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Dartmouth College Replaces Today’s Classes with Discussions About Civil Discourse

Baker Memorial Library at Dartmouth College - Wikimedia Commons

Today's classes at Dartmouth College have been canceled and replaced by a program meant to address the school's "commitment to fostering debate that promotes respect for individuals, civil and engaged discourse, and the value of diverse opinions." Dartmouth Interim President Carol Folt emailed students yesterday evening to inform them of the change and noted that the decision was "prompted by a series of threatening and abusive online posts ... in the wake of the protest that disrupted the Dimensions Welcome Show [last] Friday evening."

Dimensions of Dartmouth comprises a variety of academic and extracurricular programs and presentations during the school's prospective students weekend that highlight the culture and opportunities students enjoy at Dartmouth. A group of students called Real Talk Dartmouth interrupted Friday night's traditional performance of songs and skits with a chant about sexual assault, homophobia, and sexism on campus, yelling, "Dartmouth has a problem." Junior Karolina Krelinova explained, "We were forced to seek alternative means of speaking truth about issues of structural oppression and anonymous bullying at Dartmouth. None of these issues were given space during the official programming of the Dimensions weekend."

As Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Maria Laskis pointed out, Friday's schedule included two programs designed to foster candid discussion: "Real Talk" (apparently not affiliated with Real Talk Dartmouth) and "Dartmouth Myths, Legends and Realities." Prospective students said they received honest answers to their questions at Real Talk. In contrast, visitors said they were confused by the demonstration during the Welcome Show and weren't sure whether it was part of the planned performance or not. One prospective student opined that the protest was "by no means the most effective way to address the issue."

What worried administrators, though, was the online response to the protestors, as (presumably) students reportedly posted insults and even threats of physical violence on Bored at Baker, an anonymous online forum. There appears to be somewhat of a disparity in views between students and teachers as to the gravity of the Bored at Baker posts. One commenter on Jezebel dismisses users of Bored at Baker as "trolls" and the site as "equivalent to the youtube [sic] comment section," and another student says he "would never take anything seriously on Bored at Baker." But College Dean Charlotte H. Johnson emphasized that "[t]hreats and intimidation ... [are] never justified," and Gender Studies Department Chair Ivy Schweitzer said that the posts were "terrifying because they are anonymous" and "[w]e don't know ... how many students are writing these threats." Indeed, an anonymous student told student newspaper The Dartmouth, "People I know have left this campus because they did not feel safe because of comments on Bored at Baker, The Dartmouth's website and Facebook."

Nevertheless, many students expressed frustration that classes were canceled, particularly in light of Dartmouth's general hesitation to cancel classes for weather and other reasons. The Dartmouth reported that some professors found the cancellation "disruptive to [their] schedule[s]" and that some professors were holding optional make-up classes. Still others stated that they didn't expect students to actually show up, anyway.

It remains to be seen whether students will engage in meaningful discussion about harassment and related issues during today's hastily-devised programming. FIRE urges students and administrators not to conflate the several questions about expression presented by the series of events at Dartmouth this weekend and instead to address each situation separately and with an eye towards protecting students' liberty and the marketplace of ideas on campus.

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