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Dartmouth President Speaks Out Against Violent Campus Culture

April 17, 2014, 9:37 am

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This Dartmouth frat, Alpha Delta, co-hosted a “Bloods and Crips” party last year with the Delta Delta Delta sorority

On Wednesday, Philip J. Hanlon, the new president of Dartmouth College, threw down a challenge to his students: clean up your act. You are ruining a good school. Speaking to the community both as president and as an alumnus, Hanlon maintained that “there is no finer undergraduate education than the one offered by Dartmouth,” the school’s “promise is being hijacked by extreme behavior, masked by its perpetrators as acceptable fun.”

This would include binge drinking, rape and racist parties where white kids are encouraged to dress up as stereotypes of their class mates of color. You know: normal elite college behavior that lawyers quietly settle out of court so that the public doesn’t know the details of these ugly incidents. Hanlon continued:

From sexual assaults on campus…to a culture where dangerous drinking has become the rule and not the exception…to a general disregard for human dignity as exemplified by hazing, parties with racist and sexist undertones, disgusting and sometimes threatening insults hurled on the internet…to a social scene that is too often at odds with the practices of inclusion that students are right to expect on a college campus in 2014.

The actions I have detailed are antithetical to everything that we stand for and hope for our students to be. There is a grave disconnect between our culture in the classroom and the behaviors outside of it—behaviors which too often seek not to elevate the human spirit, but debase it.

In a 2012 article in Rolling Stone, cited by The Washington Post in its report on Hanlon’s speech, a Dartmouth student pledging a fraternity revealed that his hazing process had included being told to “swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; [and] chug cups of vinegar.” Nice. Boys, are those the lips you kiss your mother with?

Calling loudly for change, Hanlon pointed out that the school is in the midst of a Title IX investigation; publicity about social life at Dartmouth is consistently awful; and applications dropped 14% this year. That wasn’t true of comparable schools, however, where there are similar drinking habits, as well as publicly debated sexual assault cases. According to The Harvard Gazette, after five years of the Harvard applicant pool expanding, it leveled off in 2013; while Yale’s applications were slightly up, despite a Title IX investigation at that school. Princeton’s applications were also up: they chose a class from the third largest pool in its history.  And publicity doesn’t always hurt, I guess: Wesleyan University, which just settled a civil suit brought by a Jane Doe who was brutally raped at the Beta house, pulled in its largest applicant pool ever. However, they have another lawsuit coming down the pipe, and we will see what next year’s applicants look like: a second student alleges that she was raped at a Psi U pledge “strip show” while other Wesleyan students watched (this is, by the way, not uncommon.) The police, according to CNN, were unable to find a students willing to give evidence.

Can it be possible that, despite the fact that college and university presidents continue to pretend publicly that these things do not happen on campus, President Hanlon is acting on principle? That he is telling students personally that too many people are being hurt and the party is over? “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 told the community. “Routinized excessive drinking, sexual misconduct, and blatant disregard of social norms have no place at Dartmouth. Enough is enough.”

Hanlon is trying to rally the majority of good kids who attend Dartmouth, but who are too often afraid to say no to violence. He emphasized that administrative initiatives needed to be matched by students, whether as individuals or as members of campus organizations; he has also introduced initiatives to intervene in bystanderism, and pointed to the harm caused by anonymous student websites. Both of these phenomena implicate women as well as men in sexual violence, hazing and destructive partying (for more on this, see the chapter on college women who are part of “guy culture” in Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: the Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, 2008.)

I’m not surprised that Dartmouth’s applications are down, whatever the reason for it. I know two sets of parents who categorically told their very high achieving children, both daughters and one a young woman of color, not to apply to Dartmouth because they would not be permitted to attend. I know several young Dartmouth alumnae who have told me that, in their first day of freshman orientation (a decade or so ago), she and the other women were gathered together in small groups to receive information on what to do when (not if, you understand) they were raped.

But as a feminist, I have to say that Hanlon received high marks from me by actually getting up in public and stating that sexual assault is happening on campus. I call that leadership. When you admit that something is happening, that what women and men are saying about being physically and psychologically abused at your school is real, it increases the likelihood that it will change. Presidents simply don’t do this kind of thing. They are so surrounded by lawyers and, as several of us attending a history meeting last week agreed, so terrified of being sued by the accused rapist and his frat buddies that they walk around in a cloud of Ugly Pretend most of the time, hoping that it will all go away.

Sadly, raped women and men usually do just go away.

And as for saying the drinking is destructive? Presidents never do that either, even though all of them will admit privately that they live in fear every weekend that one of the dozen or so students who goes to the ER will actually die. This kind of dirty work is usually left to the Deans of Student Life, who send out inconsistent, no-fun memos so that they can be relentlessly mocked by the students as nannies.

So good for you, President Hanlon. And good luck.

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