Save the River Docks vs. Dartmouth Students for Dining Choice

On Monday, I attended Dartmouth Students for Dining Choice’s hardly-inspiring protest before the very exciting faculty meeting. While analyzing the group’s strategy and implementation, I thought about this past summer’s successful movement to re-open the river docks. TDR editor Sterling Beard joined in my contemplation, remarking in “A Protest Worth Getting Behind?”:

One wonders if they might have better luck mounting a new media campaign, much like Save the River Docks this past summer. That group managed to get the docks reopened for the ’13s and their sophomore summer. It took a while, but they at least had an effect with a Facebook group that had 750+ members. It seems that efforts are already being made to that effect: 1000 Students Against the New Dartmouth DDS Meal Plan already has more than 1,000 members.

As the TDR reporter assigned to cover Save the River Docks over the summer, I learned the group’s tactics firsthand and saw how the administration responded to student outrage. As such, I have determined four areas of difference between the successful Save the River Docks campaign and DSFDC, which is threatened to fail.

1. Clear Message: This is undoubtedly the most important part of any movement and unfortunately is exactly what DSFDC is lacking. Save the River Docks had a simple request: re-open the river docks. The administration repeatedly referred to safety concerns that prohibited the re-opening, but they were never able to say the message was not clear. The very name Dartmouth Students for Dining Choice is vague and leaves interpretation of “choice” wide open. The burden of winning this battle is now on the shoulders of students, who have been asked to present alternative dining plans and are approaching the issue from several different angles. Are food prices too high because of DDS wages? Or is organic food to blame? Is it true that financial aid students are suffering from our a la carte system? Is this healthier or will students binge eat? These are the debates DSFDC cannot afford to have.

2. Immediate Impact: Closing the river docks had an immediate impact. Students on campus for sophomore summer expected to swim in the Connecticut River and on June 23 their dreams were unjustly crushed. But the results of this current fiasco are currently unclear, and probably won’t be evident until deep into fall term. 25% of current students will not be affected by the system and freshmen, who are most likely to be affected, are not yet on campus. Save the River Docks gained the support of over 750 members, or ¾ of on-campus students. If DSFDC is going to win, they have to heavily publicize the future effects of SmartChoice and stir excitement within the student body. A quick excerpt from Save the River Dock’s Facebook page should serve as an example for such rhetoric:

In one swift move, the administration has destroyed one of the last gender-neutral social spaces on campus, forcing students to increase visits to fraternities and engage in questionable behavior. Rather than allowing students to become one with the natural environment, as our predecessors have so greatly enjoyed since 1769, we must now swim in the shadows of darkness, jump into the waters of fear, and live in a constant state of persecution.

3. Leadership: Travis Blalock ’12 founded Save the River Dock. When media outlets such as TDR, The Daily Dartmouth, Dartblog, and the Valley News covered the river docks closing, they all contacted him. Currently there is no clear figurehead supporting DSFDC. Will Hix ’12 appears to be a leading member, while Torrey Barrett ’13 created the Facebook page, and Elisabeth Ericson ’11 developed a Tumblr account and Twitter for the organization. Currently there are several polls floating around with no clear initiatives, ideas of boycotting the Class of 1953 Commons for a day, and more opinions than Saturday Night Live’s anti-war protest sketch. Someone needs to step up as a leader of DSFDC and streamline the organization’s message.

4. Timing: As with any grassroots movement, timing is key to success. DSFDC’s Facebook page was created on Sunday, May 8, while the pay-per-meal dining plan was revealed on March 2. Granted the SmartChoice specifics were not released until last week, organized protests should have been in the works in March. It is too simple for President Kim to now say that it is too late to reject the changes and that DDS will work with students to ensure nutritious, cost-effective dining options will be available. Dean Thompson’s decision to close the docks was released on June 23, while Save the River Docks was founded on June 26. That turnaround gave the administration very little time to develop an effective battle plan and their only defense was continued reference to a mysterious safety report that has never been released.

Not all of these differences can be rectified, but they are my initial observations of why one movement succeeded and another is doomed to fail. But who knows… maybe the administration will cut their losses and just install another $200,000 wheelchair ramp.

Dave Lumbert