On Dartmouth, Sexual Assault, and Activist Tradition

Many colleges and universities seek to decrease reports of campus sexual assault, not by addressing the actual rate of sexual assault, but through policies and practices that discourage reporting. These administrations are more concerned about campus image than campus safety, particularly due to a desire to improve rankings through higher rates of student applicants and acceptance. A 2010 report from the Center for Public Integrity revealed how widespread this problem is and how few campus rapists see serious consequences.

I understand why many people were upset by the protest of sexual assault and anti-LGBTQ and racial discrimination that took place at Dartmouth’s Dimensions show for prospective students. But the very controversy of that place makes sense. The goal, after all, is to improve campus safety for present and future Dartmouth students.

When administrations prioritize a falsely perfect image to attract prospective students, I understand why protesters would select a venue for prospective students as a platform. Students facing prejudice and physical danger took an opportunity to pressure the administration to pay attention to serious campus problems–ones students have been organizing around for years. Increasing anti-rape activism on campuses nationwide shows that young people are fed up with college attendance being a risk factor for sexual assault.

The rape and death threats that followed on a Dartmouth messaging board underscored the problems these protesters were calling attention to. That Steve Mandel, Board of Trustees Chair, followed up by equating these threats with the protest as equally antithetical to the Dartmouth community is appalling. The consistent attention by many Dartmouth-associated commentators to the choice of venue, rather than high rates of rape, displays a severe lack of empathy or comprehension of what real problems, real dangers, look like.

I am also shocked at the references to how protesters violated the Student Handbook; although perhaps I shouldn’t be, given my experience as a student with negative attitudes to activism focused outside or within the Dartmouth Bubble. Protest, activism, civil disobedience is part of Dartmouth tradition–including occupations of administrative buildings such as during the Vietnam War. Justice isn’t always served by following rules. Travis Mushett ’08, editor of the new online magazine Blunderbuss, spoke to this in his editorial on the incident: “mysteriously, the ‘improper’ place is always a highly public one where the issues are likely to actually garner some attention, and the ‘proper’ one is tucked out of the view of most everyone, easy to ignore and contain, or relegated to some indefinite point in the future.”

Loving Dartmouth tradition does not mean accepting every flaw. I am tired of seeing the concept of “Dartmouth tradition” claimed by those who defend the status quo in its worst manifestations. Strategic disagreements among activists are valid; acting as though this protest is a bigger problem than actual incidences of rape (and rape and death threats) is not.

Alex DiBranco

Dartmouth ’09

(A version of this letter was sent to The Dartmouth.)

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