‘Paternalistic Babysitters’ Begone! Dartmouth Students Call for Intellectual Independence

By May 19, 2016

At least some Dartmouth College students have had enough. In a scathing petition on change.org, five leaders in Dartmouth’s student government, joined by more than 1,200 signatories, have called on the administration to return the college to its mission of educating, rather than policing, students. Although the growth of bureaucracy in academia is no secret, it is always sobering to confront the statistics. According to the well-cited petition, non-faculty staff at Dartmouth grew by more than 1,000 people from 1999 to 2004, and in spite of faculty layoffs, that number had increased to 3,497 by 2015. And most administrative staff do not come cheap, especially at prestigious research universities. As the petition points out, this contributes to the institution’s sky-high tuition; the sticker price for a year at Dartmouth is now just below $70,000.

But the petition points out that the cost of non-faculty staff is only part of the problem; what many of these people do all day damages the college as a place of learning as well. The petition does not mince words:

Instead of making a sincere and concerted attempt to resolve the [cost] issues mentioned above, the Dartmouth administration has spent its time policing student life. Buoyed by the idea that the College should support exclusionary “safe spaces” that act as a barrier against uncomfortable ideas, administrators have assumed the role of paternalistic babysitters. By effectively taking sides in sensitive debates and privileging the perspectives of certain students over others, administrators have crossed the line between maintaining a learning environment that is open to all and forcing their own personal views onto the entire campus. In doing so, they have undermined the value of civility, harmed the free exchange of ideas, and performed a disservice to those students who see their time in college as preparation for success in the real world. [Footnotes omitted.]

FIRE has long said that if any student goes through four years of college without being offended, he or she should demand a refund. It is heartening to see students themselves publicly stating that protecting them from discomfort is actually a disservice.

The petition also recognizes that FIRE recently reduced Dartmouth’s speech code rating from our highest, “green light” status to a “yellow light” based on the college’s bias incident reporting system. As my colleague Samantha Harris explained, Dartmouth instituted an overly broad definition of a “bias incident” that would allow the college to investigate or even punish remarks that ought to be protected under Dartmouth’s stated commitment to free expression:

Examples of bias incidents, according to Dartmouth’s Office of Pluralism and Leadership, include “telling jokes” and “stereotyping.” This policy is inconsistent with Dartmouth’s claim to be an institution that “prizes and defends the right of free speech.” If every joke or provocative remark about politics, religion, or culture is potentially subject to a formal investigation, Dartmouth students are not truly free to speak their minds.

The petition astutely knits together two trends in higher education—growth of bureaucracy and censorship of student speech—and powerfully describes the financial and intellectual costs of maintaining a monitoring system for offensive speech. The authors have a dramatic, yet simple, solution:

We therefore envision a College that has stripped away unnecessary deans, administrators, and support offices. We envision a College where students are granted the liberty to lead their lives as they please and enjoy a true freedom to speak their minds. We envision a College that has recommitted itself to its roots in rigorous and stimulating undergraduate education.

FIRE takes no position on Dartmouth’s staffing needs or on the massive layoffs that the petition calls for. We do, however, heartily endorse the idea that what “deans, administrators, and support offices” do all day should not include telling students what they can and cannot say.

Schools: Dartmouth College