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Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson: A Lack of Leadership
The Dean of the College’s Office has no credibility with the student body at Dartmouth. All of the fundamental ways by which the Dean’s Office affects students’ lives — the Committee on Standards, Greek Life, Dining Services, and Residential Life — have been mismanaged for years. To be sure, the Dean’s Office has many kind and well-intentioned people, but, unfortunately, “niceness” is a poor substitute for excellence.
Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson’s recently announced alcohol policy is typical for her office. To be fair, the proposed policy will solicit student input in the coming months before it is finalized, but if precedent is any indication, however, we can expect little to change. One only needs to look back to a couple of years ago to when Sylvia Spears singlehandedly killed a years’ worth of collaboration on the AMP social policy to see the parallels: a new Dean of the College, a campus working together to improve social policy, and an unpopular, unexpected, unwise decision handed down by fiat with the justification of vague “student objections” and “student input.”
In 2009, then Associate Dean Kinne said, “Certainly it was taken into consideration that these were issues where students were saying, ‘Whoa,’ and we could actually hear sort of a unifying voice saying this isn’t something we really want.” Of course, I get it: a “sort of a unifying voice” descended from the firmament and guided the administration’s course of action! I love it when my personal decisions can be justified in this manner. “None of these policies have been pulled out of thin air,” insisted Dean Johnson, citing a May forum as the basis for some of her policies.
I recently wrote about the problem of fraternity nihilism. Self-destructiveness is at the heart of binge drinking, sexual assault, and a host of other ills in the Dartmouth social system. It is a complex issue. Let me make a suggestion to the Dean of the College: stop doing so much, and start listening more.
More specifically, stop the annual, autocratic roll-out of new action plans, accountability metrics, social registration procedures, walkthrough policies, keg registration policies, and more. Just pick a random social event management plan from the last decade, the simpler the better, and stick to it: in reality, these things have a negligible impact on student behavior, and in fact they just reinforce skepticism of the administration because they are so easily and brazenly circumvented. Students perceive, quite accurately, that new programs and policies are less about progress and more about providing work and PR for administrators.
Thankfully the College’s social regulations don’t matter that much. Student behavior is remarkably resistant to interventions regarding what they drink, how much they drink, and when they drink; most do so safely. Many undergrads treat the Dean’s Office event management policies like a game. As a result, even if the new policy emerges in its current form, it is unlikely to have any tragic, unintended consequences. However, we should also understand that the silver bullet for Dartmouth’s social woes is not going to be found in a bureaucrat’s new, elegant, sub-ninety-word definition of hazing.
Ask random students to describe the College’s social management policy; they’ll probably give you a blank stare unless they are a Greek President, Social Chair, or comparable officer. New policies typically create more paperwork and new routines for the Greek officers who “run” parties — while everyone else enjoys themselves.
The central problem is that the administration does not engage with students in meaningful ways; this is where real listening comes in. The Dean should declare a moratorium on public panels for advising administrative policy (like the one announced for Tuesday night at 6:30 in Collis). Panels are great for intellectual discussions, lectures, cultural programming, and other similar events; however, administrative issues are different. Most students are scared to publicly confront the administration’s failings for fear of retribution in ways great or small. What if your criticism of the Dean’s handling of alcohol policy could cause you to miss out on an award or honor recommendation? The Dartmouth Editorial Board’s hopes for a productive campus-wide forum on the matter are misplaced, I fear.
The Dean of the College would do well to contact a random group on campus every week, and ask to meet with them privately and off the record in their own space. Speak to students as peers, as leaders, not as children. Invite and ask tough questions. Ditch the “Deanspeak.” Take Greek Presidents to lunch, one on one, and ask them to share their stories, even the ugly stuff (it would help if they weren’t later charged by Judicial Affairs — like Andrew Lohse). Develop a rapport with students trying to make a difference in struggling organizations; teach the few to impact the many. Challenge individuals to do better for themselves and their organizations. Leadership is the foundation upon which policy is built; not the other way around.
Addendum: I served as Vice President of Programming for Sigma Phi Epsilon in 2009 and as President in 2010-11.
Joe Asch adds: Dean Johnson’s bureaucratic patter sets a new standard for flaccid prose. See her recent message to students in the extended.
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