An Interview with Casey Dennis

The Student Assembly plans to get students more involved in campus activities.

The Student Assembly plans to get students more involved in campus activities.

The Dartmouth Review recently sat down with Casey Dennis, president of the Student Assembly (SA), on recent developments and plans for changes in student governance.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): You and your Vice President, Frank Cunningham, have stated that you envision a Student Assembly that bases its ideas and initiatives on two fundamental ideas: transparency and action. Can you go into a bit more detail?

Casey Dennis (CD): In recent years at Dartmouth, there’s been a lot of student feedback saying that Student Assembly hasn’t been visible. People don’t know who their leaders are; students vote in the spring, and when they come back in the fall, they can’t match faces to the names of their student body leaders. Frank and I saw this as very problematic. We serve as the voice of the students, and we want students to know who is leading them. Now, from an organizational standpoint, we think it’s crucially important that the student body knows what we’re doing at all times. And we’ve made major structural changes to ensure that’s happening: we’ve brought on a Marketing Director in our Executive Cabinet, and he has two Marketing Co-Chairs underneath him, who handle our social media. We want to make it easy for students to receive information on what we’re doing, through any media they prefer—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and through Blitz. So that’s part of the transparency component of our vision. As for action: we made promises in our “Take Back Dartmouth” campaign last spring, and after being elected in record breaking numbers, it’s our responsibility to capitalize on those promises.

TDR: What are some of the concrete initiatives you’ve already implemented, and what initiatives do you plan to implement in the future?

CD: There are a few that we’ve already implemented. The approaches that we’ve been taking to start off the term are awareness campaigns, because we feel like we need students to be mobilized and engaged before we really tackle any concrete policy. The first thing that we’ve started is the “I’m Here For You” mental health campaign. It’s something that we envisioned this past spring when we drew up our budget proposal for the IFC.
A couple initiatives that we have coming up: We’ll be starting the “It’s On Us” campaign—for sexual assault awareness and prevention—which we committed to run this past summer, when the White House reached out to us to join their effort to eradicate sexual assault on college campuses. Next Saturday [October 11], we are going to be having a student leadership roundtable featuring athletic captains, Greek leaders, leaders from political and advocacy groups on campus, and affinity houses, to discuss the steps we can take as a community to address sexual assault. The following Tuesday, we’ll be having a town hall discussion on sexual assault, which we will open up to the rest of campus. But that event is going to be limited to only student participation. Something Frank and I really believe in is student leadership. We don’t think we have to wait for the administration to get us having a dialogue.
Another concrete thing we’ve started are tailgates for our athletics teams. There is always a question of whether SA is a policy based organization or a programming one. And I like to answer, “both.” We really like to show support for every single student on campus, so we like to support our athletes as well. We had a tailgate yesterday for the football team. We think it’s important that students are being supportive of our athletes, and that we’re raising school spirit.
Under SA this year, we also have a Greek life task force composed of fourteen students. One of the biggest topics in the news and on campus has been Dartmouth’s Greek life, and we think that as a representative organization, we need to address that issue. The three biggest things we are going to focus on are: increasing inclusivity in the Greek system; finding alternative social spaces; and providing mentorship to students who have questions or doubts about joining the system.

TDR: Tell us more about the “I’m Here For You” campaign.

CD: This idea came about in the spring, when Frank and I read some startling figures about mental health issues on college campuses nationwide, and had a realization that we never talk about this issue. Mental health is taboo on campus, so we wondered how we could overcome the stigma surrounding it. On a more personal level, Frank opened up to me about mental health issues that he was facing in the spring. So this initiative is very important to us. The first part of the campaign is to raise awareness, and to mobilize students to participate in a dialogue about mental health on campus. We’ve partnered with Active Minds and Dartmouth on Purpose, and we had our very successful kickoff event last week [on September 30]. On October 9, we’re going to be having a Screening Day in Collis, where counselors from Dick’s House will set up booths and speak with students. Sometimes students don’t know what outlets and resources we already have at Dartmouth, so we’re trying to highlight and enhance what we already have in place. Dick’s House has already responded to one of our recommendations: now they have mental health screening upon check in at Dick’s House. Instead of answering only one question—regarding how many drinks the student has on an average night—students will now also answer questions about stress, anxiety, and depression.

TDR: Historically, participation in Student Assembly has been lackluster. How do you and Frank plan to make the student body more involved in your decision making process?

CD: We’ve already taken several measures to fix this. We had a record number of applications for Student Assembly this year: we currently have around ninety-five students on SA—with ten to twelve students sitting on each of our five committees—so I think it’s amazing that students care so much about getting involved in student government right now. In terms of involving the general student body in what we do: we’re hosting events that bring students together, like our I’m Here For You campaign launch in Dartmouth Hall last week; we had students opening up and telling stories that they’ve never told even their best friends. It’s general mobilization, and getting students excited about participating. There may not have been anything concrete that Frank and I did to encourage students to participate, but I honestly think our campaign in the spring—“Take Back Dartmouth”—was a very united approach that got students excited about what was to come in the fall. This is a fresh start, with fresh faces in our leadership positions.

TDR: Some have characterized the Hanlon administration’s recent treatment of the Greek system as draconian. Do you have any insight into President Hanlon’s vision for social life at Dartmouth?

CD: I know President Hanlon would like to see some big changes on this campus, and with the Moving Dartmouth Forward recommendations coming out in the winter, we might see the impact of some of those changes. But from the perspective of a student leader, I think President Hanlon would like to see us do more to stand up and make concrete changes on this campus. I think that’s why the administration was very receptive to the pledge term ban that was recently enacted in Greek houses. Our Greek leaders stepped up, acknowledged that there are issues that need to be addressed, and devised the solution to one of those issues.

TDR: In your ideal picture of Dartmouth, is there a place for the Greek system?

CD: Yes. You know, a majority of our students are affiliated with Greek houses, and I think we can use the power of the Greek system to effect major change here. I do think it’s time that we, within our respective houses, step up and show that we care about the safety of students; whether that’s cutting off alcohol at a certain point, changing our hard alcohol policies, banning pledge term … There are things we can do to make this a safer campus. And I think things are going in the right direction with the IFC’s [Inter-Fraternity Council] decision to end pledge term. So I do see a place for the Greek system at Dartmouth, but I think it’s an institution that we can certainly make better.

TDR: Do you think the campus climate has improved since we hit rock bottom with the Freedim Budget’s occupation of President Hanlon’s office last spring?

CD: I do think campus climate has gotten a lot better, actually. With the incoming class, there’s been an exciting fresh start. As I said at convocation: this is our time, this is our Dartmouth, so let’s make it a place that’s right for us. I’ve seen that mentality in the first few weeks this fall, and I feel overall better vibes than the turmoil and unrest we had last spring.

TDR: Some have expressed concerns that the policy of banning freshmen from Greek houses until Homecoming pushes freshmen to drink in a less controlled environment. Do you think the six-week ban has had the desired effect?

CD: I think the ban has had both positive and negative effects. I’ve heard many responses from the ‘17s, who were the first class to face the ban, and from what I’ve heard, they feel closer to their class because they weren’t allowed to enjoy the Greek houses in the first few weeks of their freshman fall. They interacted more with their classmates, and more bonds were created. The downside is that they didn’t have that early exposure to the upperclassmen. There was a divide in the first half of the fall: between the freshmen, and everyone else on campus. Especially with Homecoming, which is supposed to be a community event with everyone together, the fact that freshmen can’t go out and celebrate with the rest of the school could be slightly problematic. In terms of drinking patterns, I’m not an expert on the data. The policy may encourage more drinking in dorms, which could pose a huge risk, but hopefully moving forward we can find different spaces for freshmen to hang out, so they don’t have to stay in their dorms and party. We need to program events for the freshmen, so they can enjoy their first six weeks at school without feeling left out.

TDR: Do you think the overall Dartmouth experience has improved since you came to Dartmouth three years ago?

CD: I think it’s difficult to define “the Dartmouth experience.” On a personal level, through my experience at Dartmouth, I’ve grown so much. At first I wasn’t too involved with organizations on campus, and sophomore year I had a realization: How am I going to leave my mark on Dartmouth, and leave this place better than I found it? And that’s what got me involved in campus leadership. In terms of the overall experience, I can’t speak on behalf of every student. It’s been a bumpy path, especially for the Class of 2015, but I think things are going in the right direction. I really think students can be the ones who make the Dartmouth experience better. That comes when we feel more united, when we feel like we’re in this together, and when we embrace the values that have been present at Dartmouth forever. I love Dartmouth; I want this to be a place where the ‘18s, and the future ‘19s, can thrive, and where I can hopefully send my kids one day.

Michael J. Perkins also contributed to this interview.