Democracy in Name Only

Dartmouth deserves far better. As it continues to consider ways in which it can make much-needed changes to its social scene, the College must find a to give students a greater ownership stake in the overall process.

Dartmouth deserves far better. As it continues to consider ways in which it can make much-needed changes to its social scene, the College must find a to give students a greater ownership stake in the overall process.

In recent weeks, there has been much debate about President Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward campaign and its implications for campus life. Ever since The Daily Dartmouth published its editorial calling for the abolition of the Greek system, students from all areas of campus life have begun to express their opinions about the potential reforms, filling up editorial pages, dinner time conversations, and fraternity chapter rooms with talk about what is to come.

This is an encouraging development, to be sure. If the College is to find the best possible solutions to the problems of sexual assault, binge drinking, and social exclusion on campus, there is no better way than through the creative potential inherent in a student body of such varied interests, engagements, and backgrounds. As John Stuart Mill reminds us, “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained.” Such an equation is well-served by a population of several thousand undergraduates whose collective passions enable it to combine different perspectives in a novel and constructive way.

For this reason, The Review believes that a time like this is precisely when Dartmouth’s diversity should be coming to the fore and producing a healthy tension between different student interests: after all, history has demonstrated that a collision of opposing viewpoints is the best way to generate organic and effective proposals among a population that will ultimately have to live with the results. But amidst all of this potential, there is still much reason to be concerned about the way in which some on campus are approaching the promise of the moment.

Since the early fall, many of the College’s key decision makers have demonstrated a remarkable disinterest in the opinions of the student body and appear increasingly determined to pursue their own version of reform with little outside input. This trend first became apparent in the second week of the term when President Hanlon, Board Chairman Bill Helman, and Professor Barbara Will convened a meeting of campus Greek leaders to discuss forthcoming changes to the campus social scene. In the aftermath of that event, a number of participants decried the heavy-handed way in which the presiding authorities presented their agenda and noted that the proceedings felt like a “lecture rather than a conversation.” At the time, The Review wrote:

Based on these accounts, it would seem that the College has fallen away from the lofty ideals expressed in its previous emphasis on collaboration. What this closed and closely controlled meeting reveals is an ugly tendency to preserve only the pretense of consensual discussion while excluding the intellectual substance needed to make it a reality… By discouraging open and constructive debate within the reform process, the administration has alienated key stakeholders and elevated its own agenda at the expense of democratic values.

In the weeks since, it would seem that the opacity we reacted to in that initial column has spread to other aspects of campus reform. This has been particularly true for the Presidential Steering Committee, which is responsible for compiling a list of proposals for consideration by President Hanlon and the College’s Board of Trustees. Although its website notes that Dartmouth is now in the “re-engagement” phase of the process, the Committee has shown little interest in opening up its proceedings to undergraduates and giving the “community an opportunity to provide feedback on its ideas.” Instead, the four students on the panel have been made to sign non-disclosure agreements, requests for concrete specifics have been largely unfulfilled, and the content of the Committee’s discussions remains completely sequestered from the public realm.  When this becomes the face of reform, one cannot help but wonder if the administration’s calls for “greater conversation,” “crowdsourcing,” and “inclusivity” were intended as self-parody.

Nor has this climate of secrecy gone unnoticed; recently, a growing number of student groups have begun clamoring for change. Earlier this week, the senior society Palaeopitus published an open letter encouraging the Presidential Steering Committee to “engage more meaningfully with the student body” and be “substantially more transparent in the recommendation development process.” As of this writing, it has already gathered the signatures of 250 student leaders. At the same time, the Gender-Inclusive Greek Council, the Interfraternity Council, and the Panhellenic Council released their own set of proposals that focus on improving and preserving the Greek system as a part of Dartmouth’s reformed social scene. Although their letter focuses on specific ways in which Greek life can be part of an innovative solution to old social problems, its authors acknowledge that it was the Steering Committee’s indifference to the opinions of the “’silent majority’ of community members” that led them to generate their own list of suggestions in the first place.

What these recent displays seem to reveal is a larger realization that there is a major problem within the reform process, one that threatens both its efficacy and its legitimacy among undergraduate leaders: namely, that in its zeal to promote positive change on campus, the Steering Committee has turned its back on democratic input and created a culture of exclusion among the very people who will have to implement the proposals it generates. Such a failing has not only eroded the substance of the “conversation” it called for throughout the spring and summer; it has also sacrificed an important opportunity to bring the best and the brightest ideas into the fold and subject them to constructive evaluation. In so doing, it has created an environment in which the Committee’s ability to convince itself of its own openness far outstrips the willingness of most students to believe it.

Dartmouth deserves far better. As it continues to consider ways in which it can make much-needed changes to its social scene, the College must find a to give students a greater ownership stake in the overall process. Until it does so, its proposals will lack the organic support needed to be effective, and the promise of Mill’s eccentricity will go on unfulfilled on campus where constructive differences of opinion abound.