Defending Productive Discourse

On the afternoon of April 1st, 35 protestors affiliated with the Freedom Budget filed into President Hanlon’s office on the second floor of Parkhurst Hall. It was shortly before 4:00 and nearly time for the President’s weekly office hours. But unlike several other students in attendance, they were not there to ask President Hanlon questions about his Math 11 curriculum or to learn about his priorities for the College. Instead, they were there to make a scene. And make a scene they most certainly did.

For the next two-and-a-half hours, they remained where they had entered. Some lounged on the sofas and chairs in the office’s reception area. Others sprawled out around a conference table, tapping out anxious Twitter messages to their followers outside. And others still reclined across the back of President Hanlon’s desk, their cross-armed insouciance oddly out of sync with the gravity of the occasion.

Within minutes, any semblance of well-ordered and methodical protest had broken down. In its place, an argumentative free-for-all had broken out based loosely around the goal of obtaining a line-by-line response to suggestions posited in the Freedom Budget.

To his credit, President Hanlon (or “Phil,” as several protestors preferred to call him) held his ground and attempted to steer the conversation back into the realm of the actionable. He repeatedly pointed out that he was not capable of making such transformative decisions spontaneously and that he “depended on and respected the opinions of his senior team.” He also reminded the protestors that “working through established channels” and “discussing all options” was the best way of effecting positive change and that he wanted to have “a reasonable conversation” about the issues they had broached.

Not satisfied with this answer, many participants seized the opportunity to make emotional appeals for social justice. After President Hanlon offered to arrange a series of meetings between the protestors and his senior staff, one student cut him off, remarking that “we’re so tired of having this conversation! I had conversations [like this] with Phil last term. Like, what happened? I still experience xenophobia and racism on this campus.” Another protestor bemoaned that the administration’s response “just feels like rhetoric to me” and exclaimed that, “after I leave this sit-in… nothing will have changed… I’m still not going to feel comfortable with my straight classmates. I’m still not going to feel comfortable with my white classmates. I’m still not going to feel comfortable on this campus!”

The emotional tenor of the conversation only grew worse after Scott Mitchell, a student at the dual-degree engineering program between Bowdoin and Dartmouth, suggested that the protestors were “ridiculing President Hanlon to his face” and that they would be better off making change happen “from the bottom up.” The room responded with an explosion of jeers and derisive laughter. One protestor questioned Mitchell about his motives for intervening in the discussion and suggested that his “rescue of an older man [who] was the head of a historically, prestigiously… exclusively white institution… from the scary brown people” was racially tinged.

When Thomas Wang, another student bystander, observed that the anger directed toward Mitchell and President Hanlon was not befitting of productive dialogue, a protester defended the tactics of those in attendance, remarking:

When your voice is always silenced by those above you, you have to make yourself heard. And I don’t care if it’s rude. I don’t care if it’s disrespectful. I’m a respectful person, but in situations like these, when it’s my Dartmouth experience on the line, that’s when I interrupt President Hanlon.

Other participants echoed this sentiment, particularly when they deliberated about remaining in the President’s office overnight. After one student acknowledged that an ongoing sit-in would be in violation of Student Standards of Conduct and would prevent custodial and senior staff members from doing their jobs, others asserted that such disrespect was necessary because “the time had come for them to take a decisive stand.”

The substance of these remarks, not to mention the protestors’ overall demeanor, makes the administration’s ultimate response to the sit-in particularly concerning. As The Daily Dartmouth first reported on Friday, the demonstration came to an end only after Dean Johnson signed a document pledging not to prosecute the 19-students who had violated the school’s Standards of Conduct by remaining inside Hanlon’s office. Later that day, senior administrators expressed their optimism about the resolution and spokesperson Justin Anderson announced that the College “was pleased the students decided to leave, and [looks] forward to working constructively with [the protestors] in the future.”

The student protestors celebrate the end of the sit-in on the steps of Parkhurst Thursday afternoon.

The student protestors celebrate the end of the sit-in on the steps of Parkhurst Thursday afternoon.

Suffice it to say, The Review finds this official response to be completely inappropriate given the incendiary behavior displayed by those involved. What the administration seems to forget is that regardless of how optimistic it may be, it always takes two to cooperate, and in the last few days the protestors have not exactly demonstrated their willingness to “work productively” within existing channels of change. If there is any lesson to be learned from the sit-in, it is that the Freedom Budgeters are dead set on an approach that is not friendly to collaboration and compromise. Their hostile response to overtures of reason from President Hanlon, Dean Johnson, and their fellow classmates has made that abundantly clear. Instead, they intend to maintain their “struggle” by any and all means necessary, even if it takes them beyond the limits of civil discourse expected of Dartmouth undergraduates.

Such behavior is not befitting of an American college. It isn’t even befitting of a daycare center. Intemperate toddlers are scolded for their outbursts in the supermarket, not rewarded with impunity for their perseverance and perceived righteousness. To brush the protestors’ bad behavior under the rug, as the Administration has done, is to set a dangerous precedent that condones disrespect in the name of promoting change.

It is for this reason that The Review believes the College’s decision to forgo prosecution under the Standards of Conduct is irresponsible. Rules like those prohibiting the hijacking of school buildings and the interference with normal school operations exist for a reason. They are there to set the parameters of the intellectual debate that must lie at the heart of any free institution and to ensure that discourse is productive and healthy for all who are involved. To waive them is to do a disservice to those ideals and to lead the campus toward a codified impertinence unbecoming of higher education.

There is no doubt that the administration missed an important opportunity to defend and promote a higher standard of discourse at Dartmouth in its response to the protest. As debate over the Freedom Budget drags on and Dimensions looms on the horizon, it remains to be seen if in making this mistake, they sacrificed more than just civility and common courtesy in Hanover.