Dartmouth student accused of 'violence' for op-ed on diversity

A Dartmouth College student’s op-ed alleging gender bias on a trip-planning committee has resulted in an outpouring of criticism from liberal classmates.

Within a day of its posting, the opinion piece titled “You’re Not Tripping” in The Dartmouth had ignited a campus-wide uproar. In this op-ed, Ryan Spector ‘19 detailed his disappointment with 2018 First-Year Trips directorate selection process. Each year, approximately 19 upperclassmen applicants are selected for the directorate in order to help facilitate Trips, Dartmouth’s annual summer excursions for incoming freshmen.

This year, out of 44 total applicants, 15 women were chosen, along with four men. After being rejected from the directorate himself, Spector accused the directors in charge of the selection process of having an “obsession with diversity” that “verges on the inane,” in light of its extremely female-heavy composition.

The director of Trips, Lucia Pierson ‘18, along with Dalia Rodriguez-Caspeta ‘18, the assistant director, emphasized in their original announcement that the 2018 Trips directorate, which is 80 percent female, was selected “purely based on merit.” Spector railed against this notion, calling it “nothing but an exercise in mental gymnastics,” alleging that their decision to only accept four male students indicated an “extreme application of a diversity policy” and claiming that the members of the new directorate would not adequately represent the Dartmouth student body.

Immediately after the article was posted, the backlash began in the comments section. One student called the op-ed a “whiny post-rejection [expression] of frustration,” while others offered up faux sympathy for him as a “white cis male” from Illinois. Some of the comments respectfully challenged his arguments, but most of them accused him of sexist and even racist undertones, emphasizing his status as a privileged white male.

One day after the op-ed was posted, Link Up, a women’s student group, sent out a campus-wide email with the heading, “Statement in Solidarity.”

The email defended Pierson and Rodriguez-Caspeta, claiming that Spector’s article “attacks marginalized identities,” and also celebrated the high percentage of female students in the new directorate as “correcting [for] years of underrepresentation and marginalization.”

Throughout the weekend and into the next week, more than 30 campus organizations followed Link Up’s lead and sent out their own letters of “solidarity” with the Trips director and assistant director, further denouncing Spector’s op-ed as an “attack” on women and women of color. The wash of emails came from a wide range of student groups, including the Committee on Sexual Assault, several a capella groups, senior societies, sororities, one fraternity, and a variety of other minority and women’s groups.

The emails varied in the severity of their accusations, but the allegations against Spector as a violent perpetrator of racism and sexism were common throughout. In one email, the senior society by the name of Phoenix called Spector’s article “blatantly based in patriarchal and white supremacist narratives,” labeling it an “attack” on marginalized people.

The Asian American Students Association stated in their email that the article “invisibilizes people of color, women and trans folk, [and] queer women of color,” and mocked the op-ed as an example of “white male tears.”

Many of these emails not only targeted Spector, but also denounced The Dartmouth’s decision to publish the article in the first place, even though it was posted in the opinion section and labeled as a guest column.

An email from Divest Dartmouth accused The D of “negligence,” stating that allowing Spector and others like him to express their opinions “endanger[s] the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students” and “only further perpetuates the culture of toxic, male, white supremacy.” About nine other student groups echoed these sentiments, either calling on The D to publicly apologize for posting the op-ed, or to remove it from the website entirely.

On Monday, a campus email from the Stonefence Review, a Dartmouth literary magazine, took a more personal turn. The letter first criticized Spector and called for The Dartmouth to rescind the op-ed, but then went on to publicly name the fraternity of which Spector is a member, demanding that the fraternity itself apologize for the “act of violence” that Spector committed.

In bold font, the letter then calls on the fraternity to use its “place of power” with respect to Spector’s social life to “take a stand,” implying that the fraternity should take some sort of disciplinary action against him. This email, along with many of the others, has gone far beyond a mere expression of empathy with the Trips directors, and now seems more concerned with smearing the author’s reputation. The trend of the campus-wide emails sent throughout the weekend has taken us farther and farther away from the actual op-ed written by Spector, and has taken us closer to a full-blown libel campaign. Spector has now been slandered in front of the entire student body with unfounded accusations of violence, white supremacy, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Ryan Spector’s opinion article in The Dartmouth was inflammatory and written from a bitterness towards the board. His status as a white man, however, does not, by any means, warrant accusations of violence and hate speech.

Just because Spector, a white man, criticized certain decisions made by Pierson and Rodriguez-Caspeta, two women, does not make his criticism inherently sexist. The writers of these “solidarity” letters pay more attention to the identities of the people being criticized than the reality of the situation. Using language like “violence,” “attack,” and “safety” conflates Spector’s bitter tone and message with real assault—implying that students’ literal safety is at risk.

This not only weakens the credibility of those calling out injustice, but also trivializes the real instances of gender-based violence that remain a widespread global problem. These emails sent to the Dartmouth student body made Spector’s op-ed into something that it was not. Their unwarranted accusations have now irreparably damaged a student’s image.

In his opinion piece, Spector criticized a diversity policy in the Trips application process that he thinks disadvantages males. Even though Spector makes little effort to conceal his exasperation, he nonetheless offers support for his claim. The original post about the new Trips directorate, also in The D, stated that the group “consciously considered identity representations” in the selection process, and Spector was confused as to why the directorate didn’t make an effort to admit more than four men.

He was then alarmed when the Directorate’s original statement was edited to remove the line stating that merit was the only factor guiding their decision process. Perhaps the female candidates were simply more qualified for these roles, but this does not make the gender disparity any less remarkable.

Having only four males out of 19 members in the directorate would represent the same lack of diversity that having just four out of 19 females would. It is not sexist to ask whether or not the director and assistant director would have made the same decision had the roles been reversed, if the male applicant pool was more qualified than the female pool. Maybe they made the right choices, and maybe they didn’t, but we should be allowed to have a nuanced discussion as to whether the difference in merit justified the gender disparity.

Many of the facts of the application process, like the gender breakdown of applicants, have not been released to the campus, and they probably won’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the competing factors that guided the selection process and discuss the values that we think should guide any application selection process for student leadership roles at Dartmouth.

Almost all students at Dartmouth recognize the value both of diversity and of having qualified leaders on campus. Balancing these factors when they conflict with each other is an important conversation that we should be talking about more, regardless of which direction the racial/gender disparity appears. In this case, the overwhelming superiority of the female Trips applicants outweighed the diversity benefits that would come with a more gender-balanced membership.

Or, maybe Pierson and Rodriguez-Caspeta should have considered the benefits of having a slightly more balanced gender ratio, but they didn’t as it happened to be males that were underrepresented.

Spector described an ideology that he doesn’t find consistent, suggesting that people have started to equate diversity with low male representation. Part of this, of course, reflects the societal changes that have enabled more equal female representation in various areas of life. The movement to expand female membership in colleges and in various male-dominated professions has been great, but we cannot do so at the expense of our men, and their ability to have their voices heard.

Disagreement with Spector’s article is allowed, but attacking his character so publicly with accusations of racism and sexism should not be. We need to carefully consider the arguments made by Spector, but we also need to carefully consider the social structures in place here at Dartmouth that allowed this level of unjustified backlash to take place on such a public, and personal, level.

When the skin-tone and gender of the author is being used as material against him more so than his actual arguments, we have a problem. We need to think about the way that the Trips director and assistant director have been affected by Spector’s op-ed, but we also need to think about the way this male student is being affected by countless false claims of violence and bigotry in these emails. We can’t view empathy as something that only needs to be applied to those lower than us on the privilege hierarchy. We cannot condone the unrestricted bashing of a person’s character on one opinion he/she expressed. We need to consider the medium we are using to get our message across, what our message is, and what the future implications of our actions will be.

These emails not only tainted a man’s image with so many vicious and untrue accusations, but they also sent a clear message to the rest of campus of what the penalty is for expressing an unpopular view. We need to stop oversimplifying people’s arguments to use as material in hit pieces, and stop intimidating people from voicing their opinions. Making sure people are too scared to speak out is a surefire way to never change their minds. And having that mentality does not foster the inclusive environment that we claim to have here at Dartmouth.

We are in college, and we should be not only allowed, but encouraged, to make mistakes. We cannot truly learn if we have to fear that our name will be associated with words like “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” and “white supremacy” if we slip up once or challenge the wrong person.

The sentiments expressed in these emails are not new, but the sheer volume of the emails denouncing Spector with all of these labels has done noticeable damage to the social climate at Dartmouth. Just a month ago, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) demoted Dartmouth from a “yellow light” to a “red light” free speech rating (in 2015 it dropped from “green” to “yellow”).

Although it wasn’t the Dartmouth administration involved here, the social and personal implications of these emails are relevant to this downward trend. We have already seen some positive reactions in defense of the free exchange of ideas, notably from The Dartmouth and a letter from Dartmouth Open Campus Coalition (DOCC). Despite all of the demands for the op-ed to be removed, The D stuck with its principles and kept the op-ed online, even restating the outlet’s commitment to allowing different viewpoints, and the DOCC sent out a letter to campus denouncing the “calls to silence voices” and supporting the “rights of all arguments to be expressed openly.”

But these statements of support for free speech, including a letter from two professors posted in The D, are a rarity.

If Dartmouth is going to be a place where open dialogue is encouraged, we need to drop the labels and welcome new ideas and opinions into our lives. We need to consciously work to avoid snap judgments and character smears. If we want to be able to have productive conversations about important issues, we all need to be respectful enough to hear everyone out, regardless of their gender, race, and identity. We need to reevaluate the current state of discourse at Dartmouth and work to combat efforts to silence certain viewpoints. We need to find better ways to disagree.

This article was originally published in The Dartmouth Review, a conservative student newspaper affiliated with the Leadership Institute's Campus Leadership Program. Its articles are republished here with permission.

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