Though the flag- and bra-burning days of most American colleges and universities are distant memories of today's baby-boomers, one self-professed conservative says the "flaming" liberal tradition is not dead but has been resurrected by the faculty and administration of his alma mater, Dartmouth College.
Benjamin Hart gives his coming-of-age memoir, "Poisoned Ivy," a sardonic twist. Hart, 24, a 1981 graduate and son of National Review columnist and Dartmouth English professor Jeffrey Hart, felt he and his conservative classmates should found a publication to present their views -- views that were contrary to what he calls "the ethos" established by a liberal and, in Hart's estimation, often irrational faculty and administration.
Thus, The Dartmouth Review was born. It began publishing in 1980 with a tiny staff and strong alumni support. Its aim was to expose what it perceived as campus abuses of affirmative action policy and civil liberties, sloppy teaching by tenured professors, foul play in trustee elections, the foolish idealism of nuclear freeze supporters and the inanity of special interest courses aimed at blacks, women and homosexuals. Employing acerbic wit and satire to make its unpopular criticisms, The Review was highly offensive to many readers. Allegations made in its pages were met with hostility by most Dartmouth faculty members and all administration members, one of whom bit Hart during a tussle the two got into while Hart was distributing copies of the publication on campus property. This administrator, Samuel Smith, preferred the traditional student-run newspaper, The Dartmouth.
Hart says that when The Review's brand of patriotism, including an optimistic vision of Ronald Reagan and a "healthy" nuclear arms race began to gain momentum, The Review became "an item of grave concern, not only to the militants on the faculty but to formulators of college policy in Parkhurst Hall [an administration building]."
In the end, biter Smith, who also happened to be a black associate alumni fund director, received a court-imposed fine and probation, a week's suspension from work and had to have three false teeth. The Review received a formal censure from Dartmouth's faculty.
And the no-holds-barred series of battles began. The charges against Dartmouth's administration are levied in great detail with the circumstances surrounding each explained chapter by chapter. There is the Indian Symbol Battle in which Dartmouth president John Kemeny and his administration condemn any display of the college's unofficial Indian symbol. The reason for the ban? A mural showing the college founder drinking a toast to the education of Indian tribes in 1769 is thought to be racist and demeaning to American Indians. The mural has been covered over, and any "stereotypical" display of Indians (at sports events, for instance) banned.
The Review wages a virulent battle for a core curriculum versus special interest courses, a battle to seat elected conservative trustee John Steel, who had run against the liberal incumbent, and a battle to use Dartmouth's name in the Review masthead. In a Veterans Day conflict, the Review staff stages a counterdemonstration to the college-sponsored group parading around as radioactive mutants following a mock nuclear blast. These are a handful of the numerous confrontations described in Hart's memoir.
But Hart's approach to proving the Dartmouth administration and faculty were imposing their liberal views on every undergraduate is not systematic. He rambles on, describing colorful characters and setting down philosophical, albeit often sarcastic asides, all of which make the book very entertaining to read, no matter what your political persuasion. His amusing cast of fraternal collegiate cohorts, who engage in the type of shenanigans made popular by "Animal House," include the charmingly spacy Californian Mike Lempress, Review editor in chief Greg Fossedal, sidekick Keeney Jones with his foam rubber shark (a constant companion ferried around campus on a leash), roommate, Dartmouth quarterback and senator's son Jeff Kemp, and football jock Dave Shula.
The most intriguing element of the book is the description of the lengths to which the underdog Review staffers go to keep their publication alive in the wake of attempts by the college administration to put it out of production. I identified with Hart's frustration and determination, yet wondered if I was getting all the facts. Although Hart perfectly portrays the kinds of bureaucrats and small minds endemic to many campuses, making it hard to deny his allegations, he does not construct a watertight case for his "side." But the one fact this book does drive home is the growing conservative backlash among today's college students. William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote the foreword to "Poisoned Ivy," should be proud.