Dartmouth’s new President, Philip Hanlon, has been in office for nearly four months now. It is the height of the fall foliage season and the Ivy League school’s recent Homecoming weekend was highlighted by a spectacular 20-13 win in football over archrival Yale. But the new school year has also been marked by more controversy than usual as rival groups with longstanding agendas feel him out.
On the one side are politically liberal elements led by a powerful faculty. Opposing them are alumni and others with a significant mistrust of this agenda. Current disputes focus on binge drinking, sexual assault, and Dartmouth’s controversial fraternity system.
The “Animal House” Fraternities
The most recent brouhaha involves the Beta Alpha Omega Fraternity. Last Friday they were placed on “immediate temporary suspension” after an article on Gawker.com published emails between house members that apparently alluded to “hazing” (whatever that means) and underage drinking. For purposes of disclosure, I was a member of the house in the mid 70s and have remained active there over the years. I was at the College this weekend and talked with a number of current house members and alumni who had come up for the Homecoming weekend.
I have my doubts about the onslaught of criticism they face. Dartmouth outsiders might not fully understand the level of institutionalized opposition that the school’s fraternities face. Their detractors see bastions of white male privilege and an “Animal House” culture that tolerates sexual assault. Other concerns about excessive drinking are not without merit. The dispute has raged for generations. The screenplay for the 1978 film was actually written by a 1963 Dartmouth graduate, Chris Miller, who had been in the same fraternity (Alpha Delta) as President Hanlon, who graduated in 1977.
The Gawker article, written by J.K. Trotter, clearly had an agenda. The emails weren’t even that bad. There is one where the fraternity’s president instructs brothers not to give alcohol to freshmen at an Oct 4 barbeque. In another he alludes to a house alumni advisor who is present at an initiation ceremony for new members known as sink night. I know that advisor and he is as responsible as they come. In a third email he makes clear that pledges involved in the upcoming activities have a right not to consume alcohol if they so choose. The emails probably did imply that alcohol might be served to some Dartmouth students who weren’t yet 21. Fair enough; they were careless to write it down where their adversaries could find it, but the reality is that most college students consume alcohol on campus prior to age 21. There is nothing extraordinary about that.
Dartmouth students are regularly taught to be inclusive and tolerant of those who are different. I wonder if those who are out to get the fraternity system aren’t violating this rule. The hazing rituals that everyone is concerned about aren’t that bad either. The emails did talk of blindfolds. Was this harmless theater or something worse? The criterion defined by college policy and New Hampshire law requires “physical or psychological injury.” Psychological injury can be very real in high school and college populations but it’s not about fraternities. When young people pick on or make fun of others because they’re a little odd or unattractive, the harm can last a lifetime. This type of bullying is where the focus should be. As an undergraduate, I once experienced these “sink night” rituals and I have discussed the subject with many others. I do not believe they involve “physical or psychological injury.”
I’m also not sure that allegations of racism are fair. Racial equality has been the firm law of the land at Dartmouth and most other American universities for over 50 years. I’ve found the commitment of Beta and other houses to ethnic diversity to be pretty good.
Despite the controversy there is also a good side to the school’s fraternity system. There is lifelong bonding and the opportunity for active alumni and others to promote character in the young men. Beta has also taken the lead in bringing in members of the school’s small group of undergraduate military veterans. President Hanlon should recognize these benefits and work with the fraternities to make them better.
The Clery Act Complaint
The second issue that President Hanlon faces is a formal complaint filed last spring with the federal government alleging that the school doesn’t do enough to prevent sexual assault and harassment. In a curious development last spring, several Dartmouth students, who had traveled to a press conference in New York to meet with students from other colleges who had filed similar complaints, came on too strong and were asked to leave. The press conference had been organized by high profile attorney Gloria Allred, representing students from Occidental college, and UNC student Andrea Pino, herself a victim of sexual assault.
The truth is that Dartmouth has for years been proactive in confronting issues of sexual assault. Everyone agrees that every young person at the college must feel safe anywhere on campus, including in every fraternity. Have their efforts been successful or sufficient? That is not a simple question. One element that is perhaps missing today is a solid program to promote character in the young people. Throughout human history this issue has traditionally been dealt with in the religious context. With the advent of secular education, a huge vacuum emerged which has never really been filled.
In 2006 Dartmouth’s Dean of Students, James Larimore, stated that he believed that about 50 “completed rapes” occurred on the campus each year. One of the Sexual Assault Awareness Coordinators then chimed in and said the number was more like 109. The problem is that in 42 years of coeducation there appear to have been only two criminal indictments for rape and no convictions. I’m not sure that those numbers can be reconciled with the implied number of several thousand starting in the fall of 1972 when women were first admitted. The Dartmouth so criticized by some is not the Dartmouth that I knew.
Academic studies sometimes cite high numbers of sexual assaults on campus, with one even claiming that one in four female students will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape before they graduate. Everyone agrees that most date-rapes go unreported. In my four years at Dartmouth, I did not hear of a single credible report of a rape while on campus. No one of course knows what happens behind every closed door…but one in four? I just think I would have heard about more. A healthy skepticism for what these “experts” with an agenda report is very much in order.
The leader of this grass-roots movement to confront college sexual assault is a young woman from the University of North Carolina named Andrea Pino. According to reports she is working closely with students at Dartmouth. In a series of Huffington Post articles she talks of two sexual assaults that she suffered at UNC. But her presentation is unusual. There is something not quite right about her rendition of the events.
In both incidents she does not know who did it and never reported anything to either the university or law enforcement. She apparently has little memory of either event, even though in both instances there were others around, well defined locations, and a face she would have seen. From what she describes it would not appear difficult for friends, college officials, or law enforcement to identify the perpetrators, even years later. In the first incident she losses consciousness after being given a drink that “didn’t quite taste right.” In the second event she describes a blow to her head during the attack and waking up in a pool of blood. This type of attack, particularly when perpetrated by a stranger, does not really fit the profile of a crime that would go unreported. More often the victim struggles with the decision to destroy the life of an acquaintance or the friend of a friend.
In her Huffington Post articles she employs a poetic style that is sometimes ambiguous in its presentation of essential details. An April 2013 article in Dartmouth’s student newspaper quotes her as saying: “I’m a rape survivor, but when I tried to seek support, I was told I was being lazy.” The raw material for this serious allegation does not exactly say that. By my reading she describes “difficult personal trauma” to a faculty advisor as the reason she is unable to complete an assignment. She did not tell the advisor who called her “lazy” that she had been raped. I do not believe that any instructor at Dartmouth or UNC would ignore the claim of a young woman who said, “I was raped.”
Let me also point out that many people I respect disagree with me about the opinions expressed here. They believe, as the Clery Act complainants do, that the high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses is well established.
President Hanlon was chosen to lead Dartmouth after the abrupt exit of Jim Yong Kim in April 2012. In an unexpected move, Kim had been chosen by President Obama to head the World Bank. Before his selection, Hanlon had had a distinguished career at the University of Michigan.
Leading Dartmouth is fraught with peril. As President Hanlon is undoubtedly aware, his ability to control the College’s faculty is limited. David McLaughlin, Dartmouth’s president between 1981 and 1987, earned their wrath and left early. James Freedman (1987-1998) did everything the faculty wanted and is held in contempt in many quarters because of it. The school is ground zero for a kind of decadent liberalism that is found on many US campuses. But there is also a powerful and affluent group that values the school’s history and traditions. This kind of internecine warfare is of course vintage Dartmouth; the school loved by so many just wouldn’t be the same without it. Stay tuned.