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At Dartmouth, Truth Trumps Consequences

The dance of justice (or not) goes on at Dartmouth College. Last week’s developments included email notifications of pending disciplinary action received by Dartmouth seniors Dani Valdes, Karenina Rojas and, according to Rojas, about eight other students.

All of the students are members of Real Talk Dartmouth, the group that disrupted a recruitment event at the college last month. According to a Valley News account, disciplinary action was threatened because, according to the Department of Safety and Security, “  . . . the students in question ignored college officials’ instruction on April 19 not to enter The Class of 1953 Commons, a room that had reportedly reached its official capacity, which was a violation of the college’s Community Standard IX, compliance with college directives.”

Community Standard IX says, in part, “Students and student organizations must not intentionally fail to comply with the directives of the College. Examples of such behavior include, but are not limited to:

“Failure to comply with the directions of law enforcement officers or College officials acting in the performance of their duties.”

Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson declined comment, citing the familiar shield of “ongoing disciplinary investigation.”

The delicate balance between free expression, particularly sharp protest, and the rule of law is complex. In many cases protest or civil disobedience must not — cannot — be abided without some consequences. One might argue that the consequences are often the most potent expression of the protest itself. Nothing serves a good civil protest more efficiently than a sympathetic picture of an earnest protester being handcuffed by police in full riot gear. Getting yourself arrested is a noble and effective response to injustice. For many in my generation, it is a badge of honor worn with pride for decades.

But at Dartmouth this “consequence” reeks of petty bureaucracy. The protest itself, at least the main event in the The Class of ’53 Commons, was quite low on the scale of disruption. Video and photo images of the protest reveal some powerful language, but generally respectful behavior, thankfully by both the protesters and the somewhat confused recruits. Even the “college official” who made a cursory effort to keep them out of the room seemed dazed and confused, not intimidated.

Given the mild nature of the protest, and the time lapse since the events occurred, the threat of consequences seems, well, silly. Particularly in the context of what the protesters were addressing, the notion of disciplinary action is ludicrous. In light of the alleged epidemic of unprosecuted sexual abuse and hate speech, this seems an odd time to fire up the judicial machine.

I’d bet the ranch that some Dartmouth facility is filled beyond “official capacity” on nearly a daily basis. I don’t minimize the real risks of overcrowding. Fire codes and occupancy limitations are not without reason. But please — a dozen students walking through a room carrying signs and chanting slogans? This hardly evokes images of a panicked nightclub afire or soccer hooligans shaking the foundation of a Liverpool pub.

A more complex dilemma is currently facing former Dartmouth administrator Jamshed Bharucha, who is now president of Cooper Union in New York City. Student protesters have occupied his office since May 8, and he has not yet invoked any violation of “Community Standards.” Although he was reportedly goaded into it, he visited the protesters and chatted with them until past midnight. In this case the protesters are objecting to the end of a tuition-free tradition at Cooper Union — a cause to be sure, but hardly a grave injustice. The students are not paying a penny to attend the prestigious institution and they’re living in the president’s office rent-free, too! There may come a time when some action must be taken, but Bharucha is wise to stop by with a pizza, rather than giving them more fuel for their protest.

In stark contrast, the Real Talk Dartmouth students are raising issues of real gravity. Dartmouth’s record of sexual abuse and racial and homophobic incidents should arouse concern in every thoughtful member of the community.

I don’t have any reason to doubt the sincerity of Dartmouth officials in addressing these complex issues. But rather than emails threatening disciplinary action based on petty interpretation of “Community Standards,” the college should thank the courageous students of Real Talk Dartmouth for demanding a more vigorous response to violence and injustice. They are the ones exhibiting true leadership.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is head of the Calhoun School. He can be reached by email at steve.nelson@calhoun.org.