‘My Hope for Dartmouth’: Q&A with Professor Peter Tse ’84

Thoughts from professor Peter Tse ’84 on the crisis of morale at Dartmouth — and what can be done to help

by Caroline Mahony | 11/2/22 2:25am

Source: Courtesy of Peter Tse

Professor Peter Tse ’84 first came to Dartmouth as an undergraduate in the fall of 1980 and — after pursuing graduate studies and research in his field — returned to the College in 2001 as a professor of psychology. Earlier this term, Tse wrote an email to the Dartmouth administration presenting some suggestions to improve morale at Dartmouth. Tse’s ideas range from updating our mascot (or lack thereof) to hosting regular cookouts on the Green and updating the core curriculum for first-year students. Tse sat down with The Dartmouth to talk about the problems he diagnosed in his email and the solutions he sees as important to Dartmouth’s future.

How do you define morale and how have you seen that manifested on campus?

We kind of just know it when we see it. If people are in love, it’s obvious that they’re in love. Morale is similar. It’s partly about trust, or the absence of distrust. But that’s only part of it. I would say morale is most fundamentally about two things. One, it’s about connection. You feel connected with the people you’re with, and you feel connected with the place you’re living in, and you feel connected with yourself, too. So connection is central to morale.

It’s also about a shared sense of purpose. It’s the idea of “We’re doing this important and cool thing together and we’re gonna make this happen.”It could be anything. If you really care about something, you get engaged and you do stuff. Caring is not an abstract thing. It’s something that is shown. So I think it’s all of those things. Morale is rooted in connection and trust as a baseline. It’s about caring about something that is a shared purpose that motivates you to do stuff, to realize your vision. Morale is this intangible thing that is not material. It’s a kind of emotional, spiritual feeling of connectedness and purpose.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve seen a decline in morale in recent years, both in the world and on campus. Tell me a little more about this. What do you see as some of the causes of the decline of morale?

I think there’s been a general decline in morale across our culture and in the whole world. And we can’t change the whole world, right? We’re not the whole world, we’re just Dartmouth. But in this little campus oasis or microcosm, we can change morale. I sent that email to the administration in the hopes that we can turn it around.

I think something really central has been the loneliness and alienation caused by social media. It’s really been very damaging. It’s very easy to be righteous on some Twitter feed or Instagram feed and condemn people. This has driven the country into these camps, and people are getting locked into the echo chambers of reading only the stuff they agree with.

It’s not healthy, and I think there’s expressions of this in our personal lives. People are lonelier now than in the past. There’s more dissent, less discussion, less apparent deliberation, and so I think people are suffering. And this was all compounded by the lockdown for basically two years, where all of those preexisting tendencies towards loneliness and alienation were greatly exacerbated by forcing people to not to be with each other.

We paid some serious consequences at Dartmouth and in the world. Dartmouth had all these suicides last year. It’s serious. And I think the administration kind of gets it now, that there’s a problem and that we have a mental health crisis. But they’re an administration, so they're gonna tend to find administrative solutions. They’re going to say ‘We need to increase mental health availability. We need a day of caring.’ Treating symptoms is good, that’s better than nothing, but really what you wanna do is treat causes.

Can you speak to how you might envision treating some of these causes of decline of morale on campus? 

I think the data from psychology are very clear that what people find most valuable is connectedness. One form is friendship and another form of that is camaraderie among teammates. And that kind of connectedness — you can’t buy that with money. It’s cultivated by yourself, by making an effort to send birthday cards and hang out with people. In this case, it can also be cultivated by the administration. That’s what my email was really about. The idea was to ask, what are some concrete things that you could do with your money to foster connections? And there were a lot of suggestions in the email. 

Some of them are particular. We could be cultivating shared activities that don’t involve cell phones, for example. And I had this oddball idea. I said why not just set out 30 grills on the Green every Saturday or Sunday and have everybody just come out and play guitar and maybe even have little campfires? We should encourage people hanging out in person.

And then I thought, often in the past the administration has viewed the frats and the sororities as sort of anti-intellectual. They have the idea that these places are just like “Animal House,” where people drink like crazy and are debauched. But that doesn't have to be the case, right? The frats and the sororities are filled with young, intellectual people who are going to the frats and sororities because there’s nothing else. So why not harness that energy for good? I had the idea of  creating debates. It could be about anything, like “should we raise the minimum wage?” And then you could imagine filling all of Spaulding with all the other students and they get to vote on who wins. They could give money to the winner. So it’s all about creating fun and connectedness, love and friendship.

Another idea would be to have a core curriculum where all freshmen are engaged in the same set of ideas in books, and then that’ll foster discussion. If there’s a term in the core curriculum led by the humanities and they’re addressing great questions. Like, what is love? What is friendship? What is justice? What is truth? What is a good society? What is a good life? This will get people talking about that stuff. 

In the email, you wrote a bit about the idea of fostering open discussion on campus. Tell me a little more about that.

What I want to do is treat the causes of this loneliness epidemic, this alienation epidemic. Part of the problem is these cell phones, but the real problem is that people are not hanging out and talking. We want to also confront the fact that people are self-censoring. Everybody’s worried about being judged and condemned, that if you say your true opinion, you might get canceled.

We wanna change that. We want people to speak their minds. So the goal is not to shut down other minds. That’s the mistake of canceling, because that doesn’t change people's minds. What you want to do is persuade people. You don’t want to shut down minds, you want to change minds. How do you change minds? Well, condemning people doesn't change minds. What changes minds is conversation, discussion, debates, dissent. So we want to foster all of that and really get at the root causes of what’s ailing us at the personal level. 

My hope for Dartmouth is that we create an oasis of connectedness and love and friendship and fun, and that’ll be much more impactful for the world than some course or adding some major. If we can create a campus that is full of people who are deeply connected, who have a sense of purpose — shared purpose — they’ll go out into the world and they’ll transform it. They’ll spread that mentality. So that’s my hope for Dartmouth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.