Mullins: The True Colors of Dartmouth

If it takes multiple student deaths to prompt even incremental change, what does that say about the College?

by Kyle Mullins | 9/27/22 4:00am

In two years, at least four Dartmouth students have died by suicide

That sentence should not read so smoothly, so factually, because it should not be true. And yet it is. Four students have taken their own lives. Their families and the Dartmouth community will be picking up the pieces for the rest of ours. 

Friday’s gathering on the lawn of Baker-Berry, in honor of those who died, was touching. Terribly sanitized, yes, but it gave me some vague sense of emotional closure I did not know I had needed over the previous 48 hours. I am glad the College provided for such a gathering because it highlighted one of the best features of our community: our ability to come together and support one another in the aftermath of extraordinary tragedy. 

That feature, however, is limited. It is a feature of the individuals of our community — the club leaders who sent messages of support in group chats and canceled or delayed functions, the staff and faculty who gave their all for dispirited students and the many people who checked in on their friends.

This is not a feature of Dartmouth as an institution. If the College truly wants to live up to its professed values of community, it will do more than appear to care, more than just respond in the moment. It will address the dual underlying sicknesses that pervade campus: a mental health system that utterly fails to support this community and a culture that encourages us to just move on from death, to not change anything at all. 

I still remember when I learned that Elizabeth Reimer ’24 had died. I was heading this newspaper at the time, finalizing our spring special issue. The Dartmouth’s offices were still shuttered due to COVID-19, so I was sitting in a rented space in the former Alpha Delta fraternity house near the end of a hellish term. The email came in shortly after 3:30 p.m. College President Phil Hanlon expressed condolences, offered a brief account of Reimer’s time at Dartmouth and listed some resources for students. I made a few phone calls, and we published our breaking news update. I was heartbroken in part because I felt demoralized, resigned that this episode would end up like the other two deaths by suicide among students earlier that academic year.

I was wrong. Over the following week, Dartmouth experienced an outpouring of grief and anger the likes of which I’d never seen on campus. Students organized an improvised vigil on the Green. Rage-filled op-eds were published. Angry members of the campus community painted blood and messages like “Paint is impermanent. Loss of life is forever” on Parkhurst Hall and Hanlon’s driveway. The initials of three students who died were stained into the asphalt outside their dorms. 

The College gave an inch that, at the time, felt like a mile, announcing some minor changes to mental health policy and holding an official vigil for all the students who died — while also rejecting widespread student calls to cancel classes. This episode tells us a lot about how this institution, this investment firm-with-a-university-attached, works. It essentially ignores long-term problems — and then muddles through the crises generated just enough to keep going. 

To its credit, Dartmouth has shown improvement in publicly responding to events since. After two student deaths — Joshua Watson ’22 and Sam Gawel ’23 — were announced in one day last Wednesday, the College made counselors available in the Collis Center for a few hours. It organized the Friday gathering, sent multiple messages updating students on available mental health resources and even extended the deadline for declaring the non-recording option. 

But substantive change is nowhere to be found. Two new counselors and an additional on-call nurse are good, but hardly sufficient. The long-awaited JED Foundation report about mental health on campus — which was supposed to be released last spring — remains a mystery. The claimed “success to date” on the College’s JED website is, frankly, pitiful, containing few concrete accomplishments beyond a free Headspace subscription for community members and the aforementioned new counselors — but what else could be expected from an arrangement that was destined to fail? There have been no College-wide policy changes about academic leniency, no permanent expansion of the NRO policy, no plan for long-term counseling options, no adjustments to the loathsome medical withdrawal policy and — most of all — no broad recognition that the culture on this campus must change from one that moves on from death to one that seeks to prevent it. 

When in the history of the College have so many died in such a short time span to so little reaction? Spring 2021’s round of incremental policy change came after the deaths of four students: Reimer, Beau DuBray ’24, Lamees Kareem ’22 and Connor Tiffany ’24. This time, five more deaths — Watson and Gawel, David Gallagher ’20, Richard Ellison MHCDS ’23 and Alex Simpson ’22and an alleged hate crime in Hanover have, incredibly, spurred nothing. 

Yet we are somehow expected to keep calm and carry on, knowing that at the end of the day, those in charge do not see these tragedies — nine student deaths in two years, seven more among faculty and staff — as serious enough to change anything fundamental about how this campus works. In 2013, Dartmouth canceled classes after a protest at the Dimensions new student program sparked a burst of online hate. Do multiple deaths really not meet a similar bar for radical action? Do they not merit massive collective reflection on what it means to live and work and exist on this campus? Is the College determined to desensitize us to loss, to teach us by way of inaction that we live in an indifferent universe?

When Dartmouth itself changes nothing of substance in the face of overwhelming, repeated tragedy, the institution shows its true colors: not vibrant green and white, but cold and uncaring shades of black. We have asked for a mental health overhaul and a change of culture. This is not an unreasonable ask, and yet every small step forward seems to come at an unacceptable price. How many more deaths will it take to make a difference?

Kyle Mullins is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. He is now a member of the Opinion staff and his views do not necessarily represent those of The Dartmouth.

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