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Dartmouth:

I appreciate Todd's and Jim's responses, linked below; as I noted at the outset, there may well be some misbehavior of various sorts by the administrators. But the student account that Todd points to seems to be a little odd as an attempt at intimidation:

Next [the administrator] began questioning me about my personal life, including my membership in student groups. He had made clear to me that he knew which groups I belonged to, what positions I held, and who my friends were. As I answered his questions, I got the distinct impression that he was checking his notes against my replies, verifying the records in a file he had compiled on me.

If a student holds positions in groups, that sounds like a pretty public matter; it's hard for me to be too troubled by the university administrators' knowing this. If indeed the administration had somehow compiled a dossier on all this person's friends, that would be intimidating in more a spooky stalker way than anything else; but I'm not even sure from the account that this is quite what was going on (though maybe I'm just drawing an inference here from how unlikely I think it is for administrators to spend time doing this). Todd also writes:

The clear concern expressed here is not about a political disagreement, but rather that the administrator was threatening to use this personal information to try to embarrass this student and/or his friends. As I read Eugene's post, he seems to misunderstand the phrase in the story "I think when someone tries to let you know that they know what you're up to" to mean that the administrator was monitoring the student's political views, when in fact, the reference is to the administrator monitoring the student's personal life.

How exactly would the administrators be likely to use their knowledge of the groups to which the student belongs -- or even who his friends are -- "to embarrass this student and/or his friends"? Presumably the student thinks that his public statements were quite sound, so even if the administration somehow reports on the student's public statements to the groups to which the student belongs, the student ought to be proud of the statements rather than embarrassed. Perhaps the student was worrying that the administration would argue to the groups (and the student's friends) that it thought the student's public statements were mistaken; but it seems to me that someone who makes public statements criticizing the administration should be prepared for the administration's responding that those statements are mistaken. Now obviously if the administrator was actually threatening to blackmail the student with the revelation of some private information (the student's grades, the student's medical history, or what have you), that would be different. But I didn't get any sense of that from the post.

I think it's great that students are willing to publicly criticize the university administration. I think universities shouldn't expel students, discipline students, grade down students, and the like because of the students' criticisms. But students should be ready to be criticized back, and to be remonstrated with by those who take the criticisms personally. Likewise, if a student holds a position (doubtless publicly announced) in a student group and makes public statements, it may well be that the other members of the student group will be told of the student's public statements; public speakers and group leaders should be prepared for that.

Again, as I've said, it may be the administrators were rude, petty, or dishonest (or maybe not). But it's important, I think, to distinguish that from actual censorship or intimidation.

Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
Maybe the account is not true. But if it is true, how is the discussion of the groups the student belongs to relevant to the conversation? Isn't it a big non sequitur -- unless it is calculated to deliver, albeit crudely, a message of intimidation?

Surprising someone by revealing that you know details about them they do not expect is a archtypical interrogation tactic. I've used it in depositions or cross-examinations to put a witness off-center and gain an advantage.

So I find it possible that it is intended as intimidation. I think you are right that it can't be called censorship.
8.18.2006 9:34pm
srp (mail):
Also, the groups involved might be ones that you wouldn't want your parents or friends back home to know about. Think about religious or sexual issues, for example, about which you (or they) were sensitive.
8.18.2006 10:14pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):

How exactly would the administrators be likely to use their knowledge of the groups to which the student belongs -- or even who his friends are -- "to embarrass this student and/or his friends"? . . . Now obviously if the administrator was actually threatening to blackmail the student with the revelation of some private information


You are setting up a potentially false dichotomy between public information (acceptable to disseminate) versus private (potential blackmail).

Could I not blackmail you by threatening to disclose your (public record, but unknown to your employer) conviction for murdering a man in cold blood in Reno?

Could I not threaten to tell other members of the Board on which you sit that you were seen on a float in drag at the Gay Pride parade? Or tell the White Shoe law firm you clerked at that you were active in the Campus Democrats?

People tend to have different/ non-overlapping spheres in their lives. The people in your knitting circle probably don't know about your S&M group, and both would be aghast to learn of the other. Just because your membership is "public" does not mean that it has been publicized. And threatening to publicize such information can be just as much "blackmail" as threatening to reveal private medical information.
8.18.2006 10:15pm
MXF (mail):
It seems unlikely to me that the administrator in question had fully thought out exactly what he/she was trying to accomplish, other than intimidation, which to me is a tool to use to achieve censorship. Often the vague threat works as well or better than the specific blackmail threat. And, of course, there is the power differential similar to sexual harassment claims, which makes otherwise acceptable behavior, unacceptable.
8.18.2006 10:39pm
Dartmouth Alum:
As a Chi Gam brother, Dartmouth alum, and erstwhile campaigner against the SLI (and voter for insurgent candidates), I've gotta say I find Stork's version of the events a pretty clear distortion.

The key to understanding the entire story, even take Stork's facts as true (his facts, but not necessarily his inferences), are these lines from his post:


I privately emailed my fraternity, Gamma Delta Chi, asking my friends to consider signing the petition, or to at least familiarize themselves with the facts of the issue. As the president of the fraternity and friend of the brothers, I expected my email to remain within reasonable confidence, and I feel certain that it did.

* * *

Next Mr. Spalding began questioning me about my personal life, including my membership in student groups. He had made clear to me that he knew which groups I belonged to, what positions I held . . . .


So this is how things worked at Chi Gam (the baseball, tennis, swimming frat) when I was there. Some volunteer activity comes up -- giving money to the school, helping run a booth at a fair, etc. -- that no one would ever bother to sober up enough to involve themselves with. Then an email comes from the frat president saying, "It is absolutely imperative that at least five brothers show up to the fair" or "I want 100% contributions from Chi Gam." Much grousing goes on, and half of what he asks for gets done, except from pledges, where 100% gets done (with somewhat less grousing). The president is speaking not as your friend, but as the head of your organization, with various disciplinary powers (mostly revolving around making you drink at meetings).

Roughly the same shakedown occurs in every organization (not just Greek ones) at Dartmouth when something has to get done. Usually, the shakedowns are done at the behest of the administration. But sometimes they're done in opposition, as during the height of the SLI, where we would routinely get marching orders to go to this rally, or shout out "LEST THE OLD TRADITIONS FAIL!" when singing the alma mater, or whatever. Again, this was not the equivalent of a friend emailing friends; it was more like your supervisor telling you to buy his son's chocolates.

I can only imagine that in GDE, which was always a rougher frat than Chi Gam (more hazing, more drinking, more fighting, and significantly stronger unity, since it represented just one varsity sport -- football), that presidential orders were obeyed somewhat more than they were at other orgs.

The next critical fact is that like everywhere else, at Dartmouth emails ("blitzes") get forwarded lightning-fast. Even "top secret" house emails were leaked within minutes to every other frat, and from there to everyone on campus, and then from a snitch to the administration. Every frat president -- every student -- would know that sending out a mass email meant absolutely no privacy.

So here's what I think happened. The "intimidation" started with Stork, who at the very least had suasion over GDE and the football team. He basically sent out quasi-orders saying "do not vote for the new constitution." Probably with a request to get others to do the same. "As the president of the fraternity" he expected to be obeyed (especially in such a trivial effort as this, one that coincided with the frat's interest). Stork also held positions at other organizations (at the very least the IFC [Inter-Fraternity Council], presumably others at well). The administration presumably was concerned that he would use those positions as well to send out "encouraging" emails to his "friends."

The administration's concern would not have been that he was making the troops march -- they like that; the heads of orgs serve as liaisons who can keep the students in line in a way the administration cannot -- but rather than he was making them march against the administration's interests. So they called him in and probably asked him whether it was appropriate for him to be pushing his subordinates around like that. They then mention that he's in other positions -- "We know you're VP of the IFC -- have you told them they have to oppose the constitution, too?"

Were they trying to muscle him? Sure. Were they secretly reading his email? Of course not. (And Stork's credibility is highly undermined by the suggestion that they were.) Were they threatening to go after him where he lives? Ha! All they were doing is trying to make him sweat. Which is fairly SOP for college administrators when someone publicly criticizes them -- they call the student in to talk about the problem and make him feel uncomfortable about it. Does it have a chilling effect? Sure. But mostly because it's just uncomfortable to have some older than you patronizingly question your beliefs. Would it suck to be a football player who'd never been bullied in his life (except while a pledge in the frat he now controlled) suddenly to get some bullying by the administration? Surely. I imagine that sense of powerlessness is the main part of Stork's anger, not this "inquisition," this trampling of "sacred freedoms."

Also, if the administration were merely trying to intimidate the troublemakers, why would they single out Stork and not, say, Dan Linsalata?

As a final note -- isn't it just a little depressing that in his cri du coeur, in his penultimate resounding paragraph, Stork declares that Spalding "affectively threatened those freedoms which ought to be sacred"? I'm sure this post is riddled with typos, but if I were making a public statement as hardcore as Stork's, I'd definitely proof it a little more closely.
8.18.2006 11:21pm
Dartmouth Grad 05:
Dartmouth Alum:

It shouldn't take so much language to defend the actions of an administrator. Spalding abused his position, plain and simple. He is in a position of authority and decided to use it to give a dressing down to someone with whom he disagreed. And if you don't think an asymmetry of power exists between the two of them, then ask yourself whether Spalding would have agreed to come over to Chi Gam for a meeting at Stork's request.

I don't happen to think Spalding had some conspiratorial intent. On the contrary, this is just the way the current Dartmouth administration operates. Recall that the very groups to which Spalding allegedly referred (Chi Gam and the campus-wide greek panels) are groups that the administration was actively working to dissolve just a few years ago.

There's definitely a chuckle to be had about this. A VP calling in a moderately prominent student to dress him down for disagreeing? The Dean of Admissions(!) writing a letter on official Dartmouth letterhead congratulating a Dean of Admissions at another school for cutting the football team? Heaven help us if the administration learns how to avoid some of these boneheaded missteps and actually gets something done.
8.19.2006 3:02am
Dartmouth Alum:
In an effort to keep up with Todd's constant new-posting, I'm moving my old comment and replying to DG05's in the next post over.
8.19.2006 10:22am
CJColucci:
In my day, college students held administrators in contempt and had the testicular endowment (apologies to any female readers) to tell them where to get off. Of course, I also walked 10 miles to classes, uphill both ways.
8.19.2006 12:21pm
Svolich:
Just brainstorming here.

If a couple of hundred studtents at a large, prestigious university began an active campaign to discourage new student applications, would it be successful?

I'm sure it wouldn't have been a few years ago, but has the leverage of internet publication changed that?

Sure, the alumnai, administration and faculty are clearly separated interest groups, but they all feed off student admissions. If you could drop applications by 10% you'd have everyone's attention.

A few dozen "Don't apply to Dartmouth, ask me why" t-shirts worn around student tours could have as much leverage as "I know where you live, I know who your friends are."
8.19.2006 12:59pm
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
In evaluating all of this, one must consider the history of the Dartmouth administration's reaction to dissent, especially of a conservative nature.

Their credibility on issues of this kind is, to my mind, severely damaged.
8.19.2006 4:30pm
fulldroolcup (mail):
It boils down to this: the administrator has power over the student; the student has no such power. The adminstrator abused his power by calling the student to his office to berate and inferentially threaten the latter for having political opinions contrary to those of the Darmouth administration. If that same administrator had invited a female student in to demand that she perform a Lewinski on him, lest he expose her private life or expel her for her political positions, you can bet the "abuse of power" argument would be used against him. Why not in this case? Does Volokh think that paying tuition to attend Dartmouth comes with an implied waiver of free speech, in the manner of an employee in a business having no right to mouth off about political views to his employer? If so, why does virtually every university have student government organizations? Are they OK only if they rubberstamp the administration's positions?
8.19.2006 6:35pm
Jim Addison (mail) (www):
It seems to me that under the standard implied in this post the student can only convince you of the threat to reveal personal information by preemptively revealing that specific information himself.

If he were willing to reveal it himself, of course, there would be no intimidation value in the threat.

Catch-22?
8.20.2006 1:28am
SamChevre:
Eugene,

One possibility occurs to me, based on my experience at Davidson (which had somewhat similar issues to Dartmouth--the administrative culture was hostile to the student/alumni culture). That is, that Spalding was "reminding" Stork of the ways in which he could pressure Stork. It happened not infrequently at Davidson that the admin wanted X and the fraternities wanted to continue with the traditional not-X. (The clearest incident was when the administration decided to crack down on streaking.) The administration's threat was clear; if you fight us on this, we will harass you. (By applying things like underage drinking rules arbitrarily. Official policy was if someone is underage and drunk in a frat house, the frat is responsible--but usually the administration would let it pass if it was proven that the student had been drinking elsewhere; they didn't have to. Or by applying "the organization is responsible for its members" strictly--that's what killed the streaking; they threatened that if 2 members of any frat were caught streaking, they'd charge the frat with public lewdness.) Someone like Stork, who's a leader in many groups, is in a position where the administration can make him fail if they choose to.
8.21.2006 10:32am