Taking On Dartmouth Culture

President pushes to create house system, ban hard alcohol and fight grade inflation -- all in the name of stopping "extreme behaviors."

January 30, 2015
Dartmouth College
Philip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth, unveils his new plan.

As part of a major new plan to excise “extreme behaviors" on its campus, Dartmouth College announced Thursday that it will ban hard alcohol, create a new student housing system and adopt a sexual violence prevention program that will be part of all four years of an undergraduate education. During a speech announcing the new plan, Philip Hanlon, Dartmouth's president, also urged faculty to help curb grade inflation and to consider scheduling classes earlier in the morning.

"You have heard me speak of a campus that is even more intellectually energized, a site of significant academic entrepreneurship and innovation, a place of big ideas, bold efforts and path-breaking scholarship," Hanlon said in an address to the campus. "Everything is possible for Dartmouth. But our aspirations will never be realized if we fail to address a vital component: the environment in which our students live and learn."

The plan -- created after nearly a year of research and soul-searching -- was met with mixed reaction Thursday. Some observers praised its scope and others dismissed it as little more than “window dressing.” Alumni like Joseph Asch, a Dartmouth graduate who once ran for a seat on the college's Board of Trustees, were mostly just relieved that the plan didn’t abolish the institution’s Greek system, as many faculty members have urged.

"Not for [Hanlon] the radical projects that rarely lead to the results expected,” Asch wrote on his blog, Dartblog. “He has a sense of where he is going, and while that destination is not original, there is little likelihood that his plans will leave Dartmouth worse off, and a strong chance that campus life in Hanover will be better for his thinking.”

Art Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, said the plan's goals may not be as easily attainable as Dartmouth's administration hopes, especially the prohibition of hard alcohol.

“It’s an important statement of Dartmouth’s values,” Levine said, "but ending hard liquor on campus is a really hard thing to do."

At Dartmouth, that has been especially so, and the administration has tried -- with varying degrees of success -- to crack down on student drinking for at least six decades. When John Sloan Dickey was president between 1945 and 1970, the college’s reputation for being unconcerned about alcohol abuse made it difficult, he said, to recruit faculty and students. In April of last year, Hanlon blamed a 14 percent decline in Dartmouth’s applications on “routinized excessive drinking, sexual misconduct and blatant disregard of social norms.”

Since becoming president in 2013, Hanlon has promised to clean up Dartmouth's hard-partying and rowdy reputation. Last spring, he created a committee of students, faculty members, administrators and alumni to crowdsource solutions through a series of surveys, which eventually led to the drafting of the Moving Dartmouth Forward plan.

Dartmouth officials said they believe some of the efforts to reduce high-risk drinking have already helped, with the number of students hospitalized with blood alcohol content levels above 0.25 dropping from 80 in 2011 to 31 in both 2013 and 2014. In an interview Thursday, Hanlon said that “plateau” wasn’t enough.

“What’s come to light now is that hard alcohol is the key challenge that remains,” he said. “If you talk to health professionals, the vast majority of medical transports they receive are caused by hard alcohol, rather than beer or wine. So we’re viewing hard alcohol as a challenge facing our campus right now and were going to take it on.”

The new alcohol policy prohibits the possession or consumption of alcohol that is 30 proof or higher by anyone on campus, including those who are over 21. Penalties will be increased for students found in possession of hard alcohol, and third-party security and bartenders will be required at campus social events. Fraternities caught serving hard alcohol, Hanlon said, could be kicked off campus. Hanlon admitted that such a policy carries the risk of just pushing high-risk drinking off campus, although with Dartmouth being located in the tiny town of Hanover, N.H., there's not much "off-campus" to speak of. "It's something to be mindful of and to look out for," he said. "But it is not a reason not to adopt the ban."

Taylor Cathcart, president of Dartmouth's Phi Delta Alpha chapter, said the details of the plan, including the ban on alcohol, did not come as a surprise to fraternity members.

"In our own proposals, we had suggested some possibility of regulating the consumption of hard alcohol, and understood that hard alcohol had been identified by the administration as the source of a lot of these issues taking place on campus," Cathcart said. "I don't expect a lot of pushback from Greek leadership, but I do think adopting the ban will be a challenge. I don’t think anyone’s going to be denying that."

Michael Bronski, a senior lecturer in Dartmouth's women's and gender studies program, said the new policy may force Dartmouth to “reckon with, in some profound way, what its relationship is to fraternity houses, legally, socially and ethically.” Several fraternity houses at Dartmouth are privately owned, creating a confusing mix where some houses may not be fully covered by the policy but the students' behaviors as members of a campus organization are.

“It’s a complicated, intricate relationship,” Bronski said. “Since going coeducational 43 years ago, the school has completely abdicated any responsibility for creating social space. That’s something Hanlon has been trying to deal with. Dartmouth doesn’t have a Harvard Square, or an Upper West Side, or a Berkeley, so social spaces have to be created, and the administration has allowed fraternities to take that over and even mandated it in some passive way.”

The plan tries to address this issue, Hanlon said, with a new residential housing system that will create six “house communities” in which, starting with the class of 2019, every student will be placed.

“From sophomore year on, students will reside within their residential community when they live within the dorms,” the plan states. “Even if a student is living in a first-year dorm, Greek house, affinity house, live-learn community or off campus, they will remain a member of the residential community, included in all its activities, and partaking of all the rights and responsibilities of community membership."

Each community will have a dedicated space for study and social interaction, as well as graduate students and a “house professor” in residence. Hanlon said the project will likely require new buildings to be built. On Thursday, Carolyn Dever, Dartmouth’s provost, sent an e-mail to faculty members, seeking applicants for house professor positions. “More than the current random place to sleep, house communities will become a home base for Dartmouth’s students," Dever wrote.

The house communities are also part of a larger push to have faculty "play a larger and more influential role" in the lives of students, Hanlon said, and to create a more rigorous academic environment. This includes, he said, curbing grade inflation, not canceling classes during celebration weekends and starting classes at earlier times. Dartmouth will also invest $1 million to expand the college's experiential learning opportunities.

“With the house communities, there are a number of things we’re trying to accomplish,” Hanlon said. “One is to inject more academic content and provide room for more intellectual growth. Another is to expand the options for social interactions and community.”

But if it were up to Bronski -- and hundreds of other faculty members -- Hanlon’s new plan wouldn't have just created an alternate social structure. It would have have abolished the Greek system completely, or at least required it to go coed. In October, 230 of Dartmouth’s 588 faculty members signed an open letter urging the college to do away with the Greek system. At a faculty meeting in November, faculty members voted 116-13 to ban the college’s fraternities and sororities. Earlier that month, the college’s student newspaper devoted an entire front page to an editorial calling for the same.

Responding to a poll in August, hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni said they would like to see the college's Greek system abolished.

“There are some good intentions in this, but without really addressing gender-segregated fraternities and sororities, the plan is doomed for failure and doesn’t address many of the root causes of campus sexual assault,” Bronski said. “It’s an extreme metaphor, but this is sort of like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. You can make them look nicer, maybe even have the orchestra keep playing, but the ship is still sinking.”

Despite the growing anti-Greek sentiment on campus, Bronski said, faculty members knew banning fraternities and sororities “was never really on the table.” More than half of eligible Dartmouth students are members of a fraternity or a sorority.

“I do understand that a number of faculty, students and alumni during this process did come forward and say they felt that it was time to abolish the Greek system,” Hanlon said in an interview. “But we also heard from alumni and students and some faculty that there are many advantages to the Greek system. It’s definitely an issue where there are divided opinions.”

The plan’s steering committee visited campuses where fraternities and sororities have been abolished, Hanlon said, and examined colleges where Greek life is minimal and colleges where it is intense. Based on the committee’s research, Hanlon said he does “not believe that simply eliminating this one aspect of campus life would be a comprehensive or even effective solution to the more pervasive challenges we face.”

Hanlon promised to “revisit the system’s continuation” at Dartmouth in “three to five years” if the new plan was not successful in sharply curbing harmful behaviors.

The new plan also prohibits pledging and probationary periods for Greek and all other student organizations, something fraternities had already voted to abolish. The college will create an online “consent manual” to help clarify what is acceptable sexual behavior and will conduct climate surveys about sexual assault on campus. Next year, the college will roll out a new campus safety app and introduce its “four-year education and awareness” program.

Dartmouth already adopted stricter punishments for sexual assaults in June, but the new plan reiterates that the college uses “a zero-tolerance sexual assault disciplinary policy, with mandatory expulsion in the most egregious cases.”

Some advocates for sexual assault prevention said the plan doesn’t go far enough to address sexual violence on Dartmouth’s campus. The college is currently under two federal investigations for how it handles reports of sexual assault. Dana Bolger, cofounder of Know Your IX, tweeted that the ban on hard alcohol would make victims who have been drinking more hesitant to come forward.

“Where are the steps to protect interpersonal violence survivors?” Bolger said. “Or is curbing ‘grade inflation’ supposed to stop misogyny, too?”

Andrew Lohse, a former student and Sigma Alpha Epsilon member who wrote a book about excessive partying and hazing rituals he claimed to have experienced at Dartmouth, said the new plan “pushes off dealing with the big problem.”

“And the big problem is Greek life,” Lohse said. “This is window dressing. It’s saying, ‘At some point in the future, we’ll have to do something.’ In the meantime, the plan is only going to fetishize hard alcohol on a campus that already has such a historical fixation on drinking and secrecy.”


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