Kyle Ashlee discusses the reality of discrimination at Dartmouth College and the importance of student activism in creating change at a school that is often thought to be perfect.
It’s late on a Friday night and a rowdy group of drunken co-eds stumble through the entryway of the student center at Dartmouth College. Shouting obnoxiously, one of the inebriated students kicks over a wet floor sign while another angrily tears down a flyer advertising a gathering for student protest on campus. The student worker behind the food counter sighs deeply and prepares for the impending exchange. Sadly, it’s one that she is all too familiar with.
As the hostile group approaches the counter, the alpha male of the group barks his order at the young Black woman without apology. Despite having received a scholarship for tuition, this First-Generation college student took on the serving job as a way to survive the high cost of college without financial support from her family back home. She rang up the order and moved on to dealing with the other demands and slurred food orders. A few minutes later, one of the students stumbles back to the counter:
“You’re all out of forks. Where the hell can I find a God damn fork around here?”
Having dealt with his type many times, she responded with dignity:
“There are more forks on the other side of the dining hall. And do you mind treating me with a little respect, please?”
A puzzled look of disbelief fell over his face. Without thinking, he gathered all of the alcohol soaked saliva in his mouth and spit a violent wad of phlegm directly in her face:
“Respect? A n***** like you doesn’t even belong at this school. You should feel lucky to be serving me food.”
Disgusted and appalled, she immediately phoned Campus Safety to report the egregious offense. Later, a security officer arrived to the student center in response. The drunken aggressors were long gone at that point, having left behind their half-eaten slices of pizza and chicken tenders for someone else to clean up.
While this may sound like an extreme incident of disrespect and racism, it is a scene not wildly uncommon at the prestigious institution of Dartmouth College. As a former administrator at the college, I heard from many students who had been treated similarly at some point in their academic career. The college has a bias reporting system and countless educational initiatives that try to develop cultural competence and mutual respect across difference, but the destructive behavior persists.
During my two years at Dartmouth, many students came into my office with heartbreaking accounts like the one shared here. These are the stories that the outside world never thinks about when Ivy League schools like Dartmouth College come up in conversation. With its polished history and consistent ranking among the best colleges and universities in the world, it’s no wonder many think Dartmouth students are sheltered from struggle. This “Ivy League Myth,” which assumes elite institutions have no flaws, and thus, no need for growth or development, is detrimental in many ways.
Certainly all Dartmouth students experience some level of opportunity and privilege. Acceptance implies the readily assumed and common conceptions of its abundant resources, vast professional networks, and wealthy alumni support. These privileges, however, do not protect Dartmouth students from experiencing the harsh sting of oppression. Simply because an individual has been selected to attend one of the best educational institutions in the country, doesn’t mean they must silently endure instances of bias, hate, and disrespect. In fact, shouldn’t they expect more from a school that is considered among the best of the best?
Earlier this month a group of impassioned students staged a protest in the Office of President Phil Hanlon, demanding action to remedy the ills of racism, sexism, homophobia, and sexual assault on campus. On campus, the reaction has been mostly supportive toward the students and administrators who are engaging in positive dialogue around the issues. Some response from the outside media, including The Wall Street Journal, has sought to dismiss the efforts of the activists, as either over-reactionary or unjustified due to their inherent privilege as Ivy Leaguers. Not only do these uninformed opinions dismiss the real lived experiences of Dartmouth students, they lower the bar of excellence for one our country’s top institutions of higher education.
While it might be tempting to brush aside these activists as whiny and entitled attention-seekers, the students are showing their college how much they truly care about upholding its core values of “encouraging independent thought,” “embracing diversity” and “supporting the vigorous and open debate of ideas.”
They expect more from a school like Dartmouth and so should we.
We should expect our top institutions of higher learning to encourage open dialogue and difference of opinion. We should expect our best colleges to equip future leaders and CEOs with the skills of critical analysis and cultural competence. We should expect our finest universities to embrace constructive feedback through valid forms of civil discourse, like public protest and social activism.
Instead of characterizing these students as villains, aggressors, or tyrants, we should praise them for their courage. It takes bravery to stand up and voice a contrary opinion, especially at a place like Dartmouth where individuality is seen as disloyalty to tradition. The WSJ author, under a cloak of anonymity, did not show this kind of courage. Despite enduring damaging acts of hate, these students are willing to speak out and ask for more from their college. Targets of intolerance should not have to bear that burden, but these students are unique. There’s a reason they ended up at Dartmouth. A commitment to excellence like this is what we might expect from a student at one of our nation’s top colleges. Instead of casting them aside and threatening removal from the college as some have advised, these courageous individuals should be celebrated by the institution.
Just over forty years ago Dartmouth went co-ed, finally allowing women to attend alongside men. During that time the college saw protest and resistance on both sides of the issue, with women enduring an onslaught of sexism that would make most of today’s college-goers cringe. Even then, Dartmouth knew students who valued the benefit they received from attending the institution but also demanded that it strive to be better. While the college has made much progress, instances of hate like the student server being spit upon and harassed are examples of the work still to be done. If history is any indication of what may happen with present circumstances, the “College on Hill” will change, improve, and owe a debt of gratitude to its brave student body.
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See Also: Hanlon Responds to Sit-In, Cannot Define White Supremacy