Dartmouth president says campus encampments go against ‘academic mission’

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Sian Beilock touts university as a ‘different kind of Ivy’ — one not facing a civil rights investigation

Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Sian Beilock, President of Dartmouth speaks in New York City.

ASPEN, Colo. — At the end of a school year marked by strife at campuses around the United States, few prestigious universities have managed to avoid the accusations of discrimination and harassment that have now become routine as higher education institutions grapple with the fallout of the Israel-Hamas war. 

Dartmouth College may be the rare exception. Speaking at a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday, Dartmouth President Sian Beilock was introduced with a rare accolade: Dartmouth is the only Ivy League college that has not faced a federal civil rights investigation over its handling of allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus. 

“I’m really proud of where Dartmouth is and what Dartmouth is, and I always go back to what the North Star of Dartmouth is,” Beilock said. “We are a different kind of Ivy, and we have one serious goal, which is to find students from the broadest swath of society, bringing them to campus, give them the tools to disagree with each other, to debate, to have civil dialogue, so they can go out and be the next leaders of our democracy.”

Dartmouth has earned national recognition for its approach to Oct. 7 and its aftermath, and the resulting campus protests. For two years, the university has offered a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is co-taught by an Israeli professor and a former Egyptian diplomat who worked on the Middle East peace process. In Beilock’s first email to the Dartmouth community after Oct. 7, she clearly condemned the Hamas attack and spoke of the need for dialogue — a value touted at other universities, but one that Beilock quickly put into action by organizing two public forums on the conflict with professors from both the Middle East studies department and the Jewish studies department. 

Those public offerings “set the stage for a lot of what we’ve able to do,” Beilock explained, because “they showed what it’s like to have nuanced conversation across difference.”

The school saw more than 25 protests on the war, Beilock continued, but she made clear why no encampment was able to last at Dartmouth beyond a few hours.

“One thing that we were clear about from the beginning is that protests can be an important form of free speech. But there’s a difference between protest and then taking over a shared space for one ideology and excluding another. That is taking over someone else’s free speech. That is not at the heart of our academic mission,” Beilock said. “As such, we’ve been very clear about the consequences of having encampments on campus.” 

Her quick removal of the encampment earned condemnation from the university’s faculty, who voted to censure her for calling in the police after an encampment popped up in May. 

Beilock spoke alongside outgoing Colorado College President L. Song Richardson, whose handling of campus protests and an anti-Israel encampment differed starkly from what happened at Dartmouth. Richardson negotiated with campus protesters, who took down their encampment after she acceded to several of their demands. Among them was a concession that student activists can bring their demands for divestment from Israeli companies to the school’s investment committee.

“We allowed the encampment to remain in place. We had meetings with those who were camping out and reached an agreement to have conversations with our board, and then they voluntarily took down the encampment a few days before our graduation,” Richardson said. She said they followed the same playbook the university used when students sought divestment from fossil fuel companies.

At Dartmouth, Beilock said the university’s investment committee does consider ideas from Dartmouth stakeholders including students. But she cautioned against factoring in political considerations too strongly when it comes to shaping the school’s endowment.

“The endowment is not a political tool. I’ve said that very clearly,” Beilock said. “The goal of the endowment is to generate resources so that we can do things like financial aid.”

Without naming any other institutions, Beilock took aim at universities that have gone too far in considering politics in how they make decisions. 

“I’m really concerned about some of my peers and what they’ve done to circumvent the processes that they’ve had in place for many years,” said Beilock. “I don’t think that’s the best way to get to an outcome where you’re thinking about the longevity of an institution and creating a space where the institution is not the critic, but you support and foster critics on both sides themselves.” Among an audience of philanthropists and executives, Beilock earned loud applause. 

Beilock, who joined Dartmouth a year ago after six years as the president of Barnard College, blamed the campus turmoil at least in part on a lack of ideological diversity at elite institutions.

“We haven’t been good enough about making sure we have voices across the political spectrum on campus in enough of a way that allows them to constantly be practicing having these difficult conversations across difference,” Beilock said. “I’m recommitting to that.”

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