Dartmouth Cancels Wednesday Classes Over Online Response to Protest

Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Hanover — Dartmouth College canceled the majority of classes today in response to threatening online comments directed at a group of student protesters who interrupted an event last week aimed at prospective students.

All undergraduate courses and some graduate classes will be replaced by day-long programming that includes faculty meetings, “teach-ins” and an all-campus lunch.

Administrators and faculty members are concerned over the response from other students since Friday, when the protesters raised their complaints about homophobia, sexual assault and racism on campus.

“I think these students are in crisis,” English professor Ivy Schweitzer said of the protesters. “I think this is an emergency for the college. I think these students are calling attention to major structural problems.”

The college announced the news shortly after 6:30 last night in an email signed by Interim President Carol Folt and seven other college administrators.

“This has been prompted by a series of threatening and abusive online posts used to target particular students in the wake of the protest that disrupted the Dimensions Welcome Show on Friday evening,” the email said. “We feel it is necessary for the community as a whole to have the opportunity to learn about all that has transpired and to discuss further action that will help us live up to our mission.”

Many of the comments that raised the concerns of college officials were posted on Bored at Baker, a private forum exclusive to Dartmouth students that’s not sanctioned by the school. Anonymous postings since the protest include:

“Why do we even admit minorities if they’re just going to whine? Seriously, why are you here?”

“Wish I had a shotgun, would have blown those (expletive) hippies away.”

“I hope the dimensions protestors fall down a slide made of razor blades into a pool of ethanol. Then that pool gets lit on fire.”

Last week, about 550 prospective students and some of their parents arrived at Dartmouth for Dimensions weekend, which is designed to persuade admitted students who are trying to choose between colleges. The weekend was interrupted on Friday night when a group of 15 protesters marched into the Class of 1953 Commons, where prospective students were watching a performance put on by Dartmouth freshmen, and began chanting about sexual and racial injustice on campus.

Following the protest, some took to social media and bashed the protesters for interrupting the Dimensions show. Some also made racist and homophobic remarks and threatened the protesters with physical harm.

Meanwhile, on other websites, several comments supported the protesters’ sentiments, but not the venue they chose. Others contend that the vitriolic posts on Bored at Baker aren’t representative of the broad campus community.

The protesters sent a letter to the college’s Board of Trustees and administrators early Monday, asking them to cancel classes to facilitate a discussion about what they perceive as a violent and hurtful community.

At 8 a.m. yesterday, faculty and staff met at Parkhurst Hall to discuss the troubling messages. A few minutes into the meeting, two students joined the crowded room and read from Dartmouth’s Principles of the Community, a document that lays out values that the college is meant to follow, Schweitzer said. After reading it, the students tore up their papers and threw them at the staff.

As many as 30 protestors and supporters, all wearing black, then filed into the room, each carrying a large printout that bore a statement taken from Bored at Baker, said Schweitzer, who also teaches women’s and gender studies courses. They lined the seminar room and asked the assembled faculty and staff to each read one of them.

“I had to read a statement with words that I would never say, with sentiments that (were) completely antithetical to my own beliefs,” Schweitzer said. “But I had to say it.”

When the meeting started, neither Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson or Folt were in the room, said senior Dani Valdes, one of the protesters. Johnson walked into the room about 10 minutes after the professors read the messages aloud, and Folt later followed. Johnson silently flipped through the posters and read them to herself before she began to cry, Valdes said.

“There really was not a dry eye in that seminar room,” Schweitzer said. “And it’s still with me. It’s still with me.”

When the 30 students left the two-hour meeting, they were told by faculty and staff that classes might be cancelled the next day.

Neither Folt nor Johnson was made available to comment last night.

“We are going to let the communication we sent to the community speak for itself tonight,” college spokesman Justin Anderson wrote in an email.

Today’s events will include a meeting for faculty at 9:30 a.m., followed by a 10 a.m. presentation by Jessica Pettitt, a social justice and diversity consultant and facilitator. There will be a community gathering on the lawn in front of Dartmouth Hall from 11:30 a.m. to noon, which will be followed by a complimentary all-campus lunch at the Class of 1953 Commons. The day will end with a “teach-in,” which will include small group discussions facilitated by faculty and staff.

“The decision to replace classes for a day with alternative programming is not taken lightly. The faculty will decide how best to make up tomorrow’s class time,” the email announcing the cancellation said.

This is not the first time this academic year that a college has decided to cancel classes after students spoke up about concerns of safety on campus. In November, Amherst College canceled classes for a day in response to a first-person account written by a student who alleged that she was raped on campus, according to The Massachusetts Daily Collegian.

The college canceled classes and instead invited students to an event focused on “sexual misconduct.”

Valdes said the group has grown from the 15 original students who interrupted the Dimensions show to the 30 protesters and allies that spoke at the faculty meeting yesterday morning.

When the students first suggested canceling classes at the beginning of this week, the administration pushed back, saying it wouldn’t accomplish anything, Valdes said.

“And we said yes it will, you need to shock the system,” Valdes said. “You are eating your students alive. When we’re in a crisis, everyone needs to stop and talk about what are these comments that we are allowing to exist in this anonymous forum.”

This is a big step for Dartmouth, Valdes said, but it’s also a first step. With Folt leaving this summer, Valdes said she wishes incoming president Philip Hanlon could attend today’s discussions.

Karenina Rojas, a senior and one of the protestors at the Dimensions show, said that she was glad that school leaders took the step to cancel classes, even though she believes it’s “not nearly enough.”

“Everyone needs to understand the severity of the situation,” she said.

And today’s alternative programming, Rojas said, is a good first step. Although she expects plenty of students to skip out on the event entirely, she said the meetings and workshops would be a prime place for the people to speak out who don’t fall on either of the issue’s extremes.

“Those people,” Rojas said. “Those are the people that we need to hear from tomorrow.”

Rojas said her sister, currently a high school senior, was accepted to Dartmouth for the fall, but Rojas steered her away from Hanover.

“There is no way that she is coming to this school,” Rojas said. “I do not want her to see how ugly it is up here.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223. Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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