Thursday, March 24, 2011

Scene Sixty-Four: Home, part one

We've all fallen in love, we've all fallen out of love, and most of us have fallen into one of the many potholes that pepper the road of relationships. I returned to Dartmouth last fall homesick and hungry for life as only she can dish it out. But each week that passed left me more bitingly bitter.

More peers than ever were sacrificing (or, worse, "postponing") their happiness in pursuit of the best grades, the best internships, the best jobs, the best salaries...

More friends than ever were eager to lose themselves in the throngs of traditional Greek life...

More than ever, I realized how unlike my former self I felt pressured to be...

My growing suspicion that Dartmouth was becoming less and less the school to which I eagerly, exclusively, applied in 2008 was fueled by the early January announcement that Dean Sylvia Spears would not apply for permanent deanship at the end of her two year interim appointment. As an OPAL familiar and ever-accessible ally of the student body, her loss was a tremendous blow to my confidence in this institution. Not to mention the many discomforts engendered by the search for the new Dean. (No students of color on the original committee? No inclusion of any employees of the Dean of the College Office?!) This unease was further exacerbated by the cascade of resignations that followed. Desperate to find out how other members of the community felt about Dartmouth, I began asking everyone I know. Their answers were bleak.

Of my peers, most admitted that while they felt part of small social groups they didn't see campus at large as the big, friendly family that we love to portray during Dimensions and Trips. Social pressure is such, they continue, that any opinions other than that of unadulterated love for the College are effectively stifled.

Even more disquieting were the conversations that I had with faculty and staff. Most agree that the College's current priorities are not in the best interest of the educational experience. Many say that layoffs of the past two years require them to do work once shared by two or more people. Morale is low and burnout is imminent. A few confided that they were not sure how much longer they could continue working here. All agreed that the current environment does not foster the constructive criticism necessary for an entity as large as Dartmouth to grow and change.

"I'm not usually the type to keep quiet," admitted one, "but the way things are now I think it is in my best interest and that of the students I serve to keep my neck down and just do the best job that I can from day to day."

"Most of us just can't afford to stand up and say anything," lamented another, "because we have families to think about. We can't afford to lose our jobs."

This last quote sums it up the best:

"The saddest is hearing long-time (30 yrs) employees who have loved working at the College don't like being here anymore. There is no sense of community or morale anymore. Something is very wrong when a college decides that taking away benefits and forcing people to work two jobs is the best way to make up for its lost investments. Employees are not a drain on Dartmouth. They are the people who make "the Dartmouth experience" possible. It would be a sorry place if no one worked here and students just wandered from building to building."

My emphasis.

I sobbed frustrated tears to my roommate, my boyfriend, my mom, and finally my dean. Sage-like, as always, Dean Pfister offered me a tissue and an hour of his Thursday evening. "It's obvious that you care very deeply about these people, and I know that you aren't the type to run away from problems. Here's what I suggest..."

He reminded me of everything that I love about Dartmouth- its people, more than anything- and advised me on concrete ways that I could help bring about the changes necessary to make Dartmouth a community in which everyone is respected, valued, and uplifted. Further encouragement came from the organization of The People's Coalition, an assembly of Dartmouth students, faculty, and staff devoted to promoting fair dealings and social responsibility. This, on the heels of Kathleen Mayer's spot-on assessment in I wrote this at 3 a.m., revived my sense that there is real community here at Dartmouth. All of its problems are thus-far intact, but at least now there's a real grassroots student movement to address them.

No, Dartmouth is not perfect. No, not everyone loves being here. But I do.
Like Dean Pfister said, I'm not one to walk out when faced with a challenge. My relationship with the College may be pretty rocky right now, but I love her enough to stick it out and help her through.

*** Update 1 (14 Sept. 2011): As of tomorrow,  Professor John Pfister will no longer be a dean. He is returning to teaching full time through the Psychology department. In his departing blitz, he shared these thoughts:
1.  The smallest acts can make the biggest difference.
2.  A balanced life can only exist when you can plant your feet firmly on safe ground.

3.  Giving good advice starts with learning how to listen to your own voice.
 *** Update 2 (20 Jan. 2012): The People's Coalition has not held any meetings of which I or any of my acquaintances are aware for nearly a year, so for now (and with disappointment) we're considering it inactive.

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