Dartmouth’s Indian wars — President Wright speaks

Here is what the president of Dartmouth College, James Wright, told a group that attended a rally to protest what some perceive as offensive conduct towards the college’s Native American community:

Dartmouth is a place that values traditions-as do I.
The Native American tradition is deeply embedded in our history. Two hundred and thirty six years ago, a group of native students came here to study. The first native student to graduate from Dartmouth did so in 1777. His name was Daniel Simons and he went on to the ministry. Other early native students included Lewis Vincent, John Konkapot, Samuel Squintup, Anthony Gill … and there are other names we could list.
We also have a strong tradition of students reaching out to help other students to make Dartmouth a more inclusive place. When Edward Mitchell applied to Dartmouth in 1824, the College turned down his application because of his African heritage. It was only after students protested that the Trustees overturned the decision and admitted him. When he graduated in 1828 he was the first African American to graduate from this college and only the third in the nation.
How can these traditions, this heritage possibly be distorted into insult, ridicule, and caricature? They cannot be-unless we allow them to be.
There are those among us, unfortunately, who substitute insult for ideas and who have no sense of our history, and yet they claim it as their own. We need to reclaim our history. This Dartmouth is your Dartmouth. We need to insist that ours is a welcoming and open community.
Today, our community is hurting. Hurting as we listen to the anguish felt by our fellow students, faculty, and staff-our friends-as they were subjected to racial slurs called out in the night and their traditions and cultures openly disparaged by those who know nothing of the richness of these cultures and traditions.
The disrespect levied against Native Americans, against African Americans-against all those who are perceived as different-has caused tremendous pain and it now sits with all of us like an open wound. Dartmouth is hurting.
What do we do? How do we begin to heal? We need to affirm that Dartmouth’s strength lies in its diversity, we learn from each other because we are a heterogeneous group of individuals bound to this community by our desire to learn from each other and about one another. Each of us chose Dartmouth and was chosen by Dartmouth to join together in an extraordinary learning community.
Dartmouth will be what we make it. What sort of Dartmouth do we want?
My vision-our shared vision-for Dartmouth is of a College where students, faculty, and staff from all backgrounds are welcomed and where they live and learn in dignity together.
My Dartmouth-our shared Dartmouth-celebrates the multiple cultures and backgrounds represented in this community.
My Dartmouth-our Dartmouth-is a place where ideas are debated rigorously and where people treat each other with respect.
My Dartmouth-our Dartmouth-is a place that encourages students to be responsible members of a wider community.
My Dartmouth-our Dartmouth-is one that condemns the deliberate mean spiritedness that was demonstrated in the publication released yesterday.
Our Dartmouth does not come easily. But remember that our Dartmouth is the Dartmouth of Simons and Vincent and Mitchell. It is the Dartmouth of dreams and not nightmares. This Dartmouth continues because each generation affirms it. It comes because we make clear that our history and our values are about the best that we can be.
Finally, we need to support one another and our students. I am pleased to see so many administrators and faculty here today. The issues our students face are real and they need your good guidance and support as they confront them. This is a learning community that is built upon relationships. Let us all take responsibility for ensuring that the powerful Dartmouth sense of community is an inclusive one. These are issues for ALL of us. We won’t all agree. There will be differences. Let there be differences. Let us respect and treasure them, even as we affirm the reality of this single campus, our shared history, this one community.

I’m glad that President Wright is trying to “heal” the “wound” he perceives at Dartmouth by articulating his vision for the college and by advocating debate. There is nothing in his remarks that I read as calling for speech or behavior codes or punitive measures against students who are thought to be acting inconsistently with Wright’s vision.
However, parts of Wright’s speech rely more on name-calling than on debate. He accuses some “among us” (by which he clearly means to include members of the the Dartmouth Review) of “substitut[ing] insult for ideas.” Yet the head of the Review, Daniel Linsalata, has written a reasoned editorial that engages in extended debate over precisely the issues Wright is concerned about. One may disagree with Linsalata’s piece, but one cannot fairly accuse it of substituting insult for ideas.
By contrast, Wright’s side (and Wright himself) has deemed it a “self-evident truth” that anything Native Americans take offense to is improper. And this group (though perhaps not Wright himself) has proclaimed it “arrogant” to believe otherwise. Describing one’s views as “self-evident” and calling anyone who disagrees “arrogant” seems inconsistent with the spirit of debate.


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