Hundreds of Black faculty, students say Dartmouth College is ‘racially hostile’

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon speaks at the college on Jan. 29, 2015. Photo by Jennifer Hauck/Valley News

This article by Nora Doyle-Burr was published by the Valley News on July 17, 2020.

HANOVER, N.H. — Black faculty, students and staff at Dartmouth College are asserting that the college has “racially hostile” working and living conditions and that school leaders haven’t done enough to address those and other related issues.

A letter addressed to Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon and college trustees and signed by more than 300 members of the Dartmouth community, many of them people of color, cites the movement for racial justice sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans and said Dartmouth needs “to take concrete steps to unravel its built-in structural racism perpetuated through the superficial and short-term fixes that our senior leadership constantly applies to the problem.”

“This historical moment is about how to reorient the structural life of the College at the core of our values,” said the letter authored collaboratively in an effort led by Ayo Coly, chairwoman of the African and African American Studies program, and Craig Sutton, a professor in the math department. “We call on the senior leadership and Board of Trustees to dismantle the structures that implicitly or explicitly work against and devalue Black, Brown, and other people of color at Dartmouth.”

In response to the letter, Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said President Phil Hanlon and members of Dartmouth leadership, including Board Chairwoman Laurel Richie, have met twice with Black faculty members — most recently on Wednesday — to discuss ways the school might address systemic racism.

“We look forward to continued dialogue and making progress toward long-term meaningful change,” Lawrence said in a Friday email.

The letter said that Black members of the college community had met with Hanlon; Richie, who is the first Black person to chair the Dartmouth Board of Trustees; and other leaders last month to outline their proposals, and they found the plan of action outlined in a July 1 statement from school leaders fell “very short of the concrete plan of action that we developed.”

The school has committed to elevating the next leader of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity to vice president and chief diversity officer, reporting directly to Hanlon; continuing to support an effort called Inclusive Excellence, which includes funding aimed at recruiting and retaining faculty and staff of color; requiring implicit bias training; and increasing access to therapists of color trained in the area of race-based trauma.

This week, Dartmouth also announced the appointment of history professor Matthew Delmont, whose research includes a focus on African American history, to serve as a special adviser to Hanlon on faculty equity, diversity and inclusivity.

And the Tuesday letter, which Delmont signed, asked that Dartmouth go further to “address the high turnover among Black staff, the poor retention of Black faculty, the weakened state of the program in African and African American Studies (AAAS), the commonplace racial harassment of Black students on campus, the absence of Black leadership at the College, and, overall, the racially hostile working, living and studying conditions at the College,” the letter said.

The letter also says the college should have “an honest and public reckoning with Dartmouth’s exploitation of enslaved Africans.” The college founder, the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, owned slaves.

Sutton, one of the letter’s authors, said in a Zoom call on Friday that the changes necessary in this moment of cultural reckoning are not small tweaks to the way the school operates.

What is required is a “fundamental rethinking of things that we’ve taken for granted for decades (and even) centuries,” he said.

The detailed plan hinges on three areas of improvement, including increasing the number of Black leaders; improving the hiring, promotion and retention of Black employees; and increasing the college’s support of the African & African American Studies program.

“Our most urgent recommendation, and the one on which all subsequent progress rests, is the hiring and promotion of Black faculty, staff, and administrators,” the letter said.

The percentage of tenure-line Black faculty in 2004 was 3.5%, in 2019 it was 3.1%, according to the letter.

To address the problems in hiring, the letter recommends that all search committees comprise at least 50% Black, Indigenous, and people of color campus representatives and that finalist pools include at least 50% of such candidates.

The letter also asks that new senior leaders be required to have a “long track record of success in working with diverse race/ethnic groups across disciplines and the creation and implementation of anti-racist practices, structures, and institutions.”

Leaders at Geisel School of Medicine also are responding to similar concerns. Geisel students have taken to an anonymous Instagram account that was created in early June, following Floyd’s death, to share their experiences with racism, as well as other forms of bias.

The complaints range from criticizing Dean Duane Compton for not attending a seminar on racial justice; wishing the school could have supported a former associate dean of inclusion and diversity and her family so she could have stayed; and flagging comments from faculty about students’ looks, gender, race and religion.

Compton, in a phone interview this week, said he wasn’t invited to the seminar students were criticizing him for failing to attend, but he does understand that they need an anonymous forum to express themselves.

“To me it boils down to the fact that we don’t know each other very well,” he said.

He said it’s unfortunate that during the pandemic, he can’t gather with students to talk things through.

Though Compton acknowledged that the school has “a lot of work to do,” it is making efforts to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. It recently posted a dashboard of its goals and where it stands in relation to them. Most are “in progress.”

One pending item is the hiring of a full-time associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Geisel. The position is currently being held in a part-time interim capacity by Dr. Diana Wu, who specializes in family medicine.

It was held by Dr. Stephanie White, a pediatrician, until last December when she and her family moved to Kentucky because her husband, Derrick White, who had been an associate professor of history and African and African American Studies at Dartmouth, did not get tenure at Dartmouth. He now has tenure at the University of Kentucky, and she holds a similar position leading diversity and inclusion efforts there.

White, in a Friday phone interview, said that she has no complaints about her experience at Geisel. Her husband, however, “had a completely different experience.”

To shift the culture across the institution will take a concerted effort, White said.

In terms of the Instagram account, White said she had not heard all of the stories being shared there, but she was unsurprised by their nature.

“We need to create an environment to allow healing to happen when there are cases of students who feel like they’re not being supported,” she said.

She noted that the experience students have is key to cultivating future faculty members, because those who have a good experience as students might return in the future.

For Chad Lewis, a fourth-year medical student at Geisel who has served on student government and worked on issues of diversity and inclusion during his time at Geisel, the Instagram account highlights familiar stories.

“It’s par for the course, I can say,” he said. Although one account in which a patient called a student a terrorist and an attending physician asked that the student leave the room seemed particularly egregious, Lewis said.

“That’s one of those situations where our professors need to be more supportive,” Lewis said.

At the college, Sutton, one of the letter’s co-authors, said the group is “trying to remain optimistic” as it continues its discussions with Dartmouth’s leadership. There’s another meeting tentatively scheduled for mid-August, he said.

“We’re talking,” he said. “I think that’s a positive thing.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.

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