Verbum Ultimum: Beyond an Email

The College can do more to support students and faculty affected by the invasion of Ukraine — and future crises.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 3/4/22 5:00am

by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Last week, the world watched in horror as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Within days, thousands of Russians and Ukrainians were dead, and Europe was, and still is, experiencing a refugee crisis of catastrophic proportions. Despite the credible threat of arrest — indeed over 6,000 have already been detained — thousands of Russians hit the streets to chant “No to war!” in opposition to their government’s actions. 

Inspired by such courage — that of the Ukrainians defending their homes and the Russians standing up to their government — this Editorial Board asks itself: How should the College respond in the wake of this crisis? We commend the College for its email to campus highlighting resources for those affected by the crisis. It must, in no uncertain terms, stand behind the Ukrainian students who are unsure of their return home, the Russian students who are financially or politically distressed, and any others who are affected. Two members of this Editorial Board, for example, have relatives who may be facing deployment to Eastern Europe. 

The College can do better than an email, though. During this time, it is difficult for impacted students to focus on finals and other academic obligations. The College should explicitly offer flexibility and clearly outline the options students have available. Impacted students must feel comfortable approaching their deans and professors to ask for extensions or, if the need arises, an incomplete. Additionally, many of our classmates who normally live in Ukraine or Russia may not be able to return home for some time. The College should ensure these students have housing in the interim and priority housing in the spring, thus averting a situation similar to that of the beginning of the pandemic, when international students faced housing insecurity. A failure to implement such accommodations may further exacerbate the existing mental health crisis on our campus as students, in addition to the rigors of an Ivy League education, grapple with the horrific realities of international conflict. 

Students are not the only ones affected by this crisis. Dartmouth employs a large number of faculty and staff from Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe who would also benefit from institutional support. At a rally last weekend organized by the Ukrainian Student Association, Russian department chair Victoria Somoff pleaded for moral and financial assistance for those affected by the crisis. “I am a teacher and a scholar of literature — I love complexities, a good argument and footnotes,” she said. “But there is no time for any of these things now — my country, Ukraine, a sovereign nation, is being attacked.” For those professors and staff affected by the crisis, the College must offer more leniency in grading deadlines and also ask if there are any other ways that it can be supportive during this difficult time.

In the past, official communications on domestic and international crises have been lackluster at best and insulting or nonexistent at worst. Despite the hundreds of students who were impacted by the conflict between Israel and Palestine last spring, the Texas blackouts in the winter, and the wave of COVID-19 that swept over India, not a single campus-wide email was sent out by the College addressing them. The College can do better. A good email from College President Phil Hanlon was sent out about the Jan. 6 insurrection — but it was promptly followed by a now infamous message from former Dean of the College Kathryn Lively declaring that “despite everything that is happening in the world, no matter what tragedies or disappointments you may have faced, the academic term starts now.” This obvious tone-deafness is something that, as a previous Editorial Board has noted, can and should be avoided in College messages. 

The current crisis in Ukraine presents the administration with a valuable opportunity to correct its past errors and offer the community a better message, one of unconditional support and compassion during a difficult time. Former College President John Sloan Dickey’s memorable message to undergraduates that “The world’s troubles are your troubles ... and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix” rings as true today as it did after World War II. Though Dartmouth cannot fix the world’s problems, it can help exemplify the better human beings that Dickey described. We’re a global community — let’s act like one.