On a bright September morning that felt more like the continuation of summer than the beginning of fall, President James Wright welcomed members of the Class of 2011 to the opening of Dartmouth’s 238th academic year. He was joined by N. Bruce Duthu ’80, a professor of law at Vermont Law School and the Gordon Russell Visiting Professor in Native American Studies at Dartmouth, and by Student Body President Travis H.K. Green ’08. The three speakers looked at the Dartmouth of today through the lens of history, and urged the incoming first-year students to use their years on campus and beyond building experiences that will strengthen them as individuals and as a community.
“I would like to welcome the Class of 2011 to Dartmouth,” said President Wright. “A few days ago in my office at your matriculation I told you how pleased we are that you have joined this community of learning, this community of warm and enduring friendships. And I am especially proud to welcome here the military veterans who have chosen to join the Dartmouth fellowship; we salute your courage and we are enriched by your presence.”
Three veterans of the War in Iraq have matriculated at Dartmouth this year. A former Marine himself, Wright has worked with the American Council on Education (ACE) to raise funds specifically for wounded veterans who wish to continue their college educations.
“The Class of 2011 is larger than we intended because more of you wanted to accept our admissions invitation than we had anticipated,” said Wright. “This is not a bad circumstance! Each and every one of you is here because this is where you want to be. And each and every one of you is here because we wanted you to be here. You are also more diverse in background, race, and economic circumstance than any previous Dartmouth class has been, and there are more international students than we have ever heretofore matriculated. At Dartmouth we have a tradition of urging students to learn from each other—and in this arena today is the base for a wonderful and rich learning experience.”
Wright explained that the diversity of the incoming class reflected a profound institutional commitment to diversity stretching back to the College’s founding. “The College charter issued by King George III in 1769,” said Wright, “provided that Dartmouth College be established ‘for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land,’ and the charter went on ‘and also for ‘English youth and any others.’ There was no school of the period that embraced so inclusive a purpose.”
That purpose began, he explained, with a profound relationship to the Native peoples of America. “The Mohegan Indian Samson Occom stands alongside the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock as a founder of Dartmouth,” Wright said. “While no group ‘owns’ this institution, if any group has a historic relationship with this College it is surely, as our charter reflects, the members of the Native American tribes of this land. So in this, the 238th year of Dartmouth, we extend a special welcome to those who descend from our first students, and whose presence here both reminds us of our legacy and enriches us as a community.”
Describing the 19th-century College as “more homogenous,” Wright went on to say that, “even then, Dartmouth stood out as a school that was accessible and welcoming to the poor farm boys of the New England North Country.” He noted that Dartmouth was the first among what would eventually become the Ivy League to admit an African American student, Edward Mitchell, and that several others followed him before the Civil War, including, as Wright said, “…individuals like Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs of the Class of 1852, who subsequently opened a school for freedmen in North Carolina and helped to organize the Reconstruction governments in Florida, where he served as superintendent of education and secretary of state.” Wright also mentioned Charles Eastman–Ohiyesa—a Dakota Indian who graduated from Dartmouth in 1887 and became a physician, lawyer, and writer.
“President William Jewett Tucker, led Dartmouth into the 20th century,” continued Wright, “by expanding the student body and by seeking even greater diversity. The founder of Asian studies in the United States, the Japanese student Konichi Asakawa, Class of 1899, and the scientist who established the field of marine biology, E. E. Just, the son of slaves and a member of the Class of 1907, these embodied the Tucker vision. Still later, President Ernest Martin Hopkins in the 1920s argued for the educational value of diversity, believing that students learn from each other and that their learning is enriched by having students whose backgrounds and experiences are different from their own.
“Each president, each of us succeeding Mr. Hopkins has shared this belief. And, this commitment to the educational value of a diverse student body represents well the Dartmouth of today, building upon outreach in recruiting that was initiated by President John Sloan Dickey in the 1960s and upon a reaffirmation of Dartmouth’s commitment to Native American education championed by President John Kemeny in 1970.”
But Wright cautioned that Dartmouth’s historic commitment to diversity would be endangered if not actively practiced by individuals and by the community. “It is a value and a purpose that each Dartmouth generation must reaffirm,” he said. “And those who would claim that Dartmouth only recently discovered the educational value of diversity do not understand the richness of our past. Last year at Dartmouth, students, faculty, and staff asserted most clearly that all members of this community are welcome here. This is a powerful message that needs to be constantly and consistently reaffirmed. And then it needs to be embraced and lived: merely stating it is not sufficient.”
The President explained that the principles of diversity he was urging students to embrace are being questioned in today’s larger national debates.
“The current political and legal environment is one in which programs that seek to extend diversity are under siege by those who argue that any exercise of affirmative action to address systemic or societal bias is in and of itself a form of bias,” he said. “I would surely agree that the concept of race neutrality as asserted by these critics of affirmative action is an important legal principle. However, until our society is race neutral in its assumptions and practices and in its opportunities, the legal principle can stand as barrier against, rather than as a facilitator of, the justice and equality and access that is promised. In our society there are still too many individuals who, and institutions and cultural norms which, use race or origin to define and not merely to describe. And these definitions can be confining, if not indeed crude and demeaning as well.”
Describing the recent work of political scientist Robert Putnam, who has argued that diverse communities have less “social capital” than those that are homogenous, Wright cautioned that Putnam’s findings have added fuel to current debates about the value of diversity and affirmative action. “So it is essential,” he said, “that we ask ourselves on this September morning whether all of this—the legal, constitutional, political, and cultural challenges of our time; the pessimism suggested by Putnam’s research—whether all of this means that Dartmouth should back away from its historic principles and assumptions.
“Having raised the question, I shall take the opportunity to provide an answer: No, to me it surely does not. This College’s legacy and responsibility are richer than the cycles of politics. Our commitment to the nature of this learning community is older than the formation of this Republic. The fundamental principle underlying this College and the liberal arts in general is to examine assumptions, to respond to new ideas, not stubbornly to hold to what we once thought to be true. The Putnam research makes more, rather than less, urgent our historic purpose. The appropriate response to these new findings cannot be to strive for homogeneous communities, which may, in the short term, have more social capital, but will surely not, in the long term, provide the intellectual excitement, the general stimulation, and the preparation for a lifetime of learning that Dartmouth seeks—as it has always sought to engender.”
Wright urged the members of the Class of 2011 to actively take on the challenges of diversity and cautioned that doing so would require courage and commitment.
“Your world,” he said, “will not be one marked by insular communities or isolated societies, cultures, or nations. The leaders and contributors of your generation will not be those who seek the safe social capital and the bland intellectual capital of likeminded homogeneity and the temporary comfort of isolating themselves with those who will never challenge them. Dartmouth’s historic task and current mission is to educate young women and men who can create diverse communities with abundant social capital. No one should assume this will be an easy task. But this is the assignment of your time and of your generation.”
As is his custom, Wright closed his Convocation remarks by describing how the new class and the historic College have embarked on a lifelong relationship. “…today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you,” he said. “You will never be the same. But you should know that by your very presence here, Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and joy. But also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning ... We have work to do, you and I—and it is time to begin! Welcome to Dartmouth.”
By LAUREL STAVIS
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Last Updated: 12/17/08