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Is Meaningful Change Possible Through The Student Assembly?

Sept 5, 2021

By S Lamontagne

 

A few weeks into my freshman fall, I crossed the Green on the way to my weekly COVID-19 test with The Head and the Heart’s “Rhythm & Blues” playing in my headphones. Ain’t it nice to be so lucky? Ain’t it nice to be so loved? The song’s lyrics, embarrassingly, launched me into a moment of sentimentality. For all that had terrified me about starting college thousands of miles from home, things were going really well. In the past five weeks alone, my life had changed for the better so rapidly that I’d later tell my friends that freshman fall was like an explosion, like finally being able to come up for air after spending your whole life underwater. The knowledge that I didn’t always have to feel the way I did in high school, that I had friends who just seemed to get it in a way no one ever had before, that there was a future ahead of me where I didn’t have to fight constant feelings of hopelessness and clouds around my brain, was all new to me. As I finished my walk to Leverone, I reveled in gratitude, and for those few minutes, in spite of all its failings I’d heard about but mostly had yet to experience firsthand, I felt like I loved Dartmouth.

My wide-eyed optimism didn’t last long. Around that same time, I opened the election ballot for Student Assembly (SA) freshman senators on Engage and found that the senator ballot for School House was write-in only. Not one ‘24 from my House Community had chosen to run for the position. I had never been a student government “type”—I never so much as considered it in high school because I didn’t think I’d be good at it, and frankly, it didn’t interest me. However, amused by the empty ballot, I sent a text message to a few of my floormates along the lines of “what if you guys wrote me in for school house senator haha just kidding unless.” They responded enthusiastically to the idea, and by the end of the next day, I was on the phone with then-SA president Cait McGovern as she told me that I had received more write-in votes than anyone else and offered me the position. From what I had heard, many students on campus of all political ideologies found themselves frustrated with the Student Assembly’s inaction, and my friends who organize were generally of the opinion that SA was far too full of neoliberals and resume padders to do anything useful on campus. I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of everything I had heard, as I hadn’t seen any of it firsthand, but surely there had to be some truth to it. In any case, I accepted the position, and as such, I accepted a front-row seat to see for myself, both with regards to administration and the members of SA themselves.

What awaited me gave me a completely new perspective on the gratitude and love that first overwhelmed me during that October walk, as well as on Dartmouth itself: ultimately, I found that it was more important to most of the Student Assembly to not step out of line with what the administration would be okay with than to do the right thing for the students we claim to represent. This did not come as an indictment solely of the SA, but also of the Dartmouth administration, as I found that at the end of the day, the Dartmouth administration viewed its students as little more than transactions—but the Student Assembly was too concerned with maintaining its positive relationship with the administration, and all the bureaucratic and budgetary concerns that come along with that, to truly challenge the administration’s lack of care for students and advocate effectively for student needs. 

One significant barrier to change through SA, as I learned early on, was the culture of austerity surrounding the budget that prevented them from spending money on initiatives that could otherwise significantly help students. The Student Assembly could have received over $30,000 dollars in funding this past year, had they used all the money that was given to them. Egregiously, however, they only spent $19,785, solely citing how the administration had asked them to be financially prudent. The audacity of bending to the administration’s will by handling the budget in this manner in a year filled with so much peril for so many students is absurd on its own, but the concrete examples of this attitude playing out in real life were just as telling.

I saw firsthand the reality of this administration-appeasing attitude towards the budget during the winter term. I joined the student aid committee and put a lot of time into the Menstrual Products Project (MPP), a pilot project aimed at stocking heavily-trafficked campus bathrooms with free (and actually decent quality) menstrual products. The pilot, by and large, was a success, and we’re planning to expand it this fall, but what went on behind the scenes was deeply frustrating. At every step of the process that I could, I made sure I was advocating for trans and non-binary inclusion in the project, from simply being mindful of our language (e.g. saying “menstrual products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”) to making sure that men’s and gender-neutral restrooms were stocked in addition to the women’s restrooms. My peers in SA generally seemed to agree with me, and yet, when the time came to place the order for products and dispensers, I was told that we weren’t going to stock men’s restrooms as a part of the pilot project because statistically, they wouldn’t get much use, and “we didn’t want to waste our budget on products that wouldn’t be used.” I still don’t know who made this decision, but the fact that it went more or less unchallenged within the MPP committee alone made it clear to me that for some of my peers, the proclaimed desire to include trans people in our project was little more than just that: a proclamation. Sure, it could be nice, but at the end of the day, was it good for the budget? That question seemed to matter more here than whether or not trans people were being erased entirely based on the fact that they are statistically less common than cisgender people and thus would use fewer products. Tampons and pads aren’t perishable, so slow usage wasn’t a concern, and by no means did we have to put the same number of products in men’s restrooms as we did in the women’s rooms. The refusal to accommodate transmasculine people in this project for the sake of the budget constituted an act of transphobic erasure. In the expanded form of the project, it seems that we are actually putting products in the men’s restrooms, but possibly only because a couple of days after the pilot launch, we received an email inquiring as to why there were no products in the men’s restrooms. This was the first of many instances where I felt that many of my peers on SA were more concerned about reputation and respectability to the administration by spending more money than they “absolutely had to” than actually doing the right thing, which in this case really wouldn’t have been too difficult the first time around—although whether the SA as a body ever has doing the “right thing” as its primary objective is another question altogether.

 

The refusal to spend the money available to them (although mystifyingly, I heard older senators joke occasionally about how they’d bought takeout for weekly meetings in the past to use up some more of the budget) is only the beginning of the factors that make change next to impossible from within the SA, as they also refuse to collaborate with other student groups that may not be as palatable to the administration or use any means available to them that might be harmful in relation to optics. 

Several weeks into the winter term, Dartmouth’s campus experienced a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases, to the point where over a hundred students were infected at once. Due to this outbreak, many students were left in precarious circumstances, whether they were sick themselves, mentally struggling with isolation and other stressors, or financially impacted by no longer being able to work their campus jobs. In the midst of the outbreak, the Dartmouth Student Union, an organization of student activists independent of the Student Assembly, circulated and collected student and faculty signatures on a letter asking the administration to expand the Non-Recording Option for that term due to the extenuating circumstances imposed by the pandemic in the long term and the campus outbreak in this particular period of time. Within hours of the DSU letter being released publicly and gaining a solid amount of traction (~860 signatures) among the student body, the Student Assembly released a letter requesting, instead, a pass/fail option in the winter term. (The SA members who wrote and sent out the letter claimed that they had not seen the DSU letter at the time of the SA’s letter release.) Through a combination of my own distraction that week and poor communication of the SA members who worked on the letter, I didn’t see the SA letter until minutes before it was sent out. Regardless of whether the authors of the letter had seen the DSU letter, it came off publicly as both unoriginal and a middle finger to the DSU and the work that they had put out first. In the Student Assembly Slack channel, I pointed this out, and an anonymous vote was held as to whether we should also sign onto the DSU letter. After half an hour of virtual debate, the vote failed. Many of the SA members who I can reasonably assume voted against signing onto it cited not disagreeing with the premise of the letter itself, but rather concerns about it being “less about the co-sign for NRO and more about the first public association with the DSU as [S]tudent [A]ssembly” and about publicly supporting work done by a student organization that openly opposes the administration. Once again, it was more important to a number of my peers in Student Assembly to keep a positive relationship with the administration than to actually take actions that would benefit students, and even for those who might have been more inclined to diverge from keeping the administration happy, such a choice was next to impossible due to SA’s years of cordial relations with admin and the resultant lack of power enabling them to diverge in any way. 

 

The most telling was the administration’s response to the campus mental health crisis and the SA’s inability to change anything meaningfully—not necessarily out of a lack of desire to do so, but the sheer impossibility posed by their position in relation to the administration. By the end of the winter term (2021) and the start of the spring term, the utter insufficiency of Dartmouth’s already infamously mediocre mental health resources had become more transparent than ever in light of the suicides of Beau DuBray ‘24 and Connor Tiffany ‘24. I had been appalled by some of my own experiences with Dick’s House mental health resources, and even more appalled by the experiences of others, such as one student I talked with who waited eight hours for the purported 24-hour Dick’s House crisis line—we later found out that overnight, there was only one nurse on call, so if multiple students called at once, it would go to voicemail, and the voicemail wasn’t even being checked regularly. A few weeks into the spring term, my fellow ‘24 senators and I met with Dean Lively (who recently resigned) to discuss various topics concerning the ‘24s, including the campus mental health crisis. When we brought that up, she began to explain that the College simply didn’t have enough money to fund “real” mental health resources, such as an adequate number of counselors. This was, of course, questionable on its own, given that Dartmouth has a multi-billion dollar endowment which it rarely if ever “dips into”. However, things got worse from there. She proceeded to talk for several minutes about how the administration, knowing that they would never be able to fund adequate resources, was funneling the money they did have into “wellness initiatives” instead. Dean Lively continued to ramble about yoga for a few minutes, and that was pretty much the end of the mental health discussion in that meeting. Face to face with six representatives of a class that had already suffered so much loss at that point in the year, her response to a life or death crisis essentially amounted to “sorry we don’t have enough resources, but at least there’s yoga.”

 

Close to the end of the spring term, a third freshman, Elizabeth Reimer ‘24, died by suicide after being placed on involuntary medical leave despite pleading with the administration that going home would only make things worse. It was only after the third mental health-related death of the year, and another meeting with Dean Lively where multiple senators broke down crying in front of her, that the Dartmouth administration finally found it fitting to do what was less than the bare minimum and add a second nurse on call to the crisis line at night. Even after that, I still heard from a number of students who found that the 24-hour crisis line was not, in fact, 24-hour, with the wait times it required. A heavy sort of haze hung over campus that week. The universal answer to “how are you doing” involved a sigh and an “okay, I guess” at best. The third suicide of the year in a freshman class just over 1000 students large seemed to serve as some kind of breaking point for many. Graffiti appeared across campus overnight, on administration buildings, in front of College President Phil Hanlon’s house, and outside the dorm windows of the freshmen who had died, criticizing medical leave policies and commemorating lost students. Almost all of it was power-washed away by Dartmouth by sunrise, but the campuswide sense of devastation and anger could not be. A banner hung from Baker-Berry Library begging Dartmouth to do better, do more, do anything, really. I can only speak to my personal experience here, but even as someone who only knew Elizabeth and Connor as distant acquaintances and didn’t know Beau at all, I suddenly fell very behind on my coursework. The part of my brain that had the capacity to complete academic tasks and manage my time was overwhelmed by sadness, memories of losing a friend of my own to suicide in the past, and raw and intense fear that someone else was next. I stopped sleeping at regular times almost altogether, instead taking extended naps during the day and missing many of my classes, withdrew almost completely from nearly all of my friends, and struggled to complete the smallest of assignments, not to mention on time. I share all of this here because I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that mine was a fairly average student experience during that part of the 2021 spring term. When the Student Assembly made the (incredibly small) request that students might be allowed a day off of classes to grieve, rest, and/or catch up, the administration denied it, citing “concern about the impact on student learning,” as though death after death of classmates had less impact on student learning than a single day off of class. The premise of one day being enough to change anything meaningfully was faulty on SA’s part, and the audacity of the administration to deny such a small request was even more appalling. The SA’s “condemnation” statement that ultimately did not make further demands of the administration that was already giving us so little yet again showed the lack of power held and exercised by SA purely due to strict adherence to appeasing the administration.

For the sake of relative brevity, I’ve chosen to leave out the details of a number of other experiences I’ve had in SA over the past year, including the questionable actions of EPAC and other parties during the SA elections for the 2021-22 academic year, my own asking in the Student Assembly Slack about a potential vote to sign onto the Palestine Solidarity Coalition’s demand letter and receiving no response whatsoever from anyone, even after sending a follow-up message, a meeting with President Hanlon where he all but dodged nearly every question, and a variety of other incidents. Overall, while I have accomplished some things I’m proud of in SA over the past year, especially with regards to the Menstrual Products Project, and will be continuing to do work on SA next year in hopes of changing what I can, I found myself entirely disillusioned and disappointed with both the Dartmouth administration and many of my peers in SA. 


I joined the Student Assembly mostly on a whim, but also hoping that it’d be possible to effect meaningful change. Was that possible? In short, no. However, that does not mean that anyone involved in SA should give up on making change from the beginning, as there are certain worthwhile actions that can be taken if one persistently advocates for ideas that most SA members find too radical or unworkable, and simultaneously organizes with other campus groups that vocally oppose the Dartmouth administration (Young Democratic Socialists of America [YDSA] or Dartmouth Student Union [DSU], etc.). The Dartmouth Student Assembly, in its current form, has not built (and cannot build in this form) the student power required for substantive change. For the time being, I do what good I can through that avenue while working with the Dartmouth YDSA and other campus left organizations to build more power so that students will eventually actually be in a position to have the sway over this institution that is truly needed. Although I often joke about it with my friends, there’s a kernel of truth to the notion that if nothing else, I can, at the very least, be “usefully annoying.” When my peers find an idea too radical or too unworkable with the administration to pursue, even if it’s the right thing, I can bring it up a couple of extra times just to force reflection among my peers about what SA is really doing for or against students and often, unfortunately, for the administration. With the power that I do have, I enact whatever change I can, even if those changes are small and I am ultimately working within a body that really doesn’t do nearly as much as it could or should. Most importantly, at the end of the day, the few worthwhile things that can be done can only be done if organizing simultaneously with a truly pro-student organization. Having a community of people who share your vision outside of the Student Assembly is tantamount, as it serves, at the very least, to remind you what student power can and should look like. Should you choose to join the Student Assembly hoping to effect meaningful change, let this serve as a preview of what awaits you. Should you choose not to (as the vast majority of Dartmouth students do), let it serve as a preview all the same. No student here goes unaffected by the administration’s neglect and austerity.

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Banner hung by the side of Baker-Berry Library. Image credit:

The Dartmouth Radical