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Time for Controversy, Again

Dartmouth’s fall term was relatively devoid of student controversy, largely because the shadow of the alumni constitution, and all the controversy that inspired, crowded out the rest. But the constitution has been decisively put to rest, having failed by eighteen percentage points. (Thanks again.) So what’s next? It is time for Native American students to be outraged. And for administrators to coddle them, and for a slick frosty patina of offense-avoidance to be summoned from the heavens above Hanover that it may coat all our words and our deeds, preventing us from saying anything that might shock the gentle souls of those who derive their human worth from people other than themselves and times other than their own.

Yesterday I made note of the calculated press plan of the Native Americans at Dartmouth. The first drop came today, when the club took out a two-page spread in The Dartmouth, the student daily, to decry racism. The ad itself is fertile ground for criticism. For example, it calls on solidarity between Native Americans and “working peoples.”

The ad, which denounces the Dartmouth administration for not sufficiently addressing perceived racisms, has already produced action. Dartmouth president Jim Wright has just sent around a carefully crafted letter to students. The entire missive is below. Like any good political speech, it asserts one thing and then asserts the opposite, for coverage. The motivating assertion is that Dartmouth students may not harm the feelings of other Dartmouth students. The defensive assertion is that there is, in fact, free speech at Dartmouth. As outraged e-mails in my inbox note, though, any defense of free speech which puts the words free speech in scare quotes is not an especially empassioned one. To wit:

There will always be individuals - including some who are members of this community - who empower themselves by disrespecting others. They are few in number but this is not about numbers. Some who have engaged in the incidents of the last few months may be unaware of the disrespect that is entailed and the hurt that is felt. That should no longer be an excuse. The rest, those who know of the hurt and disrespect and persist nonetheless, are simply bullies. “Free speech” rights are regularly asserted by the latter.
So, then, what is the president of Dartmouth College saying? Is he coming to the aid of a uniquely, routinely, and deeply violated sect of students? Or is he defending freedom of speech? Or—here’s the third option—is he making a weak-kneed concession to a political interest group while trying to insulate his office from criticisms from everyone else?

The full message is below.

>Date: Mon, 20 Nov 2006 13:10:52 -0500 (EST)
>From: James.E.Wright@Dartmouth.EDU
>To: all-students-announce@locum.dartmouth.edu
>Subject: Letter to Students
>Sender: massmail-sender@locum.dartmouth.edu
>Precedence: bulk


Dear Dartmouth students:

As you prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday and for the end-of-term rush, I wanted to share with you a few observations and to seek your engagement on an important matter. I write here out of a deep sense of institutional and personal concern about the situation.

Last week I met with a group of Native American students to discuss the distress they felt following a series of racist and insensitive incidents. They have not felt supported by the administration or by the community during this time. I assured them that they were not alone and told them that I would publicly affirm this. I understand that the Native American Council is also preparing a communication [now published] and I believe that Dean Dan Nelson’s letter ten days ago reflected well the College’s views on these matters.

I have also learned that other students have recently been subjected to racist and sexist comments. Unfortunately, Dartmouth is not immune to the prejudices, ignorance, or racism of the larger society. These have no acceptable place there or at Dartmouth, where we have higher aspirations for our community and share closer bonds of responsibility to one another. Racial taunting or name-calling is unacceptable. It harms us all. When any one individual or group is singled out to be demeaned or diminished, the entire community is the victim, and we all should share in the response. I apologize on behalf of the College.

In the early 1970s I worked with some faculty colleagues and Native students to establish the Native American Studies program and I joined with others, including students, to end the College’s use of the Native American mascot and symbol. We were successful in the latter because nearly everyone, when they thought about what it meant to appropriate a race as mascot and plaything, was quick to respond. Many Dartmouth people who had used or accepted the Indian symbol for years had not thought about some of the deeper consequences. Understanding them, they were willing to cease the use of Native American culture and history in this way.

Dartmouth was one of the first institutions to discontinue the use of the Indian symbol and mascot. Some schools still refuse to acknowledge this problem-including institutions with whom we compete in athletic events. One of them, the University of North Dakota, will be participating in a hockey tournament here in late December. We clearly must be more thoughtful in our decision-making on such events and we will review our policies in this area.

Since the Dartmouth Board of Trustees decided in the 1970s not to use the Indian symbol the College’s position on this has never wavered. Nor will it. American Indians are a rich part of Dartmouth’s heritage and a strong contributing part of our community. Collectively and as individuals they deserve our respect and our admiration. Dartmouth was founded under a charter that provided that the College’s purpose would be the education of Indians as well as English youth and others.

The Mohegan Indian Samson Occom went to England on behalf of Eleazar Wheelock and raised the money that enabled the organization of the College. He stands as a founder of the College. But within a matter of a few years, Wheelock had shifted the emphasis away from Native Americans. In 1970 President John Kemeny recommitted the College to its charter purpose. In the intervening two centuries we slipped away from our mission and lost a sense of our true history. Our first students were forgotten and their more abstract presence became the object of caricature; we neglected our history and our collegiate ancestors and founders.

Boston sportswriters in the 1920s compounded this loss of memory when they started calling our athletic teams “the Indians” as a criticism and dismissal. And we came to adopt what was intended as a negative as our symbol. This was easier than confronting our history. What should have been a proud history became the subject of jokes and a significant failure of historical purpose became a part of the College’s amnesia.

We have worked for thirty-six years to remedy that failing, and we take tremendous pride in our Native American graduates and all that they have accomplished. But tasks such as these are never over. As Calvin Trillin wrote in a New Yorker article on this subject in the 1970s, the symbol itself became emblematic for those who were disenchanted with the changes that marked the College in those early years of coeducation and of renewed commitment to diversity. We moved on, even if some individuals did not.

We can take pride in what we have done to resolve to maintain our charter purpose. Native American students are here because they have worked very hard, many of them overcoming tremendous and unique obstacles, and they are subject to the same academic and financial aid standards that all applicants face. There are no free admits or categorical scholarships. They are members of this community and they contribute to the whole range of academic programs, students groups, and teams. They are your classmates and your friends. And they deserve more and better than to be abstracted as symbols and playthings.

There will always be individuals - including some who are members of this community - who empower themselves by disrespecting others. They are few in number but this is not about numbers. Some who have engaged in the incidents of the last few months may be unaware of the disrespect that is entailed and the hurt that is felt. That should no longer be an excuse. The rest, those who know of the hurt and disrespect and persist nonetheless, are simply bullies. “Free speech” rights are regularly asserted by the latter.

Certainly, freedom of expression is a core value of this institution. The College is not going to start a selective dress code and we do not have a speech code. Free speech includes the right to say and to do foolish and mean-spirited things. We have seen several examples of this exercise this fall. But free speech is not a right exclusively maintained for the use of the mean and the foolish - it is not unless we allow it to be, and then the free part has been minimized.

Let me exercise my right of free speech: I take it as a matter of principle that when people say they have been offended, they have been offended. We may apologize and explain, we may seek to assure that offense was not intended, but it is condescending to insist that they shouldn’t be offended, that it is somehow their fault, and that they are humorless since they can’t appreciate that what was perceived as offensive is merely a “joke.” And it is the worst form of arrogance for anyone to insist that they will continue to offend on the basis of a “right” to do so. Communities depend upon rights. But they also thrive upon mutual respect. This community thrives because each generation of students understands and advances this principle, which finally is more effective than any administrative sanctions or speech codes.

This College is sustained by you, by the commitment of Dartmouth students to fairness, to each other and to the wholeness of this community. I am encouraged by those of you who have reached out and have spoken out. I respect and thank those who have acknowledged and apologized for actions that proved to be hurtful. Yet many students with whom I have spoken over the last few weeks have not engaged in this conversation. We all should do this. This is not an abstract debate but a real issue. Dartmouth’s strength is the sense of belonging and inclusiveness that marks our values.

Words and actions do matter - let us use our words and actions to make the Dartmouth campus a truly welcoming and inclusive one.


Sincerely,
James Wright

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