This article originally appeared in the April 15, 1988 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
On March 28, Dartmouth College president James O. Freedman stood up in front of almost 200 faculty members at an emergency meeting and announced he’d run out of patience with the Dartmouth Review. Since taking over as the school’s 15th president eight months earlier, Freedman said he’d been told by advisers to ignore the ultra-conservative off-campus student paper, whose scurrilous antics and caustic taunts have plagued the college for the past eight years. “But,” he declared, “even patience has its limits.”
“The history of journalism in the United States, he said, “demonstrates that a free press thrives upon the healthy give-and-take of informed criticism.” And with that, Freedman launched into a biting, burning—and informed—critique of the Review, firing the first-ever administrative broadside against the paper. “Mean-spirited,” he called it, “cruel and ugly…I deplore a perversely provocative style of journalism that vulgarizes responsible conservative thought and is, in fact, an affront to it.” Twice the faculty interrupted his remarks with applause and, after Freedman had finished, rewarded him with a standing ovation. History professor Marysa Navarro, a frequent Review target, cried as she thanked Freedman for his oration. “What you’ll find here,” Dartmouth spokesman Alex Huppe said later, “is an institution that feels cleansed.”
In the weeks before his speech, Freedman had sat back quietly while the conservative press—from rabid Boston Herald columnist Don Feder to the powerful Wall Street Journal — blasted the 218-year-old Ivy League institution for “lynching” four Review staffers after they had gotten into a shouting match with Professor William Cole, a black teacher whom the weekly had lampooned for years. A week after publishing a scathing critique of Cole’s Music 2 course, two Review editors, accompanied by a staff reporter and a photographer, confronted Cole after class, ostensibly to deliver a memo offering him a chance to respond. Voices were raised, and when the dust had settled the students were charged with the Dartmouth disciplinary code’s versions of harassment, disorderly conduct, and invasion of privacy. A few weeks later, after a formal hearing before a student-faculty board, Christopher Baldwin and John Sutter were suspended for 18 months, John Quilhot was suspended for six months, and Sean Nolan was slapped with a one-year probation. “Unfair,” the conservative crowd cried. “Anti-conservative bigotry,” they argued, an affront to the First Amendment, this drubbing of students merely for their politics.
Although Freedman was a rookie at Dartmouth, he couldn’t have been unfamiliar with the Review. In its eight-year history, the weekly had generated considerably more national attention for Dartmouth than its academic prowess ever could. More than once, the paper’s rancorous escapades — like the time 10 staffers led a sledgehammer smashing of three shanties erected on a campus green in protest of apartheid, or the mocking of affirmative-action programs in a “This Sho’ Ain’t No Jive, Bro’” column — had thrust the school into a sour limelight, a fact that could not have escaped Freedman’s attention during his stint as president of the University of Iowa. And when the Review again attracted the nation’s media, issuing press releases in the aftermath of the Cole incident that portrayed its four penalized staffers as defenders of truth persecuted by a bullying administration, Freedman could have done what his predecessors had — nothing. While the William F. Buckleys of the world leapt to the Review’s defense, he could have kept his mouth shut, avoiding any overt criticism of the paper for fear of an even more vengeful torrent of conservative outrage.