Noah Riner wanted to stir up Dartmouth College students with his speech at a convocation ceremony last week suggesting that students' character matters just as much as their intelligence and their talents, and that the college pays too little attention to that aspect of their development.
And stir them up he did, although not exactly in the way he'd hoped: His focus on the redemptive power of Jesus Christ provoked criticism that he had misused a speaking opportunity he earned by being student body president to proselytize to a captive audience. The incident has spurred renewed discussion at Dartmouth (and in the blogosphere) about free speech and the receptivity of Dartmouth students and others to diverse -- especially "conservative" -- viewpoints.
Each year, the president of Dartmouth's Student Assembly has the honor of delivering a speech at the convocation, the formal opening of the academic year and an event specifically designed to welcome incoming freshmen. Dartmouth's president also speaks -- this year, James Wright, urged students to understand how privileged they are and to use their good fortune to improve the world -- and in his or her 3-5 minutes, the assembly president is encouraged not to lay out an agenda for the student government but to aim higher and broader.
Dartmouth, Riner told his peers, has turned out many very special people -- and many corrupt ones, too, he said, launching into a list of examples, historical and recent, of alums and bad citizens: a Soviet spy, a murderer, a history teacher who sexually assaulted a 15-year-old student.
Lack of character is everywhere, he said -- among the looters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in "all of us." "Character is what you do when no one is looking, but I'm afraid to say all the things I've done when no one was looking," Riner said. "Let's be honest, the differences are in degree. We have the same flaws as the individuals who pillaged New Orleans. Ours haven't been given such free range, but they exist and are part of us all the same."
Then Riner invoked Christ. Jesus, he said, "is the solution to flawed people like corrupt Dartmouth alums, looters, and me." "Jesus' message of redemption is simple. People are imperfect, and there are consequences for our actions. He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn't have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God's love: Jesus on the cross, for us."
Riner's point, in closing, was that students should focus on more than achievement while at Dartmouth. "As you begin your four years here, you've got to come to some conclusions about your own character because you won't get it by just going to class. What is the content of your character? Who are you? And how will you become what you need to be?"
The reaction was swift. The next day, the Student Assembly's vice president of student life, Kaelin Goulet, resigned her position in protest. In an e-mail message reported by The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, she called "his choice of topic for the convocation speech reprehensible and an abuse of power." And in her letter of resignation to Riner, who had chosen her for the position, she wrote: "Your first opportunity to represent Student Assembly to the incoming freshmen was appalling. You embarrass the organization; you embarrass yourself."
Students from a range of perspectives chimed in on the student paper's op-ed pages. One junior wrote that "it is truly a shame when a Dartmouth student can no longer express his or her moral convictions without bringing down a sea of criticism and censure upon themselves. In a world where moral relativism has become the norm, even the expected attitude, it is very refreshing to see and hear a fellow student express their convictions in a forthright and uncompromising manner."
Leaders of the campus Jewish and Hindu groups complained that Riner had implied that "all of us should look to Jesus as our Savior... Invoking imagery of the cross, using the word 'us,' but not me -- these are inappropriate for a speech opening the new school year and welcoming all students."
Another Jewish student weighed in on behalf of Riner's First Amendment rights, saying that "while his speech may have been preachy, he certainly has the right to make his point."
The newspaper's own editorial board argued that Riner had undercut his overall message by focusing on Jesus as the "only way to find character." "Riner had every right, as a member of a community that values the freedom of speech, to speak freely about what matters to him," The Dartmouth editors wrote. "The forum he chose, however, was inappropriate. By preaching his faith from a commandeered pulpit, Riner weakened the more important message of his speech -- the need to develop personal character while at Dartmouth."
(A student cartoonist generated some controversy of his own with a drawing in which Jesus urges a fire-and-brimstone spewing Riner to "chill out" and offers him a joint.)
In an interview, Riner, a senior who majors in history and government, said that in preparing for the speech, he read the remarks delivered by his last six presidential predecessors and found that while the content varied, they generally "spoke about who they are from their own perspective," and were often "very personal in ideology and opinions" (two years ago, he said, the assembly president discussed the legalization of marijuana).
"My goals were to challenge and inspire students and specifically to make them think deeply about character," he said. "And for me, Jesus is a natural figure to bring up when talking about character."
Riner said he knew that doing so would provoke some response -- "Dartmouth is a very diverse place, and for almost any opinion that one can hold, there'll be some one on the campus who holds a different view -- but that the breadth and depth of the reaction has surprised him. "I hoped that people would discuss issues of character coming out of the speech. People do seem to be thinking about character a little more, and whether that's agreeing with me or disagreeing with me, that's still a good thing."
On a campus that has sometimes been accused by conservative alumni of shunning non-liberal points of view, a controversy like this one might be expected to bring out the college's external critics like dogs to raw meat. But Dartmouth officials are staying on the sidelines in this dispute -- "the speech and the dialogue following it show that free speech is clearly alive and well at Dartmouth. The administration applauds the responsible ways in which students have addressed this important matter," said William N. Walker, the college's chief spokesman -- and Riner says the criticism he's faced is a credit to Dartmouth and its students, not a condemnation of them.
"This proves that Dartmouth students are very engaging and they want to consider and challenge ideas," Riner said. "They want their views to be heard, but they're willing to grapple with all sorts of viewpoints."