Toward a Rhetorical Discussion

As recent events would suggest, the administration’s course of reform is far more monolithic than the campus exhibitions and public grandiloquence led many students to believe.

Discussion. It’s a great word, one that evokes the best of a liberal education and the aspirations of enlightened social thinkers the world over. Joseph Joubert famously called it the root of all human progress. John Stuart Mill made it the focal point of his seminal social theories. And Romain Rolland identified it as the basis of truth within the Western experience. Indeed, few other words have been as significant within the development of liberal society, and for this reason, no other word has been so prominent on the campuses of schools that promote enlightened values.

At Dartmouth, we are repeatedly told that discussion is an end to be celebrated in and of itself. That it represents a panacea for social ills that can at once be respectful and inclusive, democratic and efficient. And that it alone has the ability to channel personal differences into productive action. These qualities have produced a certain mysticism about the word and have captured the attention of campus savants determined to foment change. Now, it has become the focus of broader reform efforts and has dominated the rhetoric of the administration’s Moving Dartmouth Forward campaign since its inception last spring.

One needn’t look far to find instances of its new-fangled prominence. During his “Enough is Enough” address in April, for example, President Hanlon noted that his initiatives “cannot be viewed as the work of [a] committee” or “a mandate from the top;” instead, he insisted that “every member of the community be part of the [reform] effort” and participate in the conversations ahead. This democratic impulse also became clear as his Presidential Steering Committee began searching for student input. In May, it installed a chalkboard outside of Collis to collect ideas (and drunk graffiti) from passersby. In June, it gave new prominence to the “Campus Conversations” series on its website and encouraged visitors to “discuss and contribute to the initiatives President Phil Hanlon ’77 announced during the fall of 2013.” And in September, its efforts got a nod in the back-to-school email, which exhorted undergraduates to “define [their] role in Dartmouth’s aspirations” by “engaging a community of teachers and learners” as it works “[to move] ideas into action.”

Such examples of high-minded rhetoric and aspirational displays have become a daily fact of life in a post-protest Hanover. But, as is so often the case, it would be a mistake to equate their ubiquity with sincerity. As recent events would suggest, the administration’s course of reform is far more monolithic than the campus exhibitions and public grandiloquence led many students to believe. In a stark contrast to its promises, recent actions have trended toward a more heavy-handed approach whose forcefulness shatters any pretense of collaborative change. While well concealed in the rhetoric of inclusion, this sea change has already made its presence felt, and one need only look at College’s approach to the Greek system to see its full effects.

Last Tuesday, in one of the first instances of new policy formation since the inception of Moving Dartmouth Forward, the College gathered leaders of Greek organizations to discuss changes to the campus social scene. There, after an introduction that emphasized the embarrassment Dartmouth had suffered at the hands of sophomoric behavior, Board Chairman Bill Helman and President Hanlon announced their intention to go on the offensive by “fundamentally reimagining” the College’s social spaces. Just what this reimagination might look like and how it would affect Greek leaders, they refused to reveal, preferring instead to provide vague abstractions about the need for reform and their hopes that the fraternities “would survive.” At various points, Mr. Helman made it clear that future changes “were not going to be up for a vote” and that, as a result, there was little interest in promoting a constructive back-and-forth within the room. In several other moments, President Hanlon turned to Barbara Will, chairwoman of the Moving Dartmouth Forward Committee, and asked her if she “was ready to reveal” particular policies in greater detail. In all cases, she answered in the negative, leaving participants in the dark about what she and committee were planning.

Such opacity bred more rancor than it did good will. In the meeting’s aftermath, one Greek leader called the event a “lecture rather than a conversation” and suggested that the administration’s representatives showed little interest in seeking student input. Another concluded that the steering committee “is essentially shutting [Greek houses] out of its decision-making process” and was determined to seek immediate and comprehensive change with or without them on board. He added that the attitude in the room was one of a “[we] are going to make our reforms and [you’re] going to have to deal with it” approach and that there was little interest in supporting any sort of substantive dialogue among the administration’s representatives.

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. Such an illiberal show of force is not just duplicitous in its promises; it also parodies the very principles Dartmouth stands for. 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. When this behavior becomes the norm, the public sphere cannot help but buckle, as the discussion that undergirds an enlightened campus becomes but a convenient prop for the powers that be.