In the most recent controversy at Dartmouth, a vice president of the College called in an undergraduate, sat him down, and then made it briskly and abundantly clear that he considered the undergraduate’s political views out of line. That is according to the student’s statement, the publication of which brought the incident to light. The student newspaper, The Dartmouth, carried the story on Thursday. Bloggers, always attune to freedom-of-speech issues, have caught on. See here and here.
My own thoughts? The incident involves two questions. The first is the question of intimidation. Eugene Volokh brushes this question aside. “All the evidence suggests,” Volokh writes, “ is that the administration is willing to talk back to students who they think express unsound views. Not a lot to build a case of intimidation and censorship…it seems to me.”
Not all of the facts are in, so I’m not so sure the question of intimidation—a charge a Dartmouth man, and a football player no less, is not apt to levy frivolously—should be brushed aside. Indeed it should be taken seriously. The student concerned—one of three whom The Dartmouth last spring named “seniors of the year”—makes detailed, specific allegations:
[The vice president…pointed to the email I had sent to my fraternity brothers. He began quoting it to me. He became agitated. He criticized the views I expressed and the way in which I expressed them. Next [the vice president] began questioning me about my personal life, including my membership in student groups. He had made clear to me that he knew which groups I belonged to, what positions I held, and who my friends were. As I answered his questions, I got the distinct impression that he was checking his notes against my replies, verifying the records in a file he had compiled on me.
This brings us to the second question. The incident took place as the debate over a proposed new alumni constitution was beginning to take shape. (The proposal, which I myself oppose, will go to alumni for a vote in mid-September.) The president of Dartmouth has pledged his administration to neutrality in this debate, and the vice president concerned has often repeated this pledge. Yet in the recent incident, according to the student’s statement, the following exchange took place:
I explained…[t]hat the proposed constitution, if passed, would greatly curtail the freedom of petition candidates for the Board of Trustees to run fair and balanced races; that it would allot privileges and voting rights to “affiliated groups” and special interests; and that it would create a weak alumni association by forcing presidents-elect to wait two years before assuming real power. After the election to the Board of Trustees of three consecutive petition candidates, I said, the proposed constitution amounted to an underhanded attempt to make the election of any more petition trustees almost impossible….
[The vice president] began a lengthy diatribe advocating the proposed alumni constitution.
In The Dartmouth, the vice president claimed that “I don’t recall debating the constitution….”
Why is this significant? Because Dartmouth students, often apathetic about alumni affairs, have become especially motivated about the proposed new constitution. Witness the rare collaborative statement opposing the document by the editor in chief of the Dartmouth Review and its liberal counterpart, the Dartmouth Free Press. It is new—and welcome—that students are involved in debates about College governance. That is what makes these allegations so serious. If they are true, then the administration of the College does not want students opining on matters of governance—or at least not dissenting—and is violating its promise of neutrality to get them to clam up.