Allen: Give Us a Break

Dartmouth must give students time off from classes when current events demand it.

by Spencer Allen | 7/2/21 4:05am

In the best of times, Dartmouth’s 10-week term is notoriously demanding — it’s nearly impossible for most students to focus on anything other than their academics. In the worst of times, the intensive Dartmouth schedule is nothing short of debilitating. Students’ schedules leave little room for anything to go wrong, so if — or when — that happens, they struggle to balance their personal situations and mental health with the omnipresent pressures of life at Dartmouth. And sometimes, things go wrong for nearly everyone, especially when tragedy strikes on campus. Many would expect the College to be sympathetic to students in such situations, but too often, it is not. At best, Dartmouth ignores students’ cries for help; at worst, the College exacerbates their problems. When the situation calls for it — when events make it impossible for academics to be a student’s top priority — the College must recognize reality and give students a break from classes. 

There have been countless moments in the last year when Dartmouth should have given students a break from classes. One — or rather, four — stand out among the rest: four Dartmouth students — Beau DuBray ’24, Connor Tiffany ’24, Lamees Kareem ’22 and Elizabeth Reimer ’24 — died in the last academic year, more than any other year in recent memory. Despite the immense tragedy of each of these deaths, it was only after Reimer’s death in May that the College made an effort to provide students with a large-scale space to grieve. Even still, after calls from Student Assembly to give all students time off from classes on the day of Dartmouth’s vigil — and a second day off for first-year students — the administration squarely denied the request, saying that the imminent end of the term made granting an unscheduled day or two off impossible.

It’s hard to believe that one or two days off from classes — which only amount to around 5% or less of the days that students are in a class — are more important than giving students space to  grieve. Yes, this cancelled class time would’ve been difficult to make up so close to the end of term. But one day of calculus lectures or economics readings can yield to the need for students to process their grief. While doing so might have meant that some finals would have had to be rewritten, it is far easier to rewrite an exam than it is to mourn silently.

Some may argue that giving students those days off would be detrimental to the College’s academic reputation, but that misses the point entirely. Students come to Dartmouth because of its reputation as an Ivy League school ranked the 13th best university in the country. Yet what value is this reputation if students are not treated with dignity?  Students are people — people who cannot run at full steam all the time, especially after the shock of losing four of their classmates, neighbors and friends this year. Asking for time off was not some frivolous request born out of a desire to take a break before finals; it was a necessity, in recognition of the fact that students could not go on without some sort of relief. No matter its impacts on our academic reputation, the College was obligated to give students one day to grieve. The knowledge that Dartmouth as an institution cares for and respects students through thick and thin is a much truer measure of “greatness” than any arbitrary rankings.

The only rankings the College should be listening to are those of its own students. According to a survey of members of the Class of 2021, trust in the administration is the lowest it has been in years. While that survey was limited to the graduating class, it’s likely that other classes hold similarly dismal views of the administration. Taking a day off of classes would not have suddenly repaired students’ trust in Dartmouth’s leadership — its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged its favorability too severely for any one action to fix. Yet, this show of support for its students — not the College’s reputation among scholars — would have done wonders to show students that it treats them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

It’s clear that the College has a lot of work to do to make amends with its students after this year, and I’ll admit that a break from classes pales in comparison to bigger issues like comprehensive mental health reform. However, Dartmouth’s stubborn insistence on maintaining its academic reputation must end. Dartmouth must put its students’ wellbeing above its reputation, for the latter will undoubtedly suffer without plentiful investment in the former.