation, but it faces the same problem that every long-term college campaign faces: rapid student turnover.

The founders of Divest Dartmouth have graduated. Passion for divesting from fossil fuel companies remains, but the original vision and established leaders are gone. If any student organization hopes to preserve and strengthen its movement for a social cause, institutional memory is key. As it is, the only people who stick around long enough to accumulate institutional memory are hired by the College, and many of them look out for College finances above social concerns. If the administration doesn’t want to comply with the demands of students like the activists in Divest Dartmouth, all it has to do is wait for the next generation of Dartmouth students to forget the institutional memory of past movement leaders.

Divest Dartmouth has already survived through a generation and a half of Dartmouth students. If it still wants to thrive, though, Divest and similarly passionate student groups must communicate their organizations’ histories to new members. Additionally, creating and sustaining alliances with long-standing community members, like Divest did in co-authoring their 2016 report on fossil fuels with then-Thayer School of Engineering professor Mark Borsuk, will help preserve their movement. Students’ fleeting time here shouldn’t be an advantage for those who oppose change; instead, they should capitalize on the fresh members flowing through their activist groups while remembering the progress and passion of past leaders.