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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Moyse: President Beilock’s Optics Obsession

College President Sian Leah Beilock’s decision to authorize a police force on May 1 is a symptom of her prioritization of public perception over the needs of students.

I, like most of the Dartmouth student body, bore witness to the night of May 1 as state police descended on nonviolent protesters on our Green, throwing an elderly woman to the ground and arresting, among others, two Dartmouth reporters. Unlike many others, though, my initial reaction was not shock. I’ll admit that it was surreal seeing a place I have come to associate with afternoon naps and scenic sunsets swallowed by such violence, but it did not come as a major surprise to me. 

Unfortunately, College President Sian Leah Beilock’s callous response to the protests on May 1 makes total sense when considered in the context of an alarming pattern of behavior. Beilock’s obsession with her own self-image has negatively affected her decision-making from the beginning of her tenure, and it has now begun to damage the reputation of our school and threaten the safety of community members.

I’d like to clarify one point first in the spirit of total fairness. Technically, Beilock and Dartmouth as an institution were well within their rights to call in police against protesters. I am not challenging the legitimacy or legal basis of the arrests. From my understanding of the events, protesters who were arrested were repeatedly warned that they were going to be arrested, and authorities gave them ample time to clear the area before they began detaining them. My issues are purely Beilock’s justification of her actions and over the course of her initial months as President.

Over the past couple of months, Dartmouth has maintained a relatively good reputation with regard to campus protests, especially when compared to peer institutions across the country, such as Columbia or USC. This is a dynamic I explored in a previous column and one I largely attribute not to any administrative response, but rather to a relative lack of protests on our campus. I attribute the latter, in turn, to geographic isolation, fast paced school schedule and a small student body. 

This reputational boost was no doubt welcome news and likely a reprieve for Beilock, the new President of a prominent school still settling into her role. It would logically follow, then, that Beilock and her team would have a vested interest in maintaining this reputation. After all, we saw what happened to university presidents who were grilled in front of congressional committees about their initial response to the protests. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned after facing mounting pressure from donors, and Harvard University President Claudine Gay was mired in controversy that undoubtedly hastened her resignation.

I have no doubt that Beilock was also aware of the media circus surrounding protests at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles. I believe that Beilock sought to avoid a similar situation, leading her to do the opposite of other university presidents. I believe she thought that shutting down the encampment swiftly would minimize news coverage, leading her to act in self-preservation and in opposition to a spirit of free expression. She allowed riot gear-equipped state police and military-style armored vehicles on campus, sending an undeniably negative message to students about the existence of protests on Dartmouth’s campus, lest Beilock’s precious reputation be at all blemished. Although her approach backfired on campus, Beilock seemed to have gotten what she wished from the mainstream media. I found coverage of her violent suppression in the immediate days following notably less intense than the coverage of other universities. I hope it was worth it.

In her apology, Beilock stated that she did not “want to see heavily armed police officers in the heart of our campus.” What did Beilock think would happen when she called the police in the first place? Would it have been better in her eyes if only lightly armed police officers came to shut down the protests? Either way, Beilock called the police to “help” take down the student encampment, a decision she wrote she “stand[s] by” in her apology letter. In my eyes, Beilock can’t have it both ways — she can’t claim to not want riot police on the Green, and simultaneously stand by her decision to call in Hanover Police — even if she technically did not call the riot police. It seems that, even in her apology, Beilock is primarily concerned with how the protests appeared to the general public rather than the actual impact of her response.

The arrests that took place on campus on May 1 were reminiscent of the October arrests of two students who set up an encampment in front of Parkhurst Hall. The differences? This time, the protest was larger, and Beilock didn’t wait until nearly 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to call in the police who made the arrests. This meant that on May 1, bystanders witnessed the treatment of their fellow students firsthand, unable to look away.

However, evidence of Beilock’s obsession with image doesn’t end at her willingness to silence student voices in order to avoid negative press. When Dartmouth decided to reinstate its standardized testing requirement, The New York Times published a story about it. The cover photo was of Beilock, and the first paragraphs of the article generously framed her as the brave arbiter of the reinstatement, leading Dartmouth as the first in the Ivy League to bring back testing requirements. 

Interestingly, the article didn’t mention the fact that members of Dartmouth Student Government were invited to a meeting in which they believed they would be able to offer feedback on whether the school would reinstate the test-optional policy. However, members later realized that the decision had already been made and that they had no true input. I don’t claim to have any knowledge of why this happened, but it seems that Beilock was more concerned with making her portrait the front cover of a New York Times story than seeking input from the student body.

In a DSG meeting on May 5, Beilock was again exposed for prioritizing optics over safety. Roan Wade ’25, one of two students who was arrested in October in front of Parkhurst Hall, told DSG representatives during the meeting about emails she received after her October arrest — emails that had both Beilock and her attorneys cc’ed, according to Wade. Wade reported that neither Beilock, Beilock’s lawyer nor any member of the administration responded.

In a recent NYT article, Dartmouth history professor Matthew J. Garcia was described as saying that Dartmouth “used a big-city solution for the serene, rural town of Hanover.” Unfortunately, I think this description is fitting for the intangibles of Beilock’s leadership style at large. An optics-obsessed, corporate sheen seems to color every decision that she makes, characteristics that are out of place and heavy-handed when used on a small campus like ours. Again, I really wish I could say I was surprised by Beilock’s response to the protests. Unfortunately, her actions on May 1 are just the most recent in a pattern of behavior that reflects leadership primarily meant to protect and preserve herself.

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