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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Moyse: The Best Way To Create Brave Spaces

If Dartmouth wants to lead the way on free speech issues in the coming decades, the school must embrace a policy of institutional neutrality to let students and faculty speak freely.

The past few months have been excruciating for many elite universities across the United States, and outside observers have had no mercy. News coverage of campus reactions to the war between Israel and Palestine has been far-reaching, painting a picture of chaotic controversy. In one instance, Fox News even titled one of their recent newsletters “The Poison Ivy League,” and guests on the network have criticized many elite schools’ responses to protests. 

Despite some criticism from parts of the campus community, Dartmouth has received widespread praise from the mainstream media for its handling of student discourse on the conflict. So, has our school done anything differently than the other schools with similar academic cachet? 

Although administrators likely wouldn’t admit it to you, most of Dartmouth’s success in handling this response was due to luck — no Dartmouth administrator had to testify before the congressional committee which in part led to the termination of both Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania’s presidents. Due to its small size and rural location preventing massive protests and strong influences from larger protests in the immediate area, Dartmouth did not see protests to nearly the same degree or ferocity as schools like Columbia University did. 

Despite these advantages, Dartmouth’s administration has not given equal attention to all sides of the conversation on campus. Dartmouth’s support for the vigil hosted by Dartmouth Hillel and Chabad at Dartmouth was clear and pronounced — President Sian Beilock spoke at the vigil, and several public posts on Dartmouth’s official website documented the event. When Palestinian student groups hosted a vigil days later, Beilock was notably absent, and the event got no coverage from the College. Beilock’s attendance and public statements about one and vigil over another were not only a clear endorsement of one side of the debate but also a clear political statement in support of one side of the conflict over the other.

It is in the wake of this response that I propose that Dartmouth adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, under which administrators do not make explicitly political comments, and can only take action and make statements in response to politically charged actions that are meant to directly support students.

I bring these past few months up not only to propose this change but also to make a point about the critical role institutions of higher learning play in shaping discourse across our country. Anti-Vietnam War protests on campuses across the country faced severe backlash from the government and school administrators. Despite many of us now agreeing with the goals of these protest movements, they were opposed not only by prominent institutions but also by school administrators themselves. The Ohio National Guard, called in by school administrators at Kent State University, killed four students protesting the Vietnam War while attempting to dispel a protest.

These and other incidents make one thing very clear: We cannot trust school administrators to make the “right” decision when it comes to taking sides on various hot-button political issues. Therefore, they should not take sides at all. The University of Chicago understood this in 1967 when members of the school administration formally adopted what is now called “The Kalven Report,” laying out the original definition of institutional neutrality. The report outlines a strict rule that the school itself (administrators) remains neutral on political issues, and supports the academic freedom of students and faculty even in the face of oppressive forces. The University of Chicago describes the report as “one of the most important policy documents at the [institution].”

To be clear, there are some exceptions within the report — administrators must remain neutral unless they are speaking out about nonpolitical issues, such as basic comments on human rights. For example, the part of Dartmouth’s 2022 statement in the wake of the Uvalde Shooting that condemned the violence and offered counseling to students would be acceptable, but the part of the statement that called for increased gun control measures across the country would not be. Adopting policies that help students during events that substantially affect their academic performance would also be allowed, as this is an action that directly affects the operation of the institution. This could include providing support to students after a tragedy, or other essential services and statements. 

Under this model, for example, Dartmouth’s administration could have expressed its concern for violations of human rights in condemning the events of Oct. 7, as well as the current violence in Gaza. It could also offer counseling and other support to students who might need it. This structure would allow the College to support students while preventing administrators from having free rein to take stances on all issues that come up. Taking sides when it comes to protest events or taking an overt public stance in support of one side of the conflict would be the problem.

The idea of institutional neutrality might seem a bit radical. Why shouldn’t schools be able to take definitive stances on issues that are particularly important to students and the school community? The declaration of almost any political stance by a university is not only antithetical to the mission of an institution of higher education but also hazardous to campus discourse. 

The bottom line is simple: Taking political stances on various social issues is not the job of a university, but rather that of students and faculty. Elite universities across the country, including Dartmouth, take their admissions processes very seriously. It is Dartmouth’s mission to educate “the most promising students.” If our school goes to such great lengths to ensure that students it admits reflect this mission, shouldn’t the opinions of students be able to stand alone as a reflection of the school’s values? 

Dartmouth gets to exercise an exceptional degree of choice and selectivity in who they admit to their school, so the conduct and opinions of these students should therefore reflect the values of the College. No statement clarifying the stance of the College is necessary, especially if students and faculty are already expressing clear opinions on the issue.

Furthermore, there is a chilling effect on campus dialogue when a school takes a definite stance on an issue. Those who disagree with the stance that a given institution takes are naturally more resistant to sharing their opinion on the issue in question. Beilock has made repeated statements that she intends to bring about brave spaces on campus. When the school takes marked stances on political issues, it effectively mutes and dims the potential for these brave and unbridled conversations by making only one opinion “acceptable.” 

Finally, under the existing system, let us remember who expresses their opinion when our school takes a political stance on something — it is ultimately just the acting administration who gets the say on how a school makes statements on a given event. Although integrating community voices into the decision-making process wouldn’t automatically perfect every decision made by the administration, it would better reflect the voice of the campus at a given moment. 

Should we trust administrators alone, however bright and well-qualified, to make political statements for all of us on campus? No — instead, Dartmouth should adopt the Kalven Report and institutional neutrality, allowing students and faculty to be the leading voice for change on Dartmouth’s campus while remaining uninhibited by excessive administrative intervention.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.