It was right before Thanksgiving in 2014 that the St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. Students at universities across the country were either at home with their families or preparing to leave for the Thanksgiving break.
At Dartmouth, the winter break starts with Thanksgiving. By the time students returned to campus in January 2015 from their winter break, the controversy would have blown over, Dartmouth professor Aimee S. Bahng realized.
The tragic events of Ferguson, Missouri, were already far removed from life at Dartmouth College, situated as it is in the quiet reaches of Upper Valley on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. Given the physical distance, and the timing, the conversation on campus about the justice of the grand jury’s decision would never have the chance to begin.
“My singular goal was to keep the conversation going,” Bahng tells Diverse.
Bahng and nine other Dartmouth professors decided to offer a course in the spring of 2015 called 10 Weeks, 10 Professors: #BlackLivesMatter#BlackLivesMatter. In its first year, 100 students attempted to sign up for the 30 available spots in the class. Dartmouth offered the same class in a slightly different format this spring, taught by Bahng and Reena N. Goldthree, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies.
“It’s not the only course that is focusing on calling attention to systems of inequality and racism — there are lots of courses on campus that do that work — but what is successful about the Black Lives Matter course is that it manages to thread the intellectual genealogies through the contemporary moment,” Bahng says.
Now in its second year of existence, the course received a nearly $50,000 grant that funds student travel to work alongside activists across the country. The grant also brought activists, such as Pete White, executive director of LA CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network), to Dartmouth.
Other postsecondary institutions, including NYU’s Gallatin School, Emory University in Atlanta, the University of Michigan and the University of Florida, offer or have offered similar courses on the Black Lives Matter movement. What makes the discourse around these topics unique at Dartmouth is the college’s ongoing self-reflection on its work in diversity and inclusion.
The college is well-known for its academics and distinctive undergraduate culture, which is characterized by an active Greek scene and ample outdoors-related opportunities. Much of undergraduate social life on campus is influenced by the Greek community, although for those who do not wish to live in a fraternity or sorority, the college offers residential housing and affinity houses.
For all the opportunities that Dartmouth offers, it has also received criticism for being inadequately inclusive to more diverse communities. Nor is the college immune to the sorts of protests and demonstrations that rocked other campuses, such as the University of Missouri, earlier this academic year. In November, the college was shaken by a Black Lives Matter demonstration at the main library on campus. The protest reportedly took a negative turn when demonstrators began aggressively heckling students who were studying for not joining the protest.
Issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are far from a Dartmouth-only problem. Colleges and universities across the United States are grappling with similar issues, such as recruiting a more diverse student body, and recruiting and retaining faculty of color.
“I think that the events in our culture in the last couple years, from Ferguson to Charleston to New York, have destroyed any myth that we live in a postracial America,” says Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. “Those issues certainly spilled over onto campuses, as we well know.”
The Dartmouth administration has been pushing for institutional change for several years now. In 2014, the college initiated a plan called Moving Dartmouth Forward, which was intended to address issues of binge drinking, sexual assault, and inclusion on campus, in part by revamping the old undergraduate housing system into six new housing communities.
President Philip J. Hanlon announced a new initiative, the “Moving Dartmouth Forward Plan,” in late January, addressing issues of binge drinking, sexual assault and inclusion. Earlier this year, the college launched the Initiative for Inclusive Excellence, the most recent iteration of an ongoing effort to make the college a more inclusive and supportive place for staff, faculty and students alike.
“I think that students here at Dartmouth, and certainly across the country, are really pushing us to carefully look at all the kinds of dynamics that exist in our institutions, as well as our practices,” says Dr. Denise Anthony, vice provost for academic initiatives. “We want every Dartmouth student to be able to have the best academic, living and learning situation, and when we hear from some of our students that that is not happening, we need to take that very seriously.”
Numerically speaking, Dartmouth’s student population is already relatively diverse, and next year’s freshman class promises to be the most diverse in the history of the college. Nearly 52 percent of the students admitted to next fall’s freshman class are of color.
The college announced a change in its undergraduate admissions policies in September. International students are now considered for admission under a “need-aware” policy. All other students, including undocumented students and students with refugee or asylum status, are considered under a “need-blind” policy.
Need-blind admissions policies, which remove financial need as a factor for consideration in admission, are intended to encourage applicants of all socioeconomic backgrounds to apply.
Dartmouth’s need-blind policy for international students previously set it apart from other colleges and universities. It was one of only six other New England private four-year schools, including Harvard and Yale, which considered international students under a need-blind policy.
However, diversity among the student body is not reflected in the ranks of the faculty. Overall, 16 percent of Dartmouth faculty identified as underrepresented minorities in 2014, according to the institution’s annual report on faculty diversity, published this January. Professor Bahng, for one, was denied tenure this May, bringing about more criticism from faculty and students. Bahng was unanimously backed by the English department.
The administration is aware of the disparity between the diversity of the student body and the faculty. In 2014, college officials pledged to bring the number of tenure-track minority faculty on campus to 25 percent by 2020.
In addition to the ongoing Initiative for Inclusive Excellence, Dartmouth also conducted a campus climate study, beginning last winter, which surveyed more than 2,700 students, faculty and staff to gain a more comprehensive picture about the living, learning and working environment on campus.
In an email encouraging community members to take part in the survey, Hanlon wrote that the findings from the study would be used “to make recommendations of concrete actions Dartmouth can take to address challenges and build on our successes.” Dartmouth released its action plan late last month that included more than three dozen new initiatives and enhancements of existing programs to be put into place in the coming months.
According to the recently released campus climate report, 70 percent of all survey respondents said that they felt comfortable or very comfortable with the overall climate at Dartmouth. At the same time, 21 percent of respondents said that they had experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive or hostile conduct. A further 16 percent of respondents reported that they believed that the conduct was based on their ethnicity. The report added that the findings are consistent with other higher education institutions across the country.
While the recent spate of surveys, working groups and initiatives centered on creating a more inclusive campus environment suggest that Dartmouth is deeply invested in institutional change, community members point out that Dartmouth has produced 22 reports and studies on an inequitable campus climate over the past 47 years.
Since the same questions have already been asked many times, the question that arises from the more recent initiatives is how they will differ from those in the past.
According to Dr. Rebecca Biron, dean of the college, what was missing in all the prior reports and surveys was administrative accountability. An initiative might show promise in the early stages but, without direct follow through, it runs the risk of losing momentum.
“All of those reports were submitted to the higher administration on campus and none of them had action plans for accountability on the part of the higher administration to follow through,” Biron says. “What’s different this time is that the sum of the primary recommendations are about ensuring follow through.”
Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.