On Principles

Looking through our gallery from Tuesday’s rally against health care cuts, I was really struck by the sign in the middle of this  picture. “Hard times are no excuse for ditching principles.” Well, if you’re saying that in a vacuum, sure. But if you’re applying it to the current situation at the College, then no, and that’s without even considering the wisdom of addressing the budget problems while not touching employee benefits and salaries. Instead what I find grating is the assertion that the College is somehow in danger of violating its principles. Because in reality, it’s not.

Undoubtedly, Dartmouth has a lot of principles it needs to uphold: educating its students, supporting the spread of knowledge, and providing support for new inquires and discoveries. In order to do this, the College has to hire a lot people. As a result, it must uphold another set of principles with its employees, such as providing them with humane working conditions and not overtly exploiting their labor. But in working with these principles and the various documents that make them binding- the College charter and the contracts it has signed with the SEIU and it various non-union employees- nowhere do they come across anything that says, “the amount of health benefits college employees will be forever unchanging.” Which is exactly what the person holding the sign is implying.

My apologies if it sounds like I’m just attacking this one student expressing his opinion. Truth is, that couldn’t be farther from my intent, especially considering I’ve actually had the chance to meet him a few times around campus and he’s always come across as a perfectly nice guy. What I am pointing out is how his sign is representative of a problem that has plagued the debate over the College’s budget since the Students Stand with Staff protests of last year. That is, all those who oppose the College’s decisions because they will adversely effect employees automatically blindly assuming their position is in the moral right, and thus is an attempt to preserve principles, as opposed to certain clauses of employee contracts.

 By changing the debate about the budget from being one about policy to one about morals, these people can really change the dynamic of the debate. In essence, they’re not just saying you have the wrong idea for fixing the College’s budget, but you’re also a bad person, which makes the whole thing immediately unfair by placing one side on the defensive. Ultimately, it’s thinking like that which takes what should be an intellectual debate on how best to ensure the long-term financial health of the staff, and turns it into the kind of petty, personal debate that just wrapped up in Congress.

Unlike many others on this site, I don’t get as upset by all the students fighting for staff benefits. While I don’t agree with their ideas of general preachiness, I do think they provide some good by reminding everyone of the human costs of budget decisions, which are sometimes easy to dismiss. Nor do I think that by mentioning principles they are trying to be deceitful or mischievous. But nonetheless, it would be nice going forward if they didn’t wind up changing the debate from being about the kind of ideas you have to the kind of person you are. Because if they’re really interested in making the College uphold its principles, that would be a good one to start with.

–Jeff Hopkins