Verbum Ultimum: Fatal Mismanagement
Following two weeks of continuous tragedy, it is clear that Dartmouth needs a culture change — which starts at the top.
Dartmouth, to put it very mildly, is going through a rough patch. Last Monday, the Department of Safety and Security sent a campus-wide email alerting to the assault of a graduate student on Main Street. On Tuesday, The Dartmouth reported that the assault was being investigated as a hate crime by the Hanover Police Department. On Wednesday morning, interim Dean of the College Scott Brown sent a campus-wide email announcing the death of Joshua Watson ’22, who died in his hometown of Indianapolis on Aug. 27 while on leave from the College. At 6:19 p.m, the Office of the President at the College followed up by expressing “outrage” over the graduate student attack. Just two hours later, at 8:21 p.m., we learned of the death of a second classmate, Sam Gawel ’23, who died by suicide in Hanover on Wednesday. And just yesterday, College President Phil Hanlon announced that Luke Veenhuis, a Thayer researcher, died over the weekend.
The fear and grief that has enveloped campus in the last week is immense. And yet, the College marched on. As an unfortunate result, students have been left to pick up the pieces. On a campus where students are already furiously trying to stay afloat, adding the weight of multiple deaths — and an institution which fails to support all of its students — while we may already be struggling. Students cannot keep doing this alone — and the College must not force us to.
Lying by omission
On Sept. 17, biochemistry Ph.D. candidate Abubakar Khan was physically assaulted and verbally harassed by an older man on Main Street. Notably, the attack is being investigated as a hate crime by the Hanover Police Department, as Khan and his other friends are all of South Asian descent. What’s more, subsequent reporting by The Dartmouth determined that this was not the first time that graduate students had been verbally accosted by the man: Two other South Asian graduate students have reported similar incidents, which also included racial epithets, in the previous weeks. While the Department of Safety and Security sent out a “Timely Warning” to students alerting them of the physical assault, no mention was made concerning the fact that the attack appeared to be racially motivated, nor the assailant’s history of verbally assaulting students.
Safety and Security’s failure to promptly report the racialized nature of the attack undermined the ability of community members of color to be aware of an increased risk to their safety on campus. The College’s failure to deliver a prompt warning of the full nature of the attack — despite it being allegedly “timely” — does little to assuage concerns about the event. Racism exists, on campus and in the world. As uncomfortable as that may be to admit, it is not a high ask to request that the administration release such information. In short, Dartmouth failed its students.
Thankfully, Khan had friends and good samaritans who provided support. That said, what about crises that happen when no one is paying attention? We have seen, by the deaths of far too many of our peers, that a policy of indifference to each others’ fears and emotions can have devastating consequences. And yet, time and time again Dartmouth chooses this approach — whether it be in terms of providing students with the time and space to grieve, the room to confront the harsh reality of racism within our community or even with the flexibility to make mistakes. It often feels, to the College, that we are nothing more than academic automatons and numbers on a spreadsheet.
Broken records want to heal
Dartmouth’s mental health crisis reached a boiling point with the onset of the pandemic. Since Nov. 2020, at least four current Dartmouth students have died by suicide: Beau DuBray ’24, Connor Tiffany ’24, Elizabeth Reimer ’24 and now, Gawel. While Dartmouth began to acknowledge the magnitude of the mental health crisis through establishing a partnership with the JED foundation last September and more recently setting up free teletherapy services for students, the origins of Dartmouth’s mental health crisis are rooted in its culture, which only acts to set students up to fail. The College expects its student body to operate as a well-oiled machine. When that machine breaks down — when the institution fails to supply the proverbial oil — students crash and burn. Just yesterday, Max Teszler ’23 shared in his column that he suffered a car accident after overburdening himself in an effort to fit into Dartmouth’s relentless burnout and self-reliance culture. Earlier this week, Kyle Mullins ’22 pointed out that when seven student deaths in two years forces students to repeatedly grieve — a natural human condition that Dartmouth’s culture leaves little room for — the College encourages students to move on as quickly as possible by failing to provide students with the academic flexibility to grieve.
The past weeks have demonstrated that we cannot expect this cycle of indifference to end without addressing the culture of outward perfectionism that prioritizes club meetings and term papers over students’ well-being. Students themselves are not responsible for this culture; though they are agents of it, this culture begins at the administrative level, in which forcing students to push themselves to the breaking point just to be considered “successful” is seen as a point of pride and prestige.
These cultural issues are colossal — and no one person will be able to fix it single-handedly. It may very well be true that, despite Spencer Allen ’23’s argument against the partnership, the JED Foundation may be able to achieve its goal of “systemic and enduring change” and guide the College to meaningful cultural change in the long-term. Nonetheless, we must begin to correct our culture now. We need faculty, staff and the administration to recognize the student body’s need to take things one step at a time. And during times where students struggle to put one foot in front of the other, faculty must deliver compassion — not calamity — to students, as Natalie Dokken ’23 argued last summer.
The bottom line? Dartmouth must change
We beg the administration to approach every crisis or tragedy with compassion and empathy. Remember back to when you were in college; treat Dartmouth students like they are your friends from back then. Treat us with the compassion you give your niece or nephew. While the decision to extend the NRO deadline and implement a “Day of Caring” are important steps to help students through this time of crisis, they should not be one-time occurrences that students must fight for. If Dartmouth wants to build towards a culture of caring, time away from classes for reflection and increased academic flexibility for students should become norms.
We must assign a higher value to students’ well-being and lives than to midterms and assignments.When campus crises are mismanaged, students are the ones who bear the burden to support distraught peers when they themselves are distraught too. We have been carrying this weight for far too long — it’s time that the people who claim to care for us step in to shoulder the load.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.