Bad behavior in college: Not just at Dartmouth

(By Scott Eells/Bloomberg)
(By Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

Philip J. Hanlon, the new president of Dartmouth College, has just gone public with his concern that the Ivy League school’s future “is being hijacked by extreme behavior,” by which he means in part sexual assaults and the proliferation of groups with “racist and sexist undertones.” He also lamented a campus culture marked by commonplace “dangerous drinking.” His timing isn’t a real surprise: The Education Department is investigating issues involving harassment and sexual violence at Dartmouth — which, not incidentally, was one of the schools whose culture was a model for the famous frats-gone-wild movie “Animal House.” There’s this, too: Applications were down 14 percent this year (though don’t worry too much about Dartmouth on this score, given that 19,296 students applied and only 11.5 percent were admitted.) Collapse of the 245-year-old school in New Hampshire is not imminent. And this stuff isn’t only Dartmouth’s problem.

As my colleague Nick Anderson reported in this story, the Education Department isn’t only investigating Dartmouth for its compliance with a federal law against gender discrimination with a focus on sexual violence. The department is also investigating allegations of sexual violence at 53 colleges and universities around the country and these problems plague many more as well. Dangerous drinking is a hallmark of college life on most campuses today; the National Institutes of Health says it has “become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience” and that it can lead to death and sexual assault.

Drinking and sexual assault are inextricably linked. Ohio University Professor Thomas Vander Ven is a sociologist/anthropologist who spent seven years researching why college kids drink to “get wasted” and wrote about it in “Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard.” He concluded that the answer is complicated, but that kids drink together socially and enjoy it, often feeling more free to experiment than when they are sober. That’s why Vander Ven told NPR:

After seven years of research on this, the thing that troubled me most … is the risk for sexual victimization.

And therein lies some of the problem. Colleges and universities have been trying to deal with sexual assault cases on campus rather than turning them over to the police — and often set up disciplinary systems that are operated by people not well-trained for the task. When alcohol is involved, which is very often the case, it is easy to just leave it as a “he said she said” case and let it go instead of digging too deeply.

Then there’s the frat problem. On many campuses, fraternities are the center of the drinking culture, as this 2012 story in Rolling Stone explains:

It’s impossible to examine particular types of campus calamity and not find that a large number of them cluster at fraternity houses…. Lawsuits against fraternities are becoming a growing matter of public interest, in part because they record such lurid events, some of them ludicrous, many more of them horrendous. For every butt bomb, there’s a complaint of manslaughter, rape, sexual torture, psychological trauma. A recent series of articles on fraternities by Bloomberg News’s David Glovin and John Hechinger notes that since 2005, more than 60 people—the majority of them students—have died in incidents linked to fraternities, a sobering number in itself, but one that is dwarfed by the numbers of serious injuries, assaults, and sexual crimes that regularly take place in these houses. Many people believe that violent hazing is the most dangerous event associated with fraternity life, but hazing causes a relatively small percentage of these injuries. Because of a variety of forces, all this harm—and the behaviors that lead to it—has lately been moving out of the shadows of private disciplinary hearings and silent suffering, and into the bright light of civil lawsuits, giving us a clear picture of some of the more forbidding truths about fraternity life. While many of these suits never make it to trial, disappearing into confidential settlements (as did that of Louis Helmburg III, nearly two years after he filed his lawsuit) or melting away once plaintiffs recognize the powerful and monolithic forces they are up against, the narratives they leave behind in their complaints—all of them matters of public record—comprise a rich and potent testimony to the kinds of experiences regularly taking place on college campuses. Tellingly, the material facts of these complaints are rarely in dispute; what is contested, most often, is only liability.

Yet, colleges only occasionally take serious action against fraternities.

Dartmouth officials have long known about the student culture there. In 2012, a student named Andrew Lohse wrote a story for the school newspaper that said in part:

I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool full of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beers poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks; and vomit on other pledges, among other abuses. Certainly, pledges could have refused these orders. However, under extreme peer pressure and the desire to “be a brother,” most acquiesced. While not every pledge is asked to do these things, many are. The specific tasks vary year to year, but these are things I’ve witnessed as a member of the fraternity.

Hanlon appears to be trying at Dartmouth and should be applauded for it. He graduated from Dartmouth 37 years ago and this is his first year as president. In a speech he gave Wednesday on campus, he noted that the Dartmouth culture is different than when he went (though “Animal House” came out 36 years ago). He is moving, among other things. to improve investigations into sexual assault allegations. According to Anderson’s story:

A proposal under review would refer cases to a trained external investigator, rather than an internal committee that typically handles disciplinary matters. It also would require mandatory expulsion for the most severe sexual offenses, such as “cases involving penetration accomplished by force, threat, or purposeful incapacitation.”

Still, I can’t help wondering why it took Dartmouth until 2014 and a 14 percent drop in applications to do this. And why other colleges and universities aren’t moving more aggressively on this front.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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