Inside the Moving Dartmouth Forward Steering Committee

Frank Cunningham III '16

Frank Cunningham III ’16

Editor’s Note: Recently, The Dartmouth Review had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Cunningham III’16 and get his take on the Moving Dartmouth Forward Steering Committee. As a vice president of the student body, Mr. Cunningham was one of three undergraduates involved in the Committee’s internal deliberations between its inception in April of 2014 and its conclusion in January of this year. As such, he is uniquely qualified to comment on the content of the final recommendations and the considerations that shaped the Committee’s final report. Here is what he had to say.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): How did you find out that you were going to be on the Moving Dartmouth Forward Steering Committee?

Frank Cunningham (FC): I received an email from President Hanlon about two weeks after I was elected as vice president of the student body [in April of 2014]. The email did not mention anything in the way of specifics about why I was selected.

TDR: What was the composition of the Committee?

FC: There were four students initially, three faculty members, two administrators, and then two alumni, for a total of eleven Committee members.

TDR: Did that composition remain constant throughout the whole period?

FC: Unfortunately, it did not. One of the students decided that the Committee was no longer conducive to her lifestyle. She felt that she wasn’t gaining anything positive from the experience and that because she was going through some personal issues, the Committee was no longer a source of productive energy in her life. That brought the total number of students to three, including me, very early on in the process.

TDR: What was the breakdown of affiliated students after that member dropped?

FC: Initially, it was fifty-fifty [with two affiliated students and two unaffiliated students]. After [that member] dropped, I was the only affiliated student left along with the other two non-affiliated students. Strangely enough, both of these other students were UGAs, which I found fascinating. All of the students involved were [members of the class of 2016].

TDR: What were the affiliations of the alumni who sat on the Committee?

FC: Both alumni were affiliated as members of [Chi] Heorot and [Sigma] Delta, respectively. Both had very much been involved in the Alumni Council since they graduated, so they were extremely well known and widely respected.

TDR: It was well publicized that all committee members had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). When did you have to sign that and did anyone explain why it was necessary?

FC: I was first approached with NDA at the beginning of the process in the spring. Once I signed it, it prohibited me from discussing what the Committee was considering until after [President Hanlon announced the final version of the proposals in late January]. The NDA wasn’t really intended to be a mechanism that would keep everyone in the dark. Instead, [it was designed to protect the Committee] and give it the space needed to evaluate all of its options and talk about sensitive information [without opening everything up to the public]. Despite the presence of the NDA, I must say that I don’t think anyone was really shocked by what was announced [last month]. The chair herself let it be known that the alcohol ban was coming. The Dartmouth’s article [a few weeks before the announcement] highlighted the fact that the residential [college] system was coming back. The only big question remaining to be answered, in my mind, was whether or not the Greek system was going to be abolished.

TDR: What was the atmosphere of the Committee when you first began in the spring of 2014?

FC: Initially, everything was too new and too fresh for me to get a read on everyone’s positions. The first phase simply consisted of three or four meetings a week [in which] we got together with multiple students groups and talked with multiple experts in various fields. There really wasn’t time for us to sit back and debrief each other about everything. We were just gathering information so no personal biases came out all at this point. We spoke with a wide range of groups, so that [in any given meeting] we might talk to the Greek Leadership Committee (GLC), the Dean’s Office, Financial Aid, take a short break, and then talk to a faculty representative. It was a wide range of groups and bodies coming in to speak with the Steering Committee and it didn’t seem like any groups were really excluded from the process. I do, however, think that one issue arose in that some leaders, Greek leaders in particular, didn’t know how important this committee would be throughout this Moving Dartmouth Forward process. No one really got it. No one really saw that this was going to be a thing that changed the face of Dartmouth. So, to tell you truth, some Greek leaders didn’t reach back out after the Committee reached out to them.

TDR: Was anyone driving the conversation or presenting a particular agenda throughout the process?

FC: No. Everyone was involved and no one soul was leading it. I asked multiple questions at every meeting, and that was true for almost everyone else on the Committee.

TDR: After the Committee gathered its initial input in the spring of 2014, what did it seek to accomplish over the summer?

FC: Over the summer, we began to look at all of the issues that had been raised in the spring and tried to put them into categories based on the [underlying problems] they related to. Initially, we were able to focus on issues that most people could get behind — like inclusivity, the four-year program to address sexual assault, the need for more social spaces, and the residential college system. This was phase two [of the broader process] and it was very ‘Kumbayah.’ Everyone was trying to get along. But when it came time to address [more controversial issues] like the Greek system, that’s when we had a contentious moment [and some very different opinions began to emerge]. There were a variety of views, which ranged from ‘abolish’ to ‘go coed’ to ‘keep [the system] with raised standards.’ No one was arguing that the Greek system as it [stood] should be allowed to stay. [These disagreements] would continue into the fall and become one of our main focuses.

TDR: Were there any other points of contention during these early phases?

FC: Yes. The hard alcohol ban was definitely contentions. I think we all realized that hard alcohol was a problem and understood that it was the reason why multiple students were being rushed to Dick’s House and rushed to DHMC. We all fully comprehended that. But I had an issue with twenty-one-year-olds not being able to consume hard alcohol. Naturally, I think that college should be a place where you learn in all facets of your life and a big piece of that is learning how to drink responsibly. Most of the group disagreed with me and supported the ban. I voted against it because I wanted a different type of policy that would allow twenty-one-year-olds to have alcohol [but that took steps to control where it could and could not be served].

TDR: Was there any other source of dissent?

FC: Yes, there was. There was some concern about whether or not alumni and graduate students [could possess hard alcohol], but not about of-age undergraduates.

TDR: Was there a discussion of potential enforcement mechanisms? For example, did the potential for open door policies or active monitoring of residential halls come up at all?

FC: No. We [as a Committee] were not supposed to figure out how [the College was] going to enforce anything. We were supposed figure out how to deal with problems on campus, so we didn’t consider what would happen with enforcement at all.

TDR: And this was decided during the summer?

FC: The alcohol ban was discussed extensively over the summer and we reached the conclusion that it [would likely be put forward as one of our recommendations]. But it wasn’t until later in the fall that we finalized it as part of the Committee’s proposals. During that [later] conversation, I was the only person left who didn’t believe in it. And I actually used an opinion piece from The Dartmouth Review to clarify my feelings on the issue. [The piece] argued that twenty-one-year-olds should be able to keep their hard alcohol, but that [alcohol] should no longer be served at tails or other major student events. Unfortunately, [no one else] agreed with that, so the Committee voted no. They had the majority, and I couldn’t do anything about that.

TDR: What else was discussed during the fall?

FC: The Greek system was definitely the main point of contention from the late summer and into the fall. At first, [there was strong consideration] of abolition, but that luckily passed from the focus of the conversation initially. In the early fall, coed became a part of the discussion. I took issue with the idea that you could force individuals to enter into these coed fraternities. [I felt that] you must either give them the option or incentivize them to do it. We met with the Coed Council, and their [representatives] said, ‘No, we do not want to support you guys mandating coed fraternities.’ The Council [itself] said that. I remember where we were when we heard that. I asked them to repeat it in the meeting. I asked them: ‘So it was not the appropriate move to mandate coed fraternities?” And they said, ‘Yes, [we] completely agree. You should not mandate it….’ And that’s when, the idea of going coed really died.

TDR: After that, was it just a question of whether the Greek System should be retained and regulated or just outright abolished?

FC: Well, to be honest, the conversation got pushed to the side for a few months and then resurfaced again toward the end of the fall. That’s when The Daily Dartmouth article came. [I think] they knew that we were meeting around then [and wanted to make an impact with their piece]. The alumni were back on campus, everyone was paying attention, and ‘Abolish the Greek System’ comes out on the front page of The D. I initially didn’t pay it much attention, but as time went on and the faculty voted 116 to 13 to abolish the Greek system, I started to get worried.

TDR: Do you think The Dartmouth’s editorial and the faculty vote had any impact on the discussion within the Committee?

FC: Yes. Abolition immediately moved to the forefront of the conversation when [it hadn’t really been] considered for the few weeks prior to that. After debating it for a while, the motion to get rid of the Greek system came up for a vote. Two of the faculty members on the Committee were throwing out all sorts of statistics and talking about how they [needed to support abolition because] they didn’t want students showing up [to class] hung over anymore. I lost my cool. I blew up in this meeting and told them they didn’t understand anything. I said, ‘You simply want to sit there and judge us based on… how many parties we throw and all of things you can see. But you can’t see the meaningful conversations I have. You can’t see the bonds that I’ve created in my fraternity.’ I flat out said in this meeting that I came out to my fraternity this summer. I came out to one of the most heteronormative fraternities on this campus, and at no time was I shunned. I remember [after I came out], I had almost my entire fraternity class standing in my room. They said, ‘We support you because we love you to death.’ I explained this to the Committee and then I packed up my stuff and I walked out the door. I was so frustrated that the conversation had gotten to that point and that they were judging us on these figures and [the headlines] without understanding the reality. I agreed that there needed to be a way to fix the problem of reckless behavior and make people more accountable. But I did not agree with getting rid of the [Greek system]. The problems were still going to exist. You needed to address the problems head-on. But at the end of the fall, the Committee wasn’t too receptive [to that argument]. Towards the end, I felt like my voice had been silenced. I felt like no one saw my side. I felt like I had divulged so much information about my own personal life and how the Greek system helped me through it, and yet the Committee didn’t see it for it was. Abolition was still its focus. And I’m telling you, in the weeks after Homecoming, the Greek system was as good as gone.

TDR: How did that change? Why did Hanlon’s final proposal not include abolition?

FC: Well, luckily, we had a lot of things working in our favor. We had the Greek Life Proposal that got into the board’s hands. That was huge. That pro-Greek movement was huge. The board heard those ideas, President [Hanlon] saw those, and everyone began to realize that there is a voice on this campus that we’ve got to listen to. I’m grateful for every single affiliated student for stepping up and doing their part, because I might have felt outnumbered sitting on that committee, but the work they did gave me the votes that I needed to ensure that we lasted. With the help of the student body and the alumni [on the Committee], we were able to balance out this conversation and present the positive side of the Greek system. During the discussion that followed, I knew that those few voices in the room had several thousand behind them all over campus. And that was really the key. With that help, we were able to get the votes we needed to preserve the Greek system.

TDR: Being that Moving Dartmouth Forward focused largely on social issues at the College, many were surprised when President Hanlon made academic rigor a central piece of his proposals. How did that come up during the recommendation process and what are your thoughts on it?

FC: The question of academic rigor really came up during the information gathering process back in the spring and was [something] that we had talked about quietly throughout the entirety of the process. I’m not wild about it. I think that the Steering Committee failed to realize that Dartmouth is already academically demanding. [Members on the Committee] essentially saw that students were going out every night of the week and thought that the College’s rigor was just too moderate. I said to them, ‘Okay, let’s take a step back. Let’s ask the question about why students go out on nights other than Friday and Saturday.’ I believe that students go out because most of them go to class all day and then they sit in the library for four or five hours. Naturally, being a student that has suffered with depression and mental illness, [I know] that that constant grind is not good for you. What is the best way to cope with that? Go let off some steam. Many of us are already at our breaking point. If we don’t balance our academic lives with something, we might actually spiral out of control.

TDR: What would you have rather seen the Committee propose on the academic front?

FC: I think what the Committee needed to focus on was an academic rigor in the sense of a greater intellectualism. And there are a lot of ways that you can do that. Why not create a culture in which you can ask your professor to go out to PINE tonight and talk about the lecture over dinner? That is what I am talking about when I discuss raising academic rigor. Let’s raise intellectualism and not rigor. I think the Steering Committee just missed that, because some of the faculty members who were on that committee admitted openly that they never went out in college [and] never really consumed alcohol until later in life. They automatically attach alcohol to evil, and they never asked the question of why. I question that logic, especially when it comes from academics.

TDR: Above all else, what do you want students to know about the Moving Dartmouth Forward Steering Committee and the recommendations it came up with?

FC: Overall, I think it’s important to keep our recommendations in perspective. Throughout the hype, the Steering Committee took on a status that it should never have taken on. We were simply an information-gathering body. We were meant to compile information and recommend a course of action. We were meant to say to President Hanlon: ‘This is what we think you should do, but you can take it or leave it.’ Instead, the Committee became this huge entity in and of itself. And there was the sense that these ten or so people were suddenly going to dictate the future of Dartmouth College. This wasn’t really the case. Our recommendations were ultimately just that: recommendations, and the College could either accept [them] or reject [them] at their will.

TDR: What did you personally take away from your involvement in the Steering Committee?

FC: Overall, this was really a learning experience for me. It opened my eyes to things that I did not initially see. I realized that certain factions on this campus, like the faculty, have a lot of influence. But it also became clear that we have a President who truly cares about student life. We all have to remember that President Hanlon was in our shoes before. He sat in the same seats we sit in every day. He lived in the same dorms that we all live in. He even was a part of the fraternities that some of us are a part of. He gets it. I never thought that I would find an ally in Dartmouth’s president, but I did. The Committee ended exactly where it needed to end, and I respect President Hanlon even more for publishing both our report and his own report. That is exactly how it should have been.

TDR: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

FC: Yeah. I think my overall message is that people might be mad about these recommendations now, but they could have been a thousand times worse. It’s important that we as a student body keep that in mind. Personally, even though I don’t agree with everything in the Steering Committee’s proposal, I can get behind the Moving Dartmouth Forward policy, because I know that the administration will be willing to work with us going forward. And that makes me optimistic about what is to come.

Jake G. Rascoff and John Hammel Strauss also contributed to this interview.

(This piece has been amended to correct for an error in the number of Committee members who participated in the faculty vote to abolish the Greek system last fall).