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Steve Nelson: Much Needed Thunder at Dartmouth

Dartmouth students John D’Antonio and Amelia Acosta listen at the college’s community gathering on Wednesday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Dartmouth students John D’Antonio and Amelia Acosta listen at the college’s community gathering on Wednesday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. – Frederick Douglass

I think the great abolitionist Douglass would approve mightily of the recent protests at Dartmouth College. Douglass is well known for his anti-slavery work and stirring oratory, but he was also a passionate advocate for women’s suffrage and the rights and dignity of all people.

I’ve been fascinated and outraged by the events of the last week. The brave students who disrupted Dartmouth’s sales pitch to “prospies” brought some much needed fire and thunder to a simmering issue that has been covered too long in polite lip service. By “issue” I don’t mean specifically or only the recent rash of racist or homophobic incidents on the Dartmouth campus. I also don’t refer only to the dismal record of sexual assault on this or other campuses around the country. The deeper issue is one of entitlement and power, played out in race, class, gender and sexual identity. Bravo to those who had the courage and leadership to create a whirlwind.

The primary message, chanted repeatedly, was surely factual: Dartmouth does indeed have a problem. The facts conveyed by the protesters about reported sexual assaults and other incidents seem incontestable, albeit unpleasant news for prospective students. But I think this is a good thing for the college. Prospective students deserve to hear the difficult truth along with the wonderful attributes of the Dartmouth experience.

It’s a good thing for several reasons. Any prospective students who turn down an admission offer because of this bold activism are likely to be averse to the very kind of challenging dialogue that Dartmouth most needs. Those who may have been attracted to Greek life or the familiar comforts of an elite Ivy League setting are unlikely to advance the evolution of social justice. By contrast, those who are itching to be engaged in a lively community, where dissent is invited and convention is challenged, might have found the disruption a refreshing antidote to the antiseptic skits of Dimensions weekend. It may well lead to self-selection that will further the cause of social justice and diversity on campus.

As widely reported, the reactions to the protest were even more revealing than the event itself. I’ve read everything I could find, including the Real Talk Dartmouth site and the Bored at Baker site, before it malfunctioned (if that’s indeed what happened). The comments seem to fall into three broad categories: 1. Dartmouth, love it or leave it. 2. You may have a point, but wrong venue. 3. Right on, sisters!

Put me in the “Right on, sisters!” group.

“Dartmouth, love it or leave it” is the response of entitlement and protected privilege. One might hope that Dartmouth will find an innovative way to detect the presence of entitlement and privilege in order to make these qualities disqualifiers in the admission process. While it may be unfair to draw a direct correlation between Greek life and privilege/entitlement, it might be a fine development if fewer incoming students felt a need for identification with groups that confer status and are founded in exclusivity.

As to the “wrong venue” group, I refer again to Douglass. Dartmouth needs an earthquake, not a marginalized protest relegated to a convenient and isolated location where it doesn’t create too much embarrassment. To those who object to the “offensive” nature of these protests, I offer the reality of just one young woman who has been the victim of the predatory culture and male entitlement that have made college campuses a hostile environment. There have been 15 such sexual violations in the last three years and, if the protest’s claims are accurate, another 285 that have gone unreported. Now that’s “offensive,” and the protesters’ civil demonstration may have been too polite. Women, students of color, gay students and others have been physically and emotionally assaulted. Dartmouth needs more outrage, not more forums where anger can be “managed” so that the veneer of civility can be restored.

All of this is symptomatic of this point in American history. The gains made in civil rights for people of color, women and gay folks have created an ugly backlash from those who take their own privilege for granted. Many of the disgusting comments on Bored at Baker are indicative of this kind of smug insensitivity. “Hippies” and “terrorists” are terms used to dismiss the legitimate insistence on justice. This is nothing new.

It takes real courage to stand up to injustice and endure the scorn of those with social and political power in your own community. My hope is that these courageous young women and men will be joined by allies. Imagine how this dialogue might be advanced if the officers of Dartmouth’s Greek organizations or the captains of its athletic teams linked arms with the protesters rather than standing by in silence or picnicking on the fraternity lawn as the activists demonstrate real leadership.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.