The plan — a major cultural transformation of the campus, announced in a speech Thursday by Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon — culminates several months of soul-searching at the private Ivy League college in New Hampshire, a process akin to recent reviews at the University of Virginia and numerous other schools around the country. In April, Hanlon challenged students, faculty and alumni to brainstorm what Dartmouth should do to combat sexual assault, dangerous drinking and other problems at a relatively isolated school with a hard-partying reputation.
The college last year overhauled how it polices sexual misconduct, with new rules that call for rigorous investigations when an assault is reported and mandatory expulsion of students found responsible in the most egregious offenses. In addition, Hanlon said, fraternities and sororities have embarked voluntarily on major reforms, including an end to the custom of requiring new members to undergo a probationary period as “pledges.” That is meant to quell the abuses of hazing rituals.
Now Hanlon wants the college to crack down on abuse of alcohol, specifically on consumption of alcoholic beverages of 30 proof or higher.
“The evidence is clear: Hard alcohol is posing a serious threat to the health and safety of our campus,” Hanlon said in a prepared speech he planned to deliver Thursday morning on the campus in Hanover. Most of the time when alcohol causes a medical problem, he said, “it is hard alcohol — rather than just beer or wine — that lands students on a hospital gurney.”
Hanlon continued: “We do not need hard alcohol at Dartmouth. In fact, many students have suggested it shouldn’t be here. Beginning today, Dartmouth will take a lead among colleges in dealing with hard alcohol on campus. Hard alcohol will not be served at events open to the public — whether the event is sponsored by the college or by student organizations. Penalties for students found in possession of hard alcohol will ramp up. And so will penalties for those who purchase and provide any alcohol to minors.”
A restriction on hard liquor is unusual, said Kevin Kruger, the president of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “You wouldn’t find that on most campuses.” He said the focus on hard alcohol makes sense because “most of the really horrific things that happened related to alcohol happen with hard alcohol. … It just takes too much beer to get there.”
A fact sheet the college prepared for a plan called “Moving Dartmouth Forward” included an explicit prohibition for students on possession or consumption of hard alcohol on campus — “including those over the legal drinking age” of 21. The provision is stricter than new rules for drinking at fraternity parties that U-Va. announced this month.
The U-Va. rules prohibit serving mixed alcoholic drinks and punches at fraternity parties, emphasizing instead beer and wine. But they allow hard liquor to be served at large events if a fraternity hires a bartender through a company with a state license, or at smaller events if bottles are placed at a bar overseen by a sober fraternity member who is monitoring the event.
There is an assumption in such policies that some form of underage drinking is an inevitable part of the college experience, and that the wisest course is to try to regulate it rather than end it. Nationwide, colleges and universities face enormous challenges reining in student drinking. The Chronicle of Higher Education last fall documented the issue in a report headlined “A River of Booze.”
Kruger said the most difficult aspect of the plan will be enforcement, as many students drink in off-campus settings. Most students can’t legally drink in any case, and schools often face pushback when they try to crack down on it, so most schools focus on education and prevention. Kruger said more schools are trying to enforce restrictions: “There’s some sense of frustration with the intractability of this issue.”
Dartmouth officials say dangerous drinking on their campus has declined in recent years. They point to data that show incidents of extreme intoxication — involving students whose blood alcohol concentration is above .25 — have fallen sharply. There were seven such incidents in fall 2013, according to a college health program, down from 36 three years earlier. But Dartmouth wants to eliminate the problem.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Hanlon said his goal is a college “where students are 24/7 learners, where intellectual growth occurs outside the classroom as much as inside the classroom.” To that end, he said, Dartmouth will create a new system of residential communities to take effect for freshmen who enter next fall. Hanlon called it “probably the most transformative item” in the college’s reform plan.
The idea is that freshmen will be randomly assigned to one of six communities, each of which will have a faculty adviser and affiliated graduate students. Details about the design of the communities remain to be determined. But Hanlon wants students to feel a connection with these groups that lasts for years, even if they choose to move into a fraternity or sorority house or off-campus housing. The communities would complement, but not supplant, the strong tradition of Greek life on campus.
“We want more options for community building and social interaction that are inclusive, not gender-dominated in any way,” Hanlon said.
In his speech, Hanlon said he considered whether Greek-letter organizations were an inherent obstacle to his reform goals. He concluded they were not.
“Ultimately, I do 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,” he said. “It would not address the charge I placed before our community of purging extreme behaviors wherever on campus they occurred.”
But Hanlon put fraternities and sororities on notice: “If the Greek system as a whole does not engage in meaningful, lasting reform, we will revisit its continuation on our campus.”
Mark Koepsell, executive director and CEO of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, applauded Dartmouth for taking a bold step with “an interesting concept.” He said his fear is that people who really want to hold onto old traditions will just take pledging — and hazing — underground.
The last couple of years have seen unprecedented growth in Greek system membership, as students seek to belong to an organization with values they believe in, Koepsell said.
“When it’s done effectively, I absolutely believe it can be one of the most powerful positive influences on, not only students, but something they carry with them as alumni for the rest of their lives,” Koepsell said. “Sadly when not done appropriately it can also be one of the most harmful.”
The Dartmouth Inter-fraternity Council unanimously voted this past fall to end a formal pledge period for new members, said Chester Brown, a senior and fraternity leader at Dartmouth; all new members are now immediately recognized as full participants, with all the rights and privileges that come along with that status.
Taylor Cathcart, a senior from New York who is president of Phi Delta Alpha, said fraternities decided that even if nothing illicit was happening, it would be best to eliminate pledging. A new class was initiated in the fall without pledging and he said it went well.
“We’re really looking forward to continuing to work with the administration on these policies,” Cathcart said. “There was a call to action for students to get involved. That’s what sets this process apart from other schools. There’s nothing that’s changing that gets at the heart of what the Greek system is really about, as long as we can focus on the traditions and brotherhood.”
Hanlon, a mathematician, earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in 1977 and took office as president in June 2013. As an undergraduate, he joined the Alpha Delta fraternity, which was the successor to a local chapter of the national Alpha Delta Phi fraternity that became inactive at Dartmouth in 1968. The organization was said to have helped inspire the film “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” the famous 1978 parody of Greek life at a fictional college.
Dartmouth, with about 6,300 students, is one of 95 colleges and universities nationwide that are the subject of federal civil rights investigations for their handling of sexual violence issues. The federal probe of Dartmouth began in May 2013.
Hanlon’s plan calls for several other measures to change the culture of Dartmouth. Among them:
- Sexual violence prevention programs that would be required for students during all four undergraduate years;
- A requirement for students to sign a code of conduct that defines expectations for “civility, dignity, diversity, community and safety”;
- A mandate for all Greek houses to have active faculty sponsors, one male and one female;
- Stronger efforts to recruit students from all economic backgrounds, and robust financial aid for those in need;
- And more classroom rigor. Hanlon wants to curtail “grade inflation” and start classes earlier on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
“Just think,” Hanlon told students in the speech prepared for Thursday morning, “instead of listening to me, in the future you could be in class.”