A Precipitous Decline in Civility

In case you haven’t already heard, some students at Dartmouth College interrupted an evening of entertainment for prospective students with a brief protest against racism, homophobia, sexism, and rape culture on campus. This protest was met by additional racism, homophobia, sexism, and rape culture in comments posted online. The college cancelled classes for a day to address the problem.

Even if you have heard all that, what you may not have heard is that the college is now talking about punishment–of the protestors as well as those who (mostly anonymously) posted comments maintaining the hostile environment the protests were meant to address. In fact, the email sent out to students focuses on the protestors, with the college’s problems either placed on equal footing as the protests against them or even treated as an afterthought. [Emphasis added by Think Progress but useful.]

April 26, 2013
To the Dartmouth community:

As some of you know, a small group of students disrupted the Dimensions Welcome Show for prospective students on Friday, April 19, using it as a platform to protest what they say are incidents of racism, sexual assault, and homophobia on campus.

Have these incidents have been investigated by the college? If so, the college has an official opinion on them for which it should take responsibility instead of acting as though the protestors are the only people with any ideas on the matter. If not, why not? It isn’t as though these problems haven’t been well-documented for decades, and it certainly isn’t as though students’ first choice in dealing with these matters is to go complain to a bunch of high school students watching skits about campus life.

Dartmouth students have been trying to get college officials to respond to these events. Was there no previous response, or was it elided for this letter?

Following the protest, threats of bodily harm and discriminatory comments targeting the protesters and their defenders ran anonymously on various sites on the Internet.

You mean that following the protest, more of these comments appeared in a concentrated dose. This is part of the behavior that was being protested after all. This didn’t suddenly spring up because someone held a protest.

With tensions high across the Dartmouth community, Interim President Carol Folt, the Dean of the Faculty, and other senior leaders across campus agreed that the best course of action was to suspend classes on Wednesday, April 24, for a day of reflection and alternative educational programming. This decision was made to address not only the initial protest, but a precipitous decline in civility on campus over the last few months, at odds with Dartmouth’s Principles of Community.

That isn’t how the suspension of classes was originally communicated to the campus. It was originally talked about as a response to the threats received by the protestors, not as a response to the protest.

This unusual and serious action to suspend classes for a day was prompted by concern that the dialogue on campus had reached a point that threatened to compromise the level of shared respect necessary for an academic community to thrive.

There is no dialogue. Pretending there is no problem is not a dialogue. Threats are not part of a dialogue. “Leave if you don’t like it” is not part of a dialogue. All of those shut one voice out in favor of another. That leaves you with a monologue.

The faculty and administration together determined that a pause to examine how the climate on campus can be improved was necessary. This was an important exercise that the Board supports. It is also important to note that there will be an opportunity for faculty to hold the classes that were missed as a result of Wednesday’s events.

Neither the disregard for the Dimensions Welcome Show nor the online threats that followed represent what we stand for as a community.

It’s terribly sad that the board of trustees of the college would disavow protests aimed at halting that “precipitous decline in civility on campus” by seeing that no student is kept from their opportunity to learn by racism, homophobia, sexism, or rape culture. Those students are working to make a better Dartmouth. A board that forgets that in the face of bad publicity caused by a common enemy (the people who made the threats) should take a good look at itself.

Suggesting that the protestors “disregarded” the show at which they protested, however, is just silly. If it were considered an unimportant event, no one would bother to interrupt it with a protest.

Putting both events on the same footing is grossly insulting.

As Interim President Folt indicated Wednesday in her remarks in front of Dartmouth Hall, the administration is following established policies and procedures with regard to any possible disciplinary action in both cases. As in every case regarding a disciplinary investigation, this process is confidential and respects the privacy of our students.

Hey, students, know who protested at the show? Well, they’re going to get some kind of punishment if we can figure out how to make it happen. You can rest comfortably knowing that even if we never tell you the specifics.

Those anonymous people who left the threats? Well, they’re anonymous, you see, and their threats were left on a site we don’t control. Don’t ask us what’s going to happen to them because it’s confidential. Good luck figuring out whether you’re still going to school with people who think rape and death are appropriate punishments for protesting!

Dartmouth is not unique in the challenges it faces concerning campus climate and student life. We aspire to lead in responding to these challenges.

You’re playing catch-up at best. It doesn’t matter what you tell us you want to do. You need to do it before anyone have the least bit of faith in that.

The Trustees and I are committed to addressing and supporting efforts necessary to resolve these issues, improving the campus climate and strengthening the institution. The Board’s Committee on Student Affairs is working with senior leaders and consulting with outside professionals to make progress on this front.

You’ve been consulting for how long? How many students will come and go from Dartmouth while all this consultation goes on? “Consulting” isn’t a get-out-of-action-free card. You have to show results. You have to lead instead of just aspiring.

If you don’t, your students will just find new and creative ways and places to protest your inaction. Other students will use those same tired old “uncivil” ways to try to shut the protestors up. And the rest of us will continue to point out that you’ve been failing by the same means for several years now.

A Precipitous Decline in Civility
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9 thoughts on “A Precipitous Decline in Civility

  1. 6

    @ 2 Ophelia Benson

    Yes, spookily familiar. Whistleblower blows the whistle. Whistleblower gets a super-sized serving of the things they’re blowing the whistle on. Whistleblower gets the blame for annoying everybody with that bloody whistle.

  2. 8

    Another propblem is that Dartmouth’s response will be viewed as “even handed” by rightwingnuts because it “addresses both sides” as compared to the responses at Penn State and North Carolina (re: the threat to expel a student for speaking publicly about her rapist).

    Somehow, the nutballs “think” – and have gotten the public to “think” – that there are “both sides” to harassment, assault or rape (i.e. they don’t see it as right and wrong, they see it as “free speech”). Would the protesters have interrupted the event for new students if the administration had been addressing the problem?

  3. 9

    I’ve been getting disturbed with this sort of false equivalence (or false anti-equivalence) of ongoing problems versus individual reactions to problems, and I don’t really have an answer. It really bothers me, though, how on the one hand reformists never seem to succeed and on the other hand one can never touch even blatantly destructive activists. I know not the answer and neither do youl

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