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In 1967, a young adman living in Chicago paid a visit to his alma mater, Dartmouth College, to discuss an idea that seemed preposterous at the time. He wanted to take poor African American kids from the streets of North Lawndale, Chicago’s roughest neighborhood, and enroll them at the Ivy League institution in small-town Hanover, New Hampshire. DeWitt Beall, class of ’62, said he had candidates in mind. He had met them while shooting a film on the West Side. He insisted they could make it at Dartmouth and deserved the chance.
Charles Dey, the powerful Dartmouth associate dean, was listening. Deeply committed to public service, Dey was among many educators seeking qualified black students to integrate their campuses. But finding such students and uprooting them to study in an all-white world had been exceedingly difficult; Dartmouth’s minority enrollment, like that at most mainstream institutions in the United States, was minuscule.
Beall argued that these kids from North Lawndale had raw native intelligence. Their academic preparation was definitely not up to Dartmouth standards, but they were street-smart and were excellent public speakers. And, oh yes, they were Vice Lords, which was, and remains, one of the biggest and most notorious street gangs in Chicago.
Dey was still interested. “My feeling was that we could admit people who had demonstrated ability in other areas of life,” he recalled in a recent interview. So the dean took the proposal to the college president, John Sloan Dickey, a staunch advocate of social justice, who had been on President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. Dickey agreed that Beall’s proposal represented a worthy experiment, and the first two students arrived from North Lawndale in the fall of 1967.
This program that transported gang members from Chicago to Dartmouth was called the Foundation Years and ran from 1967 to 1973. It was organized to enroll students for two probationary years; with acceptable achievement, they could then continue toward a degree, possibly in two additional years.
It was not, by most metrics, a roaring success. Fifteen men were admitted. Seven graduated with bachelor’s degrees; eight dropped out. Almost all of them returned to Chicago, most to the city’s segregated neighborhoods, where half beat the odds and found productive careers. The other half did not, and six of them died in the inner city’s clutch of drugs and guns, a plague that was becoming lethal just as these men were going east to school.
The program was instigated with the hope, perhaps naive, that astonishing Horatio Alger stories would spring from Chicago’s ghetto. That did not happen. Nor did gangs become the obvious key to integrating Dartmouth, which has since grown sophisticated at achieving diversity. (Among the 4,248 undergraduates last fall, 42 percent were students of color or “unknown” ethnicity.)
The Foundation Years story, instead, is one of culture clash—of two starkly different sides of a society in the throes of the civil rights movement. It highlighted race relations, in that highly charged time, in sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, and almost always poignant ways.
Still, while the Foundation Years didn’t change the world, it influenced almost everyone it touched. “These guys embodied the kinds of changes that we needed to make at Dartmouth,” says Paul Rahmeier, then the chaplain and the associate dean of the Tucker Foundation, the college’s center for community and social services programs. Rahmeier, adviser and confidant to the Foundation Years students, regarded them as one of the several positive changes on campus at the time: A broader faculty with degrees from other prestigious universities improved academics. Women were admitted to the school in 1972. “And we needed to have students on campus with street experience,” he says.
Dartmouth was an obvious turning point for the students, too. C. Siddha Webber, who entered the program in 1969 and graduated in 1972, says he didn’t initially want to leave the streets and go to Dartmouth. “I didn’t trust the environment,” he says. But he went anyway, and it worked out. “I had never been around intellectual white people before. It transformed me.”
Photograph: Jeff Sciortino