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Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth in retreat on ROTC ceremony

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/29/2021 9:58:24 PM
Modified: 5/29/2021 9:58:23 PM

Maybe it’s the high-handedness that comes with being a mighty Ivy League institution that has amassed a $6 billion fortune through investments and nonstop fundraising.

Or perhaps it’s a lack of awareness on the part of college administrators who spend too much time in ivory towers.

Whatever the reason, the Dartmouth College of today seems to assume that it can do whatever it pleases without ramifications.

Dartmouth’s announcement last summer that it was permanently closing Hanover Country Club because it was losing money is a case in point. Nearly a year later, the 120-year-old golf course is literally going to seed.

Some people argue that as a private entity, Dartmouth can operate as it sees fit. But the college is also a nonprofit, which entitles it to huge tax benefits and makes raising endowment money a whole lot easier.

On the flip side, Dartmouth’s nonprofit status opens the door for more scrutiny. It’s been refreshing to watch students in the last year or so challenge the college’s authority and to do so in a public manner.

Last July, after cutting five varsity athletic programs, Dartmouth seemed unprepared to deal with the 100-plus student-athletes who refused to accept the decision as a fait accompli.

Only after female golfers, swimmers and divers threatened a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit if their teams weren’t immediately reinstated did the college backtrack in January.

While the college was still in damage-control mode, students leaked news of an ethics scandal at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, where 17 students were accused of cheating on remote exams.

In some cases, the medical school couldn’t support the allegations with solid evidence. In a May 9 front-page story, The New York Times reported that seven students have had their cases dismissed. But not before they’d been put through an emotional wringer.

Dartmouth has a knack these days for creating turmoil and angst where there doesn’t need to be.

Which brings me to four Dartmouth seniors — three Army ROTC cadets and one Marine officer candidate — who will be honored at an on-campus military commissioning ceremony on June 12.

It’s typically a small affair attended by parents and a few military types. Tradition calls for parents to pin so-called shoulder bands on their son’s or daughter’s uniform at the event.

But Dartmouth officials, citing the college’s COVID-19 restrictions, informed the students that parents couldn’t participate in the ceremony or even be in the room. They’d have to watch via livestreaming.

Never mind that the six parents who planned to attend were fully vaccinated and would wear masks.

The college still wouldn’t budge.

Allowing parents to attend the event “seemed like such a small ask,” said Jake Rozak, one of the three graduating ROTC cadets.

In a May 21 letter to the administration, the four students wrote, “Our parents, who have raised us to be the next generation of Dartmouth alumni, leaders amongst our peers and military officers, deserve the opportunity to be part of the ceremony, or at least to attend it in person.”

After a less-than-productive Zoom meeting with an associate dean on Monday, the commissioning seniors worked early into Tuesday morning on an email to the Valley News and other media. The students wrote that they’d been told the administration had considered their arguments, but the decision was made and it “would not be changing for any reason.”

The students attached the letter they’d sent to the administration a few days earlier. “At this point, the school wasn’t listening to us, so we decided to send it out to as many people as we could,” said Rozak, a biomedical engineering major from Medway, Mass.

From reading the letter and talking with Rozak, I didn’t see request as unreasonable.

For four years, they’ve been lifting weights and running at 7 in the morning as part of their military training. In addition to their Dartmouth courses, they’ve squeezed in a slew of military science classes.

While other Dartmouth graduates head off to Wall Street and law school, they’ll be serving their country for the next four years and likely longer.

Rozak, 22, is bound for officer leadership training at Fort Benning in Georgia. Soon he’ll be learning how to jump out of planes. Everyone who joins the military these days “knows there’s a possibility that you will see combat,” he told me.

Along with going to the media, the seniors shared their letter with former Dartmouth President Jim Wright, which I’m fairly certain wasn’t lost on the college’s decision makers.

Wright enlisted in the Marines at 17. Decades later, as Dartmouth president, he made sure that military veterans had a place in the college’s student body. He’s also been a frequent guest speaker at the annual military commissioning ceremony.

On Tuesday evening, the college emailed the commissioning seniors with a new development: They could each have two guests at the ceremony.

Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me in an email that administrators, including President Phil Hanlon, believed the ceremony qualified as a “commencement-related” event. The small number of guests and the timing of the event (the day before commencement exercises) “present a low risk of COVID-19 transmission,” Lawrence wrote.

After hearing the news, I contacted Wright who said that he’d seen the letter, but wasn’t involved in the decision to allow parents to participate.

“I thought it was very good letter and made a compelling case and obviously the Dartmouth officials did as well,” emailed Wright, who plans to attend and speak in person.

Maybe Dartmouth’s current administration isn’t as inflexible as I thought.

Now, about that shuttered golf course ...

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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