Dartmouth College, stung by campus divisions that exploded in recent weeks, strove to repair its image as accepted students decide whether to attend.
After abruptly canceling classes yesterday, Dartmouth held speeches and teach-ins to unite the campus. The move came after some students were targeted by abusive online posts after they staged a brief protest against homophobia, sexual assault and racism during an April 19 event for admitted high school students.
The unusual action was taken to bring students, faculty and staff together to foster debate that promotes respect, diversity and civil discourse, administrators said in a statement. Students said it sent a positive message to the Hanover, New Hampshire-based college community.
“It made a big statement to students that the administration is taking this seriously,” said Hector Del Real, a sophomore from Inglewood, California, whose parents are from Mexico. “At the end of the day, it will have a positive result.”
Dartmouth has a history of turmoil over race, gender and campus culture. Students and faculty have protested the prominence of Dartmouth’s fraternities and sororities, which they say foster binge drinking, violent hazing and sexual assault.
More than a dozen students disrupted the April 19 event --a series of skits by current freshman telling the prospective students they should commit to attend. The protest lasted less than a minute, according to Kayuri Bhimani, 18, a high school senior from Lawrenceville, Georgia.
“At first we thought it was part of the skit,” she said. The protesters made some valid points “that might have turned away some students, but not me,” said Bhimani, who said she submitted her commitment last night to attend in the fall.
The protesters made their point, and when they were done, the high school students began chanting, “We love Dartmouth,” and the freshmen performers joined in, Bhimani said. “That was a more accurate representation of Dartmouth than the 30-second protest.”
Justin Anderson, a spokesman for Dartmouth, said the online language targeted at the protesters was very threatening.
“It went above and beyond even the negative comments you see on news stories and the nasty netherworld of chat rooms,” Anderson said, without elaborating. “What we’re trying to do is acknowledge we need to find space for disputes.”
More than 500 of the students offered a freshman seat attended last week’s three-day welcoming events, Anderson said. The decision to cancel classes drew varied responses from alumni, he said.
“We’ve definitely heard from alums, some of whom were not thrilled, some confused, some wholly supportive,” Anderson said.
Del Real, the sophomore from California, said the closure prompted conversations across the entire school, not only at campus locations where Latino or African-American students meet, according to Del Real, who said he has never experienced racism at the college.
“For the first time, I’ve seen a diverse group of students in one room discussing it,” Del Real, 20, said. “Canceling classes, that is huge. This school doesn’t cancel classes for a three-foot snowstorm.”
Dartmouth offered admission for the fall term to 2,252 students, or 10 percent of total freshman applicants. About 68 percent of the admitted students have been offered financial aid, and the average award is just under $40,000, according to the school.
Visits to campus are important selling opportunities for colleges to get students to commit. Many offer programs for families, where students stay overnight in dorms, attend lectures and get their questions answered by current students. Admitted students must decide by May 1.
While the events of the past week may give some prospective students some pause and get them asking questions, many others will feel lucky to have the opportunity, knowing how tough it is to gain admission, said Bob Sweeney, who directs counseling at Mamaroneck High School, in New York’s Westchester County.
Among the events Wednesday was a community gathering featuring a speech by Interim President Carol Folt on the lawn in front of Dartmouth Hall, which attracted a sizable crowd of students, said Alexander Lopez, a 19-year-old sophomore.
Folt was unavailable to comment yesterday.
“The student body is really working with the administration to express their concerns,” said Lopez, who is also from Lawrenceville, Georgia, and is studying government and economics. “It’s putting the ownership back on the students to be mindful.”
Dartmouth named Philip J. Hanlon, provost of the University of Michigan, as president in November, replacing Jim Yong Kim who left the Ivy League school in July to lead the World Bank.
Hanlon, who declined to comment in an e-mail, takes office July 1, the same day that Folt becomes chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Alumni of Dartmouth, founded in 1769, include Timothy F. Geithner, former Treasury Secretary, and his immediate predecessor, Henry Paulson. Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive officer of General Electric Co., is an alumnus and trustee.
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