During Prohibition, John Sloan Dickey returned to Dartmouth College after a weekend football game against Cornell and found a box of whiskey under his cot in an off-campus apartment. His roommate, a fellow Dartmouth undergraduate, had the idea of becoming a bootlegger.
Dartmouth in those days was a “sanctuary for juvenile delinquency,” Dickey, who went on to become Dartmouth's president, would recall years later in an oral history. The college had cultivated a reputation for being unconcerned about liquor and its abuse, he said, which became a serious handicap when he tried to recruit faculty and students during his quarter-century as president, from 1945 to 1970.
Little has changed. The current president of Dartmouth, Philip Hanlon, says the college remains bedeviled not just by its students' drinking but also by sexual assaults and growing disregard for social norms.
Together, Hanlon said in a speech Wednesday night, these student behaviors are threatening to do serious damage to the college’s reputation. He blamed the 14 percent decline in Dartmouth's applications this year -- at a time its Ivy League peers continue to attract growing numbers of students -- on the reputation for rowdiness and sexual assault.
“We can no longer allow this college to be held back by the few who wrongly hide harmful behaviors behind the illusion of youthful exuberance,” he said in prepared remarks. “Routinized excessive drinking, sexual misconduct, and blatant disregard of social norms have no place at Dartmouth. Enough is enough.”
Whether Hanlon, who took office last summer, can do anything or not remains to be seen. He is forming a committee of students, faculty members, administrators and alumni who will spend the summer “researching and crowdsourcing the best solutions.”
Officials in the past seven Dartmouth administrations wrestled with Dartmouth’s reputation. For at least six decades, Dartmouth officials have been trying to shut down or rein in fraternities in some form or another, according to oral histories and archival material.
A lot of the problems have been blamed on Greek life, which dominates the campus. First-year students can’t join Greek organizations, but after that, most students do: about 63 percent of upperclass male and female students are in a fraternity or sorority.
Ronald M. Green, professor of ethics and human values in the department of religion, said Dartmouth needs to deal with the problems of its immature – largely male-driven – undergraduate culture. Yet, in his four decades at the college, he’s seen such efforts come and go, more talk than action.
“I don’t think asking the fraternities to clean up their acts has ever worked,” he said. “Some do, but others just laugh and go on, and it’s those that breed the behaviors that are causing everybody such anguish.”
Hanlon’s administration believes there’s been progress lately, and cites decreases in the number of students seeking medical attention for drinking with extreme blood alcohol levels. But the president also said campus crime and rowdiness is holding back the college.
Mark Davis, the president of the college’s Alumni Council, said alumni are glad the president is looking into high-risk, harmful behaviors, but aren’t sure things are worse at Dartmouth than at its peers.
“To the extent that I’m hearing this because I’m president of the Alumni Council, that is not what I’m hearing,” he said.
But concern among presidents about Dartmouth’s exceptional reputation goes back decades.
“Dartmouth bought – and you might even say Dartmouth cultivated – a reputation for being unconcerned about liquor and its abuse, and being boastful about Dartmouth being a hard-drinking college,” Dickey recalled during an oral history he gave in 1975. “That was one of the very, very serious handicaps that I found I had to deal with on the job.”
Dickey’s predecessor, President Ernest Martin Hopkins, barred freshmen from joining fraternities because he got sick of seeing men flunk out. Around 1940, Hopkins also threatened to shut down the Delta Kappa Epsilon house, a fraternity of which he had been a member.
The fraternities closed during World War II and Dickey, a former fraternity president himself, said allowing them to reopen was a close call. He said he came to regret allowing some of them to open back up without making fundamental changes but, given that Dartmouth is in rural New Hampshire, there was little satisfactory alternative for campus social life.
That was all before women were even admitted to the college in 1972.
Within a few years and in part because of some incidents and general hazing, James Epperson, an English professor, undertook an effort to dismantle the fraternity system. The faculty voted overwhelmingly to support the plan.
McLaughlin thought about “taking on the fraternities” during his own administration but ended up moving on to other things when he was president during most of the 1980s.
“We probably could have done it and done it early in my term. But the board simply wasn't ready to stand to that,” he said in his oral history. He added, “I still think it needs to be done.”
McLaughlin’s successor, President James Freedman, said he planned to change the culture at Dartmouth so that students were no longer “extroverted, gregarious, party-going, athletically oriented, overly prone to conformity, well-rounded and intelligent, but not intellectual.” He was accused of trying to turn Dartmouth into Harvard, which was seen as a great insult. Freedman strengthened Dartmouth's academic reputation, but also infuriated many of the college's alumni, particularly by going to war with the conservative campus student newspaper, The Dartmouth Review.
And his successor, James Wright, said he wanted to change the campus culture, too.
A committee he led issued a report in 2000 that called for new policies to rein in fraternities and sororities and curb alcohol and drug use.
But the report also acknowledged previous reports, including one from 1977 and one from 1987, that also called for changes. It also quoted Epperson, who said, “The reforms that have periodically been attempted, as I’ve tried to explain, have lasted a few years and perhaps served the purpose for that time and then have been forgotten.”
Wright’s successor, Jim Yong Kim, who served from 2009 to 2012, was sharply criticized for not doing enough to stop hazing at Dartmouth before he left to take the top job at the World Bank.
Now, Hanlon is making another go at changing the campus culture.
It’s not yet clear where he’s headed, though, or how much he will focus on Greek life, which was not the focus of his remarks.
“I am calling today on the entire Dartmouth community to come together to evaluation a more ambitious range solutions, the result will be a fundamental change in every place on campus where social activities take place -- I’m asking for change in residence halls, Greek houses, affinity houses, senior societies and other campus organizations,” he said.
Joseph Asch, a 1979 alum who is the principal author of Dartblog, a blog that is often critical of Dartmouth's administration, said he sees history repeating itself.
“This is a standard thing at Dartmouth, so Phil’s going to have another go at it, but short of actually abolishing the fraternities, I don’t know,” he said.
Hanlon said he does think now is different from all the times in the past.
“There are some in higher education who say that this set of problems cannot be solved,” he said in a video he recorded about his plans. “Dartmouth will prove them wrong.”
Hanlon expects his committee's report to be finished this fall.
Through a spokesman, Hanlon said past efforts to change the culture at Dartmouth show people they now have to "remain optimistic throughout" the new effort.
"Over the next six months, we are going to engage the whole community to identify the best ideas and vet them with experts and colleagues around the country before [Board of Trustees] approval," he said. "We are energized by the response to yesterday's call to action."