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Remarks by President James Wright at the Dartmouth Alumni Association of New York City

April 5, 2005

We have visited a number of clubs this winter, including those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver, and Sarasota, Vero Beach, and Naples in Florida. I met with the Club officers in Hanover. I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet with so many alumni and to hear their views on the College, and to share with them my own.

I have addressed matters ranging from the centrality of the undergraduate experience to the place of legacies in admissions to the role of athletics. I have reminded people that, yes, we do have graduate schools, have had them for over 200 years, and we should be very proud of their accomplishments. These club speeches are posted on the Dartmouth Web site. Communications with alumni are critical. This past summer the Board of Trustees set up a working group to consider ways in which we could improve our communications with alumni and ensure that the communication was two-way.

A valuable part of my Dartmouth experience has been this give and take with alumni. This summer will mark the 35th anniversary of my first trip to a Dartmouth Club, when I visited the Denver Club. We talked in the summer of 1970 about recent protest activity on the campus following the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State and Jackson State killings, we discussed the inauguration of John Kemeny as president a few months earlier, we talked about renewed efforts to recruit students of color, and we discussed the major issue facing the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, whether to move to coeducation. We had a good discussion, a debate on issues that were of critical importance to the College. I have enjoyed many similar discussions in the years since then - with alumni and students who share a passion for what Dartmouth has done and a passion for what Dartmouth can do.

Obviously, this sort of discourse can lead to tensions-but candid discussion ultimately provides the best way to relieve tensions. I think we all benefit from the frank exchange of ideas. Universities and colleges need to be places where dialogue and conversation, where views of every stripe, and where the free expression of ideas are protected. There have been a number of instances in higher education recently that have highlighted conflict around these issues. From Columbia to Harvard to the University of Colorado, distinguished institutions are engaging in important debates about speech and the free expression of ideas and also the ways in which speech can be stifled or chilled.

I do not want to spend my time this evening going into the merits of any of these particular incidents, but I would like to talk about the broader issue. What is important about each of these cases - and of course, there are many other examples - are two reinforcing perceptions: that freedom of expression is under attack on our campus, or alternatively, that it is abused to protect stifling or intimidating conduct. Is it? Do colleges and universities repress alternative viewpoints? Is there a campus orthodoxy? Even in our own current alumni trustee nominating process there is an argument, out there in the ether of the digital world, about speech at Dartmouth.

As president, I have worked hard to make Dartmouth a campus that is welcoming to all students. We assuredly do not have speech codes. We do have a diverse and complicated community that mirrors the world in which we live. Some of the differences that mark that world play out in our own discussions.

Dartmouth has a historic commitment to diversity that dates back to our charter. But our commitment to diversity today is not simply a fulfillment of that charter obligation; it is not simply about the obligation of an elite institution to society; it is not only about expanding opportunity to those for whom it historically has been closed. All of these things are important but this commitment also stems from an understanding that the intellectual and educational environment at Dartmouth is strengthened by having a diverse population. Students learn from one another and the more diverse the student body, the faculty, and the administration, the better that educational environment. This is not social engineering. It is fundamentally a matter of education.

And by diversity, I do not simply mean racial and ethnic diversity, as critical as these things are. Our admissions process takes a lot of different characteristics into account and has done so since President Ernest Martin Hopkins introduced the selective admissions process in the 1920s. He stressed academic qualifications as well as geographic diversity and the character of the individual student. He insisted as do I that at Dartmouth students learn from each other so that we must admit a class best able to meet that responsibility. Today, each applicant is assessed as an individual and is admitted as an individual. They are talented young women and young men with a range of interests and accomplishments. "Well rounded" still fits.

One of the great success stories in American life since the Second World War has been the expansion of opportunities for higher education to all qualified students. Dartmouth participated and in some regards assumed a leadership role in this process and has been significantly enriched by expanding our pool of prospective students.

Today, about 30 percent of students are students of color and approximately 15 percent are the first in their families to attend College. I am pleased with these accomplishments. But campus composition is not an end in itself It is a means to an end and that end is called education.

While we want our campus to be open and welcoming to all students, it should not be the case that our students can work their way through their education without having their ideas challenged, their assumptions tested, and their intellects stretched to encompass new ways of thinking. At some points in their Dartmouth career, they need to be made intellectually uncomfortable and challenged.

This week, The Ford Foundation announced a new initiative called "Difficult Dialogues: Promoting Pluralism and Academic Freedom on Campus" that will attempt to address this issue nationally. They invited fifteen College and University presidents and higher education leaders to join them in encouraging this debate. I was honored to be asked to join the group and pleased to agree to do so. Many institutions - not just Columbia, Harvard, or the University of Colorado - are struggling with these issues.

But what about Dartmouth? It appears to me that there is a lot of speech from every conceivable viewpoint - both by members of our own community and by guest speakers whom we invite to campus - and that the free exchange of ideas is alive and well. I encourage students every day to move outside their comfort zones, to engage with people who are different from them, to take courses that they might not have thought of taking.

It may well be that our students and faculty are today more "liberal" than the population-but I suspect this was true as long as I have been at Dartmouth. It surely was the perception of some Denver alumni in 1970. And I have been struck by the instances when President Hopkins had to defend the College against the same criticism. In these discussions we need to recognize an important theme in the history of American higher education. Schools like Dartmouth but also Harvard, Princeton, Yale and others, were originally organized to transmit to students the received wisdom of the day: it was traditional, it was orthodox, it was intellectually confining. Thus the curriculum in the early nineteenth century included Greek and Latin, ancient geography, rhetoric and grammar. But nothing on modern history, economics, or science. Institutions of higher learning were fundamentally conservative.

But by the period following the American Civil War this had changed: American colleges and universities became places to create as much as to transmit knowledge. The best institutions were increasingly marked by curiosity, imagination, and by a culture that challenged intellectual orthodoxy. This provided the basis for so much of American intellectual, economic, and cultural energy in the twentieth century. At Dartmouth, Presidents Bartlett and Tucker introduced the study of modern languages, history, literature, economics, and evolution.

And the curriculum continued to evolve and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of its students and the wider society. It must do so if a Dartmouth education is to remain intellectually dynamic and relevant. Students must be pushed and their ideas challenged. They must wrestle with opinions and perspectives that are different from their own. And I think that is exactly what happens at Dartmouth today.

If indeed campuses are places that challenge that which is known and accepted, it should not be surprising that those people who pursue academic careers tend to be less conservative than the population as a whole. I am never surprised to learn that most corporate CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or that most bankers or military officers tend to be more Republican than the population and that academics tend to be more Democratic. Some seem surprised, troubled, only by the latter. Indeed, not all academics are "liberal."

Certainly, I do not find it very helpful to use the categories of liberal and conservative with regard to curricular issues - the range of viewpoints is so much broader than this binary view would suggest. Is the predominant orthodoxy in chemistry, philosophy, or even economics liberal? Is it liberal to focus on brain sciences over social psychology? Is it liberal to assign texts on Marxist thought? I don't think so. But I certainly agree that faculty should not use the classroom or their relationship with students to proselytize. Columbia President Lee Bollinger said recently about the situation on that campus:

"We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty members above every other value. ... [Professors have an obligation] to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others."

I fully share the view of my friend and former Dartmouth colleague. As colleges and universities we face a heavy responsibility to ensure that open debate is protected not only on campus but also within the classroom. This was in fact the focus of my comments this past September at Convocation for the Class of 2008. I said then:

"An academic community - indeed a free society - rests on the freedom to think and to speak out. The free expression of ideas is a bedrock principle, even though not all that is thought or said is equally valid or true. The corollary of the freedom of speech is the freedom to criticize that which is said. And sometimes this freedom to disagree becomes an obligation. If politeness and civility and mutual respect form the basis of our community, so too do engagement and debate and, assuredly, disagreement. Academic communities at their best are places that challenge more than they reinforce."

Dartmouth needs to be a place where arguments and assumptions and conclusions are tested - and, then, tested some more.

The criticism that Dartmouth has a "speech code" derives from the position taken by the interest group FIRE, which bases its "red light" designation on a single letter I wrote following the Zeta Psi incident four years ago. The Dean derecognized the fraternity because of the repeated publication of a newsletter that cruelly demeaned specific women on campus. This incident was about behavior not speech-the organization published articles describing the supposed sexual exploits of two undergraduate women who were identified by name. I am comfortable with my position on this. As president I have an obligation to speak out on matters of importance to our community. I only regret that this continues to be an issue for some.

An interesting recent development has been the argument by some that diversity should also encompass ideological or political diversity-and not simply for students but also for the faculty. In fact I share the basic assumption behind this argument-if not the agenda that sometimes surrounds it. It is important - more than that, it is critical-that there be intellectual diversity within the academy and on our campus. The intellectual vitality that we all value derives in large part from the free exchange of ideas. So while in principle I have no problem with this goal, I can assure you that I have no intention of imposing upon our admissions or our recruiting processes some sort of political test. We don't have that now and we won't. What I hope we do have, and I will certainly protect, is an atmosphere that allows and encourages freedom of expression.

Our focus needs be on the Dartmouth for the Class of 2009-and of 2019. (Not coincidentally the class whose graduation will mark 250 years of endurance-and of excellence.)

President William Jewett Tucker told Boston alumni in 1893, "We plan today for the Dartmouth, not of ten years hence but of fifty years hence." President Tucker, as he so often did, had it right. A Dartmouth education must serve the needs-the changing needs-of its students and the needs-the evolving needs--of the broader society.

Let me conclude somewhat more personally. Tomorrow will mark the seventh anniversary of the occasion when Trustee William King introduced me in Alumni Hall as the sixteenth president in the Wheelock succession. I understand it is natural at this stage and at my age that people will speculate or ask how long I intend to remain in this position. My answer is quite simple: I have a passion for what I do and can't imagine doing anything else. More importantly and less personally, I have things yet to do and when they are done then I will be ready for my next assignment!

I am sustained by the confidence that Dartmouth is in so many ways stronger than it has ever been and I am energized by the task of what we are doing to protect that strength and position. I enjoy being in a capital campaign that is ambitious and aggressive. I can think of nothing less for Dartmouth than for it to be ambitious and aggressive. And I have a passion for enabling alumni and others to have the satisfaction of contributing to make their College the stronger, to assure that this place will continue to endure because we know it must endure. And if the days get long sometime, Susan and I have the opportunity to go to a game or a play and marvel at our students or to go to Thayer hall and join them for dinner and be energized by the experience. It is a good job and I am not yet finished with it.

On April 6, 1998 I concluded my remarks to the community by quoting from Emily Dickinson:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers-
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without the words-
And never stops-at all-

The hope is sustained and it is the greater because of your enthusiasm for this great historic task our generation has taken on in this competitive time: to make certain that Dartmouth never lets up in asserting our commitment to have Dartmouth endure and relevant to the worlds of our students. As I have said to each class that I have welcomed at convocation: we have work to do, you and I. And, my friends, we do as well-the Hillwinds call.

Last Updated: 7/24/18