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The Dartmouth
May 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Activism and the Administration: How Dartmouth’s Leaders Have Reacted to Student Protests Over Decades

Two writers examine how the relationship between campus activists and administrative leaders has evolved throughout the College’s history.

parkhurst-anonymous-graffiti-footsteps

The message left on Parkhurst Hall read "Paint is impermanent. Loss of life is forever."

This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Since the beginning of fall 2023, Dartmouth’s campus has been a hotbed for political protests, ranging from a climate march to a sit-in on the Parkhurst Hall steps to call for the College’s divestment from Israel as a result of the Israel-Hamas War. Dartmouth has a rich history of student activism on a variety of issues, both international and campus-wide, and not all student-led initiatives were opposed by Dartmouth’s administration. Several peaceful protests concerning domestic and international issues were approved by the administration and led to real change on campus. However, other incidents of student activism have encountered administrative pushback.

The focus of many student movements in the 1970s dealt with racism and cultural appropriation, starting with protests regarding the school’s former mascot. While Dartmouth’s 1769 charter detailed its mission “for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land,” Dartmouth only graduated 20 Native students between 1769 and 1970. Despite this, Dartmouth adopted the “Indian” as its mascot and the “Wah-Hoo-Wah” chant for sporting events.

In 1970, President emeritus John Kemeny announced a recommitment to the charter, which introduced robust Native American student outreach and recruitment. Once a larger Indigenous presence began to develop on campus, this growing community wrote a letter to the administration in 1971 declaring that “various traditions and symbols used by the Dartmouth Community are based upon insensitivity to the culture of Native American Peoples,” and requested that the school cease to use the Indian mascot and the Wah-Hoo-Wah chant, according to previous reporting from The Dartmouth.

In response, former Provost Louis Morton said, “I like the tone of the document. It is a reasonably worded statement. We want to listen, and we will do what we can.” About 10 months after the reception of the letter, Dartmouth officially retired the Indian mascot and transitioned to the Big Green. The Board of Trustees released a statement urging all members of Dartmouth “to join in a spirit of understanding and support for the Native American members of the College community.” 

In this case, the administration was flexible and willing to adapt to the demands of a more diverse campus demographic. However, there were three more campaigns in the 1980s for the Indian mascot’s reinstatement, causing the administration to close school for a day and have conversations about racism in the Dartmouth community, according to an online exhibit curated by the history department. 

According to English professor Melissa Zeiger, who has been at Dartmouth since 1985, Dartmouth administrators failed to support liberal and minority faculty members who were harassed by conservative students during this time. 

“I remember feeling that the administration was not supportive back in the 80s. Left-wing professors were often seriously harassed … and they didn’t get much protection [from the administration],” Zieger said. “There was one ethnomusicologist [Bill Cole] who’s a really brilliant scholar who left Dartmouth because he was African American —he just couldn’t stand the harassment.”

Student protests on campus are not just a phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s. In the past two decades, students have voiced their concerns about sexual assault, homophobia, racism, climate change and mental health.

One such protest occurred in 2013, when several students interrupted a Dartmouth Dimensions event in the Class of 1953 Commons to raise awareness about underreported sexual assault, racism and other issues on campus. The event made national headlines and led to backlash from fellow students, according to The Dartmouth’s past coverage

Former Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson responded to the activists, stating that “the demonstration … displayed that Dartmouth is a place of many voices, and that students here feel they have the freedom to express themselves.” She added that the administration “will begin to implement various ideas and suggestions that come from the community.”

Furthermore, the President’s Office sent an email canceling class that Monday “to discuss Dartmouth’s commitment to fostering debate that promotes respect for individuals, civil and engaged discourse and the value of diverse opinions.”

However, a poll conducted by The Dartmouth later that week showed that while 58.1% of the 1,176 respondents said the protest did a successful job of promoting dialogue about sexual assault, racism and homophobia on campus, 67.2% of respondents felt the cancelation of classes was not an appropriate response from the administration. Similarly,  57% felt that the overall administrative response ranged from “somewhat ineffective” to “very ineffective.”

In addition to one-time events such as the Dimensions Show protest, students have engaged in multi-year struggles that have seen slow but eventual progress. In 2012, Divest Dartmouth was created by a group of students, according to previous reporting from The Dartmouth. The movement sparked scattered meetings and petitions, which turned into marches and demonstrations.

In May 2016, Divest Dartmouth staged the Big Green Rally, which became the largest climate rally in New Hampshire state history at that time. In 2017, Dartmouth barred the endowment from making any “new investments in private fossil fuel extraction, exploration and production funds,” but the decision still fell short of complete divestment, according to reporting from The Dartmouth. Divest Dartmouth continued to meet until a decision was finally announced in 2021 “for [the College’s] direct public portfolio to no longer hold investments in fossil fuel companies.”

While there were groups such as Divest Dartmouth fighting for changes on campus, not all protests were organized efforts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically from the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, students rebelled against the administration in whatever ways they could, from meeting friends on the golf course to writing on buildings.

According to Serag Elagamy ’24, who is making a documentary about the Class of 2024’s first year, the administration did not adequately consider students’ mental health needs during this isolating period. Elagamy claimed that while the school was successful in preventing a COVID-19 outbreak on campus, the administration’s communication and attention to mental health were poor.

“The thing I thought they did especially poorly … is the way they communicated … I get that they had to make decisions based on incomplete information or confusing information, but they could have communicated it way better,” Elagamy said.

David Katz ’24 emphasized the administration’s response to the mental health crisis on campus during the pandemic. “I don’t think [the administration] could have handled [the pandemic] worse … the state of the campus was awful. Everything was bad. People were unbelievably depressed,” Katz said.

Photo obtained on condition of anonymity

During this time, the Class of 2024 saw the death of three students by suicide, in addition to the death of a member of the Class of 2022. 

Following the death of Elizabeth Reimer ’24 in the spring of 2021, the administration offered some mental health resources and the relaxation of some COVID-19 policies. On May 22, 2021, an informal vigil was held by students; the following morning, writing in red paint appeared at Parkhurst Hall and on President emeritus Phil Hanlon’s lawn. A few days later, on May 28, additional graffiti appeared in several locations, including in front of Hanlon’s house.

“I question how genuine [the vigil] was because it came right after people left graffiti on Phil Hanlon’s lawn,” Elagamy said.

The College eventually adjusted its COVID-19 policies and allowed students to host friends in their dorm rooms and gather in larger groups — although these actions were aligned with lighter national regulations the next year — to accommodate the mental health of students. The school also added counselors and partnered with the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicides among young adults.

“People killed themselves, and I think that made [the administration] listen,” Katz said. “That’s really what did it because next year, their entire attitude was completely different … and I really appreciated that shift … They made amendments to their policies to address both [COVID and mental health], and I think it paid off.”

Through all the pain and turmoil, students who experienced college during the pandemic were able to advocate for mental health reforms that continue to benefit students of all class years. Without their persistence, whether through organized efforts or collective, sporadic action, the administration may not have found some solutions to the mental health crisis.

“The one silver lining to this is that I think people have become much more willing to talk about their own mental health issues, which is good,” Zeiger said.

From the 1970s to the present day, students have played a key role in making Dartmouth a better place through impassioned action. Dartmouth owes many changes, including increased cultural appreciation, divestment from fossil fuels and greater mental health awareness, to the hard work of generations of student activists. One can only guess what reforms the next classes will bring to Dartmouth’s campus.