Cook: Moving Forward, Not On

The PBS investigation may have ended, but the need for dialogue has not.

by Caroline Cook | 7/27/18 2:35am

It was a seemingly perfect October day — gusts of wind blowing the still-vibrant orange leaves in circles on the sidewalk, a vision of the idyllic New England autumn that every Dartmouth student is promised — when the community first received news of the sexual misconduct investigation into the allegations against three well-known and actively publishing professors in the psychological and brain sciences department.

College President Phil Hanlon announced last week that with the resignation of William Kelley, the investigation had ended, promising that the administration will “focus our attention on the work ahead to make this the best community it can be.” Institutions like Dartmouth show their values in times of challenge, and while the College did demonstrate a commitment to self-reflection and improvement as a result of this tragedy, if the dialogue ends with the conclusion of the investigation, this progress will be lost.

Because The New York Times covered the story in October and has since updated its readership at the conclusion of the investigation, sexual misconduct will be a part of Dartmouth’s reputation — more than it perhaps already was. Students here must remember that Dartmouth is a community some people already associate with issues of sexism and sexual assault. The administration cannot retroactively prevent this terrible situation from developing, nor can it make the outside world forget what they have read and heard. Dartmouth’s decision to launch its own independent investigation and treat this matter with the thoroughness and seriousness that it deserves is the only correct option in a time of tragedy. It is crucial that the response to the allegations is remembered and understood wherever the allegations themselves are remembered — prospective students and their families, alumni, potential donors and even individuals with no connection to Dartmouth.

Furthermore, the benefits of beginning such important dialogue will be lost if the College’s desire to move past this gray cloud ends up shutting down conversation. While keeping Dartmouth from being defined by the actions of three individuals is an understandable goal from the College’s perspective, and we should all hope to “move on,” that process should not involve forgetting that this happened. And dialogue is happening on Dartmouth’s campus — just this week there was an “Open Forum on Sexual Violence” hosted by the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault at the Collis Center. For students who felt in the dark as the investigation trudged on, the opportunity to prevent that from happening again is right now. There are opportunities for voices to be heard because the administration knows it must be receptive to students’ opinions, now more than ever.

Perhaps more should have been done to begin the investigation earlier or to have prevented such behavior from ever finding a space on campus at all. There is no single healthy or correct way to recover from events that rock a community like this one rocked Dartmouth; students may have felt confused and even scared at times. However, compared to other institutions that sweep tragedy under the rug or conduct investigations with much less transparency, Dartmouth did rise to meet the challenge at this potential turning point in our history. It should also be noted that the revocation of tenure is a monumental act in academia, and though it may not mean as much to some students, tenure status did add complications to this story that the College did not allow to prevent justice. Tenure may also have helped create a space for this behavior, as that type of job assurance can solidify power dynamics in a potentially dangerous way. Even if one believes that Dartmouth could have and should have done more, one should not diminish what the administration did choose to do when backed into this corner.

While change should not occur only in light of some gut-wrenching disaster, those moments are often the best catalysts for progress. To waste such an opportunity for real growth and open dialogue, regardless of one’s individual opinion on the way the College handled the entire process, would be a profound disservice to the community. “Moving on” shouldn’t mean forgetting or pretending; it should mean having difficult conversations. Perhaps the better phrase is “moving forward.” We must do this for the Dartmouth of the future — hopefully one in which students’ blustery fall days will be remembered mostly for how beautiful the leaves look on the ground.