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The Dartmouth
May 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

A History of Student Activism on Campus

Two writers explore the history of student activism at Dartmouth and how it has evolved through the years.

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Students gather in front of the Hopkins Center to protest the Vietnam War in 1970.

After two undergraduate protestors were arrested on Oct. 28 for trespassing on Parkhurst lawn, campus has been abuzz with discussions about student activism and how students are able to voice dissatisfaction. This conversation is not a new one: We have always been a politically-involved student body, and Dartmouth has seen its fair share of protests over the years, which have often sparked tension between the College and student activists. So, you may be asking, what are the other notable instances in Dartmouth’s timeline when student protests have made headlines?

Alcohol Ban Protest (1952)

In 1952, Dean of the College Lloyd K. Neidlinger enacted strict regulations on student drinking following a series of alcohol related incidents, including banning drinking games and setting limitations on drinking times. In response, 2,000 students marched to his residence, bombarding him with firecrackers, clashing cymbals and cardboard torches. Following the uproar, Neidlinger resigned, and the protesters were not punished. With a total student population of 2,800 at the time, this is one of the largest and most impassioned protests in Dartmouth’s history.

Governor Wallace Protest (1967)

Another major moment of political activism occurred in 1967, when Dartmouth invited Alabama Governor George Wallace to speak. Wallace had visited four years prior as well, following his infamous declaration: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This appearance was relatively well-received, with only a small group of students picketing the Field House in protest of his appearance.

Wallace’s second appearance in 1967 was much more controversial. Student groups protested his visit and boycotted his speech. Black students chanted “Wallace is a racist,” sparking a counter-protest among white audience members. The group staged a walkout and then, after garnering more numbers, rushed the auditorium.

“When Wallace tried to speak … people rushed the stage, and he was surrounded and taken out but one of the people [who worked for the broadcasting network] took his big long mic and rammed it into one of the students that was running up the stairs,” Arthur Fergenson ’69 recalled. 

When Alabama State Troopers helped Wallace in his attempt to leave, student protesters swarmed his car, and he was not able to leave for 15 minutes. 

Vietnam War Protests (1969)

Like many college campuses during the 60s, Dartmouth was home to several protests against the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

“For a while there [were] weekly protests. But there [were] also counter protests by students supporting the war,” co-founder of the Dartmouth Vietnam Project and history professor, Edward Miller noted.

Activism reached a climax when some 75 students seized Parkhurst Hall for 12 hours in protest of the college’s ROTC program in 1969, as a response to the Vietnam War. An estimated 90 New Hampshire and Vermont riot-equipped state police were mobilized to end the occupation, arresting 56 students. 

David Green, the only protester who was expelled, recalled in the Valley News: “We were locked arms on the steps of Parkhurst, shouting ‘U.S. out of Vietnam. ROTC out of Dartmouth …’ It thundered out of the front doors.” 

Some students felt the occupation was less triumphant.

“[The Parkhurst takeover] was childish, ineffective and it accomplished nothing, except to get people arrested and prosecuted,” Fergenson said. 

A few months later during the 1969 commencement ceremony, about one-third of the graduating class wore white armbands in protest of Vietnam. Some of those students even turned their backs on speaker Nelson Rockefeller ’30 as he was giving the commencement address.

The next year saw even more protests. After President Nixon announced an ‘incursion’ into Cambodia in 1970, purportedly to clean out sanctuaries previously used by Vietnam, student strikes erupted across the country and closed more than 450 universities. At Dartmouth, 2,500 students rallied on the Green. Then-class president Bill Koenig ’70, said in The Dartmouth Vietnam Project that the strike enabled the students “to show our outrage at the war and repression at home.”

Apartheid Protests (1986)

Another moment of massive student activism occurred in 1985. Protesting the living conditions of black South Africans under Apartheid and Dartmouth’s ongoing investments in South Africa, Dartmouth students erected four ‘shanties’ on the Green. The shanties stood until February of 1986, when members of The Dartmouth Review destroyed them with sledgehammers. This incited further protests and a Parkhurst Hall takeover in order to force the Board of Trustees to meet with the 100 protesters. 

Heeten Kalan ’92, a participant in the Apartheid protests, commented on the intensity of the meeting.

“[The meeting] was incredibly emotional,” he said. “There was a Native American student who said that if my student is based on blood money, you should take my scholarship away. There were trustees in tears.” 

By the end of the calendar year, the Board decided to end their investments in South Africa. Kalan emphasized, however, that the fight against Apartheid was not a singular effort; it was the product of student alliances and coordinated activism.

“We stood on the shoulders of 25 years of people who were protesting this … it was a combination of the International Students Association, the African American Society, the Women’s Issues League, the Native Americans at Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Gay and Lesbian Association,” Kalan said. “There was leadership from all five of those organizations that was really critical to almost all of the organizing we did on campus to get Dartmouth to divest.” 

Protest during the Annual Dimensions Show

More recently on April 19, 2013, a group of 15 students protested Dartmouth’s apparent apathy toward recent incidents of homophobia, sexual assault and racism in front of hundreds of prospective students during the annual Dimensions event. The protest made national headlines and led to the cancellation of Dimensions for the weekend, in addition to the postponement of classes. After the event, there were varied reactions to it that were published in The Dartmouth.

“Shouting at a bunch of 17-year-olds who are away from their families, who are looking to make a decision showed that they were not thinking straight,” Emily Leach ’16 said. “It was counterproductive, it was rude and it reflected poorly on them.”

“The demonstration displayed last night portrayed that Dartmouth is a place of many voices, and that students here feel they have the freedom to express themselves," the then Dean of the College, Charlotte Johnson said. "Hopefully that is a selling point, not a point of deterrence."

The national attention the protest gathered regarding the incidents of homophobia and sexual assault is considered a major factor for the 14% drop in Dartmouth’s first-year applications in 2014.

Today, much of Dartmouth’s student activism has concerned the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. In October, a group of protesters conducted a prolonged sit-in on Parkhurst’s lawn, criticizing the college’s financial investments, claiming the College benefitted from the ongoing conflict in Gaza, and bringing attention to the innocent lives lost on both sides of the conflict. After the protesters erected a tent on Parkhurst lawn and called on the college to adopt their “Dartmouth New Deal,” two students were arrested for misdemeanor criminal trespassing.

Dartmouth’s spirit of protest is alive and well today. In light of important global issues, we have the opportunity and power to spark change, both in and out of our campus community.