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Editorial: Dartmouth Dimensions; A Teachable Moment for the College

It’s not all that often that demonstrators have the satisfaction of seeing the ills they are protesting against confirmed in the reaction to their protest.

But that is precisely the case with a group of about 15 Dartmouth College students who disrupted a campus event over the weekend to call attention to persistent harassment of various kinds.

The event was part of a “Dimensions” weekend designed to woo fence-straddling prospective students who had already been admitted to the college. The protesters believed that the official events failed to illuminate some prominent aspects of life at Dartmouth — such as the prevalence of sexual assault and sexist, homophobic and racist verbal harassment — and took matters into their own hands. The protesters, chanting “Dartmouth has a problem,” burst through the door in a dining hall where some 500 prospective students were watching skits as part of the Dimensions Welcome Show Friday night and for a few minutes tried to make the point that there’s more to life at Dartmouth than happy hour.

There was a time and a place (not now and probably never in Hanover) when this sort of mild demurral from the official line would have hardly registered on a college campus. But as Valley News staff writer Sarah Brubeck reported Tuesday and yesterday, it instead elicited a flood of anonymous online student reaction that ran to intimidation and threats of physical harm to the protesters. The flavor is perhaps captured in these comments reported by Brubeck. One read, “It’s official. I’m going to start referring to these protesters as terrorists.” Another posed these questions: “Why do we even admit minorities if they’re just going to whine? Seriously, why are you here?” A third read: “Wish I had a shotgun, would have blown these (expletive) hippies away.”

Welcome to Dartmouth, kids, where minority students and non-conformists are present only at the sufferance of those entitled to be there, and where speaking your mind might just have negative implications for your physical well-being.

Several of the students whom Brubeck talked with and who were willing to attach their names to their comments were considerably more rational. One theme that emerged was that while the protesters might have had a point, they chose the wrong venue to make it — in front of prospective students whom the college was trying to recruit.

We couldn’t disagree more. Young women and men who sign up to spend a not-so-small fortune on a Dartmouth education ought to arrive with their eyes wide open to the reality that tolerance for people who are different is remarkably low on campus and very little has been done over the years to foster a more welcoming attitude. In that regard, the protesters did a service, rather than a disservice, to the prospects.

The second point is that protests are most effective precisely when they are targeted at a vulnerable point. Presumably the college has a compelling interest in ensuring that students who were accepted eventually enroll. So the protest might be seen as an effective way of exerting pressure on the institution.

To their credit, the protesters refused to be intimidated by the online threats and showed up at a meeting of faculty and staff Tuesday to demand action, which they finally got after earlier getting the brushoff. Most classes were cancelled yesterday so teach-ins and other programs intended to discuss the problem could be held.

Something tells us that’s not going to be enough. One hopes that the college’s incoming president, Philip Hanlon, will take note that this protest, like a number of others at Dartmouth in recent years, was focused not on how the administration or the trustees treat students, but on how students treat other students. That suggests to us that there are bitter divisions in the student body that need to be effectively addressed.