Menning: Why is Rollins Chapel Still Closed?

To regain trust from campus, Dartmouth must clearly communicate their reasoning for major policy decisions –– starting with the two-year closure of Rollins Chapel.

by Isaiah Menning | 3/8/22 4:10am

If you looked at the Tucker Center website, you would think Rollins Chapel were open. According to the site, the chapel — which has served as the College’s spiritual center for nearly 140 years — is currently “open for individual prayer and meditation.” Additionally, the site notes that the building, “utilized as an interfaith space available for Christian, Hindu, and Jewish services,” offers a Labyrinth prayer area which “[s]tudents, faculty, and community members are free to use” during regular chapel hours. 

But despite all publicly available information stating otherwise, Rollins Chapel has been closed to all of these activities for nearly two years — except for Hindu Puja services, during which one clergy member is allowed to enter the building. If a student or religious organization simply referenced the website and approached Rollins Chapel just northeast of the Green with the intent of worshiping in the building, they would be met by unexplained locked doors.

Unfortunately, this pattern of unexplained facility closure is not new with the Dartmouth administration. In a campus-wide Dec. 29 email from executive vice president Rick Mills and then-interim Provost David Kotz, the administration announced that the first floor of Berry Library, a key study space on campus, was closed “until further notice.” Despite a genuinely laudable commitment in the same email to “explain our decisions and the rationale for them in as timely a manner as possible,” no further explanation was given. It took an investigation by The Dartmouth published on Feb. 10 to inform the campus that “low mask compliance” was the rationale for the unique and continued closure of FFB. Opinions may differ on whether observed trends of low mask-wearing are sufficient justification to close FFB and very few other spaces, but by declining to even inform campus of this rationale, students gained another reason to mistrust the administration.  

Likewise, the campus has had little to no official information regarding the indefinite closure of Rollins Chapel. The Chapel has been closed for the entirety of the ’24s’ and the ’25s’ Dartmouth experience, and as a ’24 myself, I only knew about its former functions from the nostalgic memories of upperclassmen and alumni in addition to outdated information from the website. A rationale explaining the continued closure of Rollins was only found in hearsay and rumor, often accompanied by sentiments of mistrust towards the Dartmouth administration. So, I sought to get to the bottom of the issue, anticipating to write a fiery “Reopen Rollins” piece on why the College should not keep the “spiritual center of campus” closed while nearly every other facility is open. 

However, after seeking the full story not communicated to the public, my opinions quickly changed. When I interviewed chaplain Nancy Vogele ‘85 of the Tucker Center and associate vice president of facilities, operations and management Frank Roberts, I found a thought-out process of administrative decisions concerning Rollins in the near future — and ultimately concluded that despite my frustrations, I couldn’t advocate an immediate reopening. Upon observing how my own opinions changed given new information, I saw that Dartmouth’s hesitancy to offer public rationales for major policy changes like these sow avoidable discontent and skepticism towards the College. 

In individual interviews, Vogele and Roberts communicated that beginning in the spring of 2020, Rollins Chapel was first closed to in-person events with the rest of campus. After more than a year of closure, a campus-wide assessment led by FO&M and EHS in the summer of 2021 found that just as in the spring of 2020, Rollins Chapel’s air ventilation system was insufficient to reopen the building based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. With no operable windows, ensuring sufficient outside air circulation for occupancy was unworkable. Roberts told me that intermittent use of the space and portable air circulation systems were considered, but given the size and nature of Rollins Chapel and its events, these were determined to be infeasible options. 

After determining that Rollins was unsafe for any use at the time, discussions began around renovating the Chapel to install a ventilation system in line with industry standards, change the heating system from the often noisy radiator-based heating system to floor-based heating and, according to Vogele, to increase physical accessibility of the space. Both Vogele and Roberts told me that construction had not begun and that details were still underway. While emphasizing her lack of proximity to construction details, Vogele estimated that the Chapel could be reopened in the fall of 2022.   

Just like the closing of FFB, we could discuss whether the status of Rollins Chapel’s ventilation was sufficient to close the building for the past six months at the cost to student religious organizations and general campus spirituality, especially given that highly effective COVID-19 vaccines have been available over the same time period. Further, we could debate whether the chapel should be opened in the near future (with imminent and necessary construction plans, I am inclined to think that its continued closure is justified). However, my observation is simpler: It should not have taken multiple weeks of investigative journalism for students to know the reasons behind the two-year closure of Rollins Chapel. 

Especially after a year of heavy-handed pandemic policy, Dartmouth must re-establish its institutional legitimacy to the student body. To rebuild trust, the Dartmouth administration must recommit to their worthy promise “to explain our decisions and rationale for them in as timely a manner as possible.” In the case of Rollins, this promise was not fulfilled, but I am not necessarily laying blame at the feet of any particular administrator, and I am certainly not doubting their goodwill: Both Vogele and Roberts were very gracious, and even took personal interest in how the pandemic had affected my Dartmouth experience. In our conversations, however, lies a foundation to build the necessary mutual trust between students and the administration. 

Students must recognize the critical role administrators play in making difficult decisions that we may strongly disagree with. At the same time, avoiding inevitable student body dissent as a byproduct of decision making is no excuse to not publicly explain major policy changes. When major decisions are totally unexplained, the apparent obfuscation does more to damage the administration’s public image than the specific agreements or disagreements which may emerge from more transparent decision-making. A statement giving official details on Rollins Chapel would be appreciated, but as the College continues to reassess other COVID-19 policies around masks and building closures, administrative leadership should take the example of Rollins to improve their communication regarding the specifics of decision rationale. Thankfully, the intention to do so is present and a promise has already been made –– it is time for the administration to further actualize it. 

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