Cook: Loyal Sons of Dartmouth

Should the College distance itself from controversial alumni?

by Caroline Cook | 9/11/18 9:00am

“I felt like a big celebrity on campus. Well, the kind of celebrity you could conceivably be at Dartmouth if you weren’t a jock or a sorority girl, who were the real celebrities.” This is the beginning of Mindy Kaling’s ’01 New York Times Bestselling memoir “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).” Though she is one of the more famous Dartmouth alumni, her public reflection on her years at the College ranges from fond to brutally honest, sometimes due to her self-deprecating humor and sometimes due to her willingness to address some very real problems that plagued campus in her day. Most of what she says, even her more frank quotes, are still not “bad press” for the College. But it’s possible the admissions office wouldn’t want her version of Dartmouth to be the first prospective students come to know.

Just as she is not speaking on behalf of the College, neither are alumni like Dinesh D’Souza ’83 or Alex Azar ’88. However, Kaling is not in the political realm that D’Souza and Azar have placed themselves. So their inflammatory comments must be treated differently than equally stubborn opinions held by other alumni.

Dartmouth is a place for conservative thinkers, liberal thinkers, the politically engaged and the politically abstinent. Regardless of each person’s political opinions, there is space for them on campus, so long as everyone treats human beings with basic respect and decency. On the whole, though, the opinions of Dartmouth students and alumni are heard. In 2016, Dartmouth was ranked the fourth highest producer of members of Congress in the country. Alumni are in the news all the time. They are given a platform everyday — they include the likes of Laura Ingraham ’85, Kirsten Gillibrand ’88 and Jake Tapper ’91.

Those figures represent nearly every corner of the political spectrum, a true testament to Dartmouth’s commitment to providing space for the development of individual thoughts, rather than forcing one “correct” mindset onto students. It is the product of a successful liberal arts education. That means, however, that the College should be better equipped to handle the aftermath of a Dartmouth alumnus’s opinions being shared, especially if they constitute hate speech.

What is the role of the administration in distancing itself from alumni that may bring “bad publicity” to the College? It’s an understandably precarious position to be put in. D’Souza, for example, has over 950,000 Twitter followers, and to publicly denounce his incendiary remarks risks making his supporters — some current students, perhaps — feel alienated by an institution that is theirs, too. However, if the line can be drawn between what is free speech and what is hate speech, it is then that the administration has a responsibility to address and separate itself from the hate speech of its alumni.

I am not here to draw that line; some comments fall more into the gray area than others. Dartmouth is a place that welcomes a myriad of opinions, and the priority of the administration should be preserving that. As odd as it may sound, the best way to preserve the sanctity of our free and open dialogue is to define it and draw clear boundaries. Accepting purposefully intimidating or hateful speech as “just an opinion” threatens the ability of all opinions to be shared freely, especially if that hate speech is targeted at certain groups that are already less inclined to speak up.

Dartmouth students know that conservatism does not mean racism, sexism or xenophobia, and true conservatives on campus still do not tolerate discrimination. If Dartmouth students are able to recognize that insensitive speech does not constitute opinion, then the administration should be brave enough to say it as well. While College President Phil Hanlon eventually joined the conversation on pressing controversial topics like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the administration tends to play it very safe, waiting until other schools have taken the lead and following in their footsteps. It is time to get bolder, especially if it means the difference between students feeling safe on campus or not.

In an era that some may say lacks civility, students and those still honing their own voices will look to institutions like Dartmouth as examples of the proper way to engage in dialogue in our society. This is a responsibility that cannot be shirked. Every voice tied to Dartmouth, not just those of the “jocks and sorority girls” Kaling joked about, is important. For the freshmen about to enter this special place, it may be the reason they were attracted to these hallowed halls: the things said and done here are important, and the world watches what we say and how we act. We must remember that.