Column: Awaiting the Day When Dartmouth Campus Will Be Safe for All


“Vox clamantis in deserto” reads Dartmouth College’s motto — “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Pulled from biblical verse by the school’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock, it echoes his own solitary voice from Hanover in 1770, a town with fewer than 100 inhabitants. Nearly 250 years later, the aptness of the motto is in question. Dartmouth remains rather remote, but it hardly seems to serve as an institution that can claim a right to moral leadership.

As the college begins its 244th year, it might make more sense for Dartmouth’s leaders to heed the collective voice of a number of its own students calling for social justice. These are young people who have found the Dartmouth campus a rather lonely and unfriendly place, a place where “racism, sexism, rape culture, homophobia, classism, and ableism” are far too common, according to a group of student activists who disrupted a weekend event for prospective students in April.

Citing sexual assault statistics (15 sexual assaults in three years; 95 percent of sexual assaults going unreported; three rapists expelled from Dartmouth over 10 years), incidents of homophobic and sexist graffiti around campus, and racist verbal attacks, the group, Real Talk Dartmouth, demanded that the administration and student body listen. Five days later, following anonymous online death and rape threats directed at the protesters, classes were cancelled for a “Day of Reflection and Understanding” during which speeches, a community gathering, and teach-ins took place.

To whatever extent reflection occurred that day, it appears to have produced little understanding. Consider:

∎ In July, a freshman from London was arrested and ultimately charged with seven counts of aggravated sexual assault, which he allegedly committed after walking into the unlocked dorm room of a female student. He has entered a not guilty plea.

∎ Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the college’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct. The office has not indicated what specifically prompted the “compliance review,” but one reason could be a Clery Act complaint filed in May by students and alumni that included testimonies from more than 30 individuals. The Clery Act, named after a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986, requires that schools taking part in federal financial aid programs thoroughly collect and report campus crime data.

∎ In mid-July, Dartmouth announced that the Rev. James Tengatenga, a diocesan bishop of southern Malawi, had been appointed the new dean of the William Jewett Tucker Foundation, which is responsible for providing ethical, moral and spiritual education to Dartmouth students. Controversy swiftly followed with revelations that Tengatenga had previously expressed anti-homosexual views. Tengatenga sought to quell the concerns by releasing a letter declaring his support for marriage equality and equal rights. After a letter signed by faculty, students and staff expressing “deeply troubled” sentiments about the appointment was submitted to the administration, Phil Hanlon, Dartmouth’s new president, rescinded it.

∎ In early August, a group of alumni, parents, faculty and students from the nonprofit group Dartmouth Change expressed dismay over the college’s failure to facilitate discussion and take action on sexual assault. The group, which advocates the establishment of mandatory sexual assault education and a sexual violence prevention center accused the administration of stonewalling its efforts. The college has said little in response, except that the measures advocated by Dartmouth Change are under consideration.

In a college-wide email on the first day of classes, Hanlon wrote, “In fact, we have a responsibility to rise to the challenge of maintaining a campus that is unfailingly open, inclusive, safe, and welcoming to all — one that serves as a necessary complement to our already unparalleled academic environment.” A plan for meeting that challenge was not mentioned.

Currently, Dartmouth students who receive 32 hours of victim support training serve as sexual abuse peer advisers for victims while also raising communitywide awareness about sexual assault and prevention. The college also has a Sexual Abuse Awareness Program, Judicial Affairs Office and Committee on Standards where victims can report crimes. And, last winter, the college created the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, which trains students how to identify risky situations and intervene in order to prevent potential sexual assaults. The prevalence of sexual assault on campus indicates that these resources are inadequate.

While Dartmouth had the highest per-capita rate of sexual assault in the Ivy League in 2010 (the college reported 22 incidents), it is not the only college to find itself dealing with this crime and student complaints about inadequate safety, punishment and reporting. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights fined Yale $155,000 this year for underreporting sexual assaults in 2001 and 2002. The University of North Carolina, the University of Southern California, Swarthmore and the University of Colorado are currently under investigation for lax sexual assault policies. Two students filed complaints against the University of Colorado last month, one accusing the university of allowing her assailant to remain on campus for a month after being found guilty of “nonconsensual sexual assault.” Swarthmore has already implemented changes, including the creation of an advocate for victims of sexual violence, sexual misconduct training for faculty and staff, and online courses for new students.

For now, as the Dartmouth campus bustles with the business of a new academic year, the college finds itself lost in its own wilderness without a clear signal from its leaders that they are taking this problem seriously. The collective cry for action from across the Dartmouth community should serve as a guide that will usher the college toward becoming the inclusive, welcoming and safe campus that Hanlon described.

John M. Rodgers is a Dartmouth graduate student.