Punishing good deeds at Dartmouth

Joe Asch is a Dartmouth alum (class of 1979) who lives near the college. In recent years, he has subsidized, at considerable personal expense, the Departmental Editing Program (DEP), which funds editors who assist students with writing assignments for classes in the art history, religion, and mathematics departments. The program and the former high school teachers who provide the assistance have received excellent reviews. A Dartmouth student, one of the best young writers I know, told me he asked one of the DEP editors to look over his application to a top Ivy League law school (he got in). That’s the kind of high regard in which the editors are held.
Unfortunately for the DEP, Joe is also heavily involved in Dartmouth politics. For example, he has been a major force in support of the petition candidates who have been elected to the Board of Trustees on a platform of independence from the administration. This sort of activity has not endeared Joe to Dartmouth’s administrators, and the DEP is slated for extinction after this term (which ends right about now).
Joe came up with an interesting concept for saving the program. In conjunction with members of the college’s Afro-American society, he explored the idea of housing the DEP instructors in a residence hall for African-American students, and limiting the program to such students. However, the leaders of the Afro-American society, Robert Cheeks and Zainep Mahmoud, rejected the idea. Cheeks objected that Joe was not addressing “other more pressing needs of the black community” and that he was using the Afro-American society as a way to keep the DEP alive.
These objections suggest that Cheeks may have a bright future as a demagogue in the Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton tradition. When someone offers a benefit, it’s astonishingly bad form to question why he is not offering a different benefit, especially when the benefit is one the donor has offered for years to others. Moreover, as the DartWire blog notes, it’s self-defeating (and a bit absurd) to turn the benefit down on the ground that the donor is just trying to find someone he can help. Finally, unless Cheeks would have had the same reaction to the same offer by a black donor, his objections can reasonably be viewed as racist.
But there may have been another force at work. Joe and his wife say they were told by Cheeks and another student that the college had made it clear the Afro-American society would have its funding cut if it supported Joe’s request. Cheeks denies saying this.
Either way, it seems quite likely that the administration was pleased by the decision of Cheeks and Mahmoud; it wouldn’t have been easy to turn down the Afro-American society. Instead of trying to find a dark motive for Joe’s offer of a benefit, Cheeks and Mahmoud might ponder the administration’s motive for denying Dartmouth students that benefit, and their own motive for playing along.


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