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Dartmouth’s Culture of Complicity

“We should have gotten rid of the fraternities.” That is the conclusion reached by former Dartmouth College President David T. McLaughlin in a 1997 interview. McLaughlin lamented that the “negatives of that system . . . outweighed the positives.” Indeed, in 1978 the Dartmouth faculty had voted 67-16 to abolish fraternities and sororities. Later, in 2001, 101 faculty signed a letter decrying the fact that they continued to observe in their classrooms ”female students and students of color who suffer from institutionalized practices of sexist and racist humiliation that fester largely unabated within secret fraternity culture.” And in 2012, 105 Dartmouth faculty issued a statement condemning the hazing taking place in the College’s fraternities as “moral thuggery” and asserting that “Greek organizations operate and in some cases are constituted directly in opposition to the values the College holds dear.” Yet despite this long history of official conclusions about their deleterious effects, fraternities at Dartmouth College remain ensconced.

This matters more than ever since the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has visited Hanover again this month as part of a Title IX investigation to conduct interviews relating to ongoing complaints about racism, sexual assaults and sexual harrassment at Dartmouth. The investigation aims to determine whether the College’s response to these issues has been sufficient. This latest visit comes on the heels of the publication by a freshman of a “rape guide” specifically targeting another student. Possible government sanctions against Dartmouth include fines and even the relinquishment of all federal funding.

So, the stakes are high for Dartmouth’s new president, Phil Hanlon, a Dartmouth alum himself who was also a member of a fraternity. The College has raised expectations of a Hanlon presidency through the roof, starting with the trumpeting of his selection last November on the big video screen above Times Square. The several Dartmouth trustees with intimate connections to New York City government and Wall Street must have been pleased by such a visible debut.

During my own time at Dartmouth in the 1980s, student life was marred by a toxic atmosphere of ritualized alcoholism; anti-intellectualism; homophobia; misogyny; and racism. (Shortly after I graduated, there were also flagrant incidents of anti-semitism.) The locus of these problems was the fraternity houses. Many young lives were crippled, and academic careers derailed, by institutionalized alcoholism. Female students were referred to by fraternity boys as “co-hogs” – a term coined in an undergraduate song that was a awarded a prize by a dean – and it was not uncommon to hear boasts about “pulling a train” on a girl. Binge drinking was endemic, and it was considered quite acceptable and even laudable for a student to get so drunk that he would “boot,” or vomit. In this atmosphere, it was difficult to study and carry on a normal social life.

I assumed, though, with the attainment of a 50/50 gender ratio among undergraduates and the mere passing of time, that these noxious products of Dartmouth tradition had faded away. I believed the propaganda coming hard and heavy out of the College’s PR machine attempting to demonstrate that the campus now consisted almost exclusively of serious-minded, talented young scholars preparing themselves to make a positive mark on the world. As a heartened alum, I started to interview applicants for admission, omitting to relate the ugly parts of my experience at the College, while accentuating the positive aspects. I imagined that in the 21st century, Dartmouth finally had become the thoroughly superb institution that I had expected and wanted it to be — and that I knew it could be.

Last spring, however, several undergraduates publicly staged what has come to be known as the “Dimensions protest.” I read what they were saying in the papers about the College’s troubling social atmosphere, how it was particularly hostile to gays, minorities and women. I was shocked by the apparent shortcomings in the way the administration was dealing with the aggression and dysfunction on campus. The College’s official statements and measures seemed to many students and to me to consist almost entirely of window dressing.

I started to do intensive research. (A whole series of ugly incidents involving drunkenness and sexual assault are chronicled in the electronically archived pages of the student newspaper, “The Dartmouth.”) I learned through a recent alum’s published commentary that “pulling the trigger” – or vomiting on cue – was still widespread among drunk fraternity members. I found that so many alumnae had experienced sexual assault on campus that an entire formal group had been formed around the issue. It appeared that virtually nothing at all had changed since the 1980’s, and before that, the 1970’s. The College remained a bastion of harmful anachronisms. Others may have done similar research and reached similar conclusions, as applications this year plummeted by 14% — a uniquely dismal performance among Ivy League schools.

If Dartmouth College really wants to achieve “world class” status, a characteristic it often ascribes to itself, it needs to summon up the will to make definitive and radical changes. The sine qua non of any effort should be the elimination of the so-called Greek system. This would not be a panacea, but it would constitute a powerful and necessary move in the right direction. Dartmouth simply cannot continue disingenuously to scour the country and the world in search of bright, hardworking young people, invite them to enroll; and then sit back while a large plurality of their classmates hive off into closed packs that engage in alcoholic rituals featuring extreme intoxication and vomiting — along with the denigration of the “non-affiliated,” particularly minorities and women. That is not fair to unsuspecting young people and their parents, and it certainly is not the mark of a premier institution of higher learning. To update President McLaughlin’s stark assessment for 2014 and beyond: “Dartmouth must at long last – for its own sake, and for the welfare of its students – get rid of the fraternities.”

Christopher C. Schons is a graduate of Dartmouth College. He lives in Virginia.

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Christopher C. Schons holds an A.B. degree, received magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. He can be reached at christopher_schons@yahoo.com.

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