Preaching to the Choir?

Dartmouth and Oberlin canceled classes to address controversial speech and racism with a day of forums. Some students and others question whether approach is appropriate or effective.

April 29, 2013

If an administration wants to respond to an incident of bigotry with a strong statement of inclusiveness, canceling classes and holding a series of lectures and forums in their place is one way to do it.

That's what two colleges did this spring in response to bias incidents that caused a stir on campus. But while some students commend the effort to foster dialogue and civility, others question the effectiveness and appropriateness of the decisions.

First Oberlin College, after a string of hate-related campus incidents including anti-Semitic and racist graffiti and a reported assault, canceled classes in March when a student reported someone walking near its Afrikan Heritage House in what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The following morning, officials announced that classes would be replaced with a teach-in, a "demonstration of solidarity" and a community convocation. (Police indicated the next day that the KKK sighting may have just been a person wrapped in a blanket, but Oberlin officials defended the decision, saying it was the broader context -- all the incidents taken together -- that prompted the cancelation.)

Then last week, Dartmouth College called off classes for a day after some students were the targets of threats of bodily harm, threats that cited their sexual orientation or race. Some of those posts were targeted at students who had orchestrated a protest that interrupted an event for prospective freshmen, where the protesters chanted "Dartmouth has a problem!" and decried homophobia, sexual assault and racism on campus. In lieu of classes, the college held a series of programs and speeches by faculty members, a diversity and social justice consultant and Dartmouth's interim president, Carol Folt.

Some students said the colleges' response was an important and effective part of educating students outside the classroom on social justice issues that pervade every campus.

"It's a bold statement and yes, it is difficult for institutions to do things like that, but at the same time, it should be just as difficult for students to allow [hostile] activity like that" said Eliza Diop, an Oberlin sophomore who is liaison to the Student Senate. "I think that at Oberlin specifically, there are more students now who are aware."

But others were more skeptical. Suril A. Kantaria, Dartmouth's student body president, said canceling classes because of the online threats "wasn't the most effective" response.

"We're at Dartmouth to study and that comes first, and a lot of this gathering response could have occurred at a different time," such as a weekend or in the evening, Kantaria said. "I think it's a worthwhile use of time, if they hadn't canceled classes -- the community does need to come together now to discuss issues that are prevalent."

But Kantaria said "several" students are upset both about the way the protesters carried themselves -- disrupting a planned event for high schoolers visiting the campus -- and about administrators' failure to consult other students when deciding whether to cancel classes, a decision Kantaria said was requested by the protesters themselves.

An editorial in The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, said, "The message seems to be that, if you fly a political banner, are sufficiently angry and manage to break enough college rules, you can gain a stranglehold over the administration."

It's extremely rare for an institution to cancel classes for reasons other than inclement weather or an imminent public safety threat. Dartmouth has canceled classes for other reasons three times before: after the Kent State shootings in 1970 (when classes were suspended for a week-long teach-in), after "several provocative incidents" in 1979, and after students destroyed an anti-apartheid "shantytown" on campus.

However, Dartmouth and Oberlin are not the only colleges to make such a decision in recent years. In November 2011, Williams College replaced a day of classes with programming on inequality and diversity after someone scrawled "All Niggers Must Die" across a hallway in a campus dorm.

In a letter to the Dartmouth campus announcing the decision to call off classes, Folt and other officials said, "We feel it is necessary for the community as a whole to have the opportunity to learn about all that has transpired and to discuss further action that will help us live up to our mission."

It is "telling" that Dartmouth responded to the message board comments so quickly and dramatically, yet did not address the silenced speech of the students whose presentation was interrupted, said William Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "Free speech does not entail the right to silence others, and that's what happened here," Creeley said, adding that students disagreeing with what someone else said does not warrant canceling classes (and if the posts are truly threatening, police should be the ones intervening). "While a well-intentioned response, I think that it puts a premium on nasty speech in a way that gives attention to the speech that it otherwise would not have received."

A poll of nearly 1,200 students by The Dartmouth found that 67 percent of students said canceling classes was not "an appropriate response," and 57 percent said it was not effective.

Kantaria said a lot of students stayed out drinking Tuesday night when they learned classes were off the next day and skipped the programs, opting to enjoy the 72-degree weather on their own terms. "By no means were these attended by a majority of the student body," he said. Kantaria himself attended "some" of the events, he said.

Dartmouth said that 400 people attended the diversity consultant's speech, and more than 1,500 people were gathered outside when Folt spoke around noon.

While "one size doesn't fit all," a more effective approach might have been to use class time to reflect on the incidents and talk about civility, said Benjamin D. Reese Jr., president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. That's because students and staff who attend the sort of programming put on by Oberlin and Dartmouth tend to be of similar mind.

"You tend to get a higher percentage and a broader cross-section of students engaging in dialogue, because most classes are made up of students that reflect lots of different perspectives and viewpoints," said Reese, who is also vice president for institutional equity at Duke University.

Teach-ins can be helpful in that they allow people "to express things that perhaps weren't expressed," but their benefit for students is minimal compared to long-term activities and repeated conversations with different groups and communities.

"I wouldn't compare an hour, two-hour dialogue in an auditorium with the kind of deeper opportunity for insight and understanding of differences that can occur in other ways," he said.

Kantaria also questioned the long-term impact of the programs.

"Did we solve anything?" he said. "I wouldn't say we arrived at a long-term solution. I think what these community gatherings do is create temporary relief for students who really need to express their viewpoints and talk about the problem."

Diop is part of a group working on long-term solutions for Oberlin, by talking to different campus groups (for example, faculty and athletics) about how they can foster a healthier and more inclusive community, with the central purpose of educating the campus on how power, privilege and oppression affect campus culture there.

"Events like this remind us that this is a big issue and shouldn't be something we only pay attention to when things get drastic," Diop said.


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