Greek Life at Dartmouth - The New Deal

By David Clark '76, AVC Alumni Relations Chair

In January, when Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon released his Dartmouth Moving Forward (MDF) plan, his vision for a total overhaul of the college’s student experience, he commanded the attention of not only the Dartmouth community but the nation’s news media including the CBS Evening News and Time Magazine.  Sexual assault, excessive and binge drinking, anti-intellectual behavior and administration-fraternity clashing is a national problem.  President Hanlon’s far-reaching plan offers a way forward, perhaps the only way, that Greek life can continue to exist at Dartmouth.  

This article will briefly recap the MDF, its implications for fraternity life at Dartmouth and the steps SigEp is taking to assure that it has a future not only as a member of the Dartmouth community, but as a leader among the Greek life organizations.

Moving Dartmouth Forward

As a member of the Dartmouth class of 1978, Hanlon observed the college at a time of wrenching transition.  Only two years earlier, the last of the Ivy League schools went go “co-ed” as the first Dartmouth women entered as freshman to a less than hospitable welcome.  Fraternities dominated the social life of the previously all-male school.  In addition to offering brotherhood, they provided a gathering place for women visiting the campus from Colby Junior, Mount Holyoke, Smith and other colleges.  As every article about him – sorry, including this one – points out, Hanlon was a member of Alpha Delta, one of two fraternities whose antics would inspire the 1970’s hit movie Animal House.

MDF addresses almost every phase of Dartmouth student life.  It was created over a remarkably short period of time.  In April 2014 Hanlon called for an end to extreme behaviors.  By May a Steering Committee comprised of faculty and students began work on their comprehensive recommendations.  Announced in January 2015, MDF is comprised of those initiatives that President Hanlon has chosen as his focus and which are to be implemented immediately or in the very near future.  The following is a brief summary of its calls to action, particularly those that directly impact the fraternity experience.

MDF endeavors to reshape and redefine nearly every aspect of the Dartmouth experience.  At its core is the requirement that each and every student be accountable for his or her actions.  Increased interaction with faculty and graduate students, the campus living experience and mandated sexual assault training for students are all addressed in order to create, some might say restore, an atmosphere of intellectual vitality and safety.  President Hanlon is realistic about the magnitude of the problem he is tackling.  “To be clear, no single action contains the consummate solution. If it did, these problems would have vanished from our campus and society years and years ago.”

The headline grabbing elements of MDF are the easiest to explain.  Hard liquors (defined as those with a proof of greater than 30%) will be banned from all Greek life and college-sponsored events.  This prohibition would extend even to students who have reached the legal drinking age.  Stiffer penalties will be enacted for students found to be in possession of liquors exceeding the permitted limits or who provide it to minors.

The Dartmouth community recognizes that sexual assault is a problem plaguing colleges across the country.  Women at Dartmouth have told of developing strategies and buddy systems to ensure their safety when entering fraternities.   MDF outlines specific measures that will help identify and prevent high-risk behavior.  All students will be educated regarding sexual assault including the creation of an online “Consent Manual.”  Also being developed is a Dartmouth-specific mobile app that will make it easier for students to seek help if they feel threatened.  Students found guilty of sexual assault will face expulsion.

The plan endeavors to radically change the concept of campus life.   Its goals include making it more inclusive and giving students and faculty more opportunities for meaningful interaction.  By the fall of 2016, every student entering Dartmouth will be assigned to one of six housing communities.  Using the residence halls as a home base, these clusters will organize and host social and academic programs and eventually include space for study and social interaction.  First year students who are not eligible to join fraternities, Greek house residents and students living off campus will be assigned to a cluster.  Over $1 million has been committed to developing the social programs including intramurals that will be offered by these housing communities.

The problem this housing plan seeks to address is as old as coeducation and the Dartmouth Plan itself.  When the college admitted women in 1972, it switched away from semesters to four seasonal terms per year.  This coincided with an expansion of the number of students participating in overseas and other off-campus programs and the encouragement to be away at least one fall term and to be present for one summer term.  Students who had been away for one or more consecutive terms often experienced a sense of dislocation as there was no guarantee that they would return to their previous residence halls or that their friends would be there.  Many credit – or blame – this unforeseen consequence of the Dartmouth Plan for creating an opportunity for fraternities to fill this continuity void and provide an opportunity to socialize.  Contrary to segregating themselves, students wanted to join and be members of a community.  Those who had predicted that when the male-female ratio at Dartmouth reached equilibrium fraternities would lose their reason for being were surprised when they not only survived but thrived in the new environment.  Sixty-nine percent of eligible students (freshmen aren’t) join a Greek house.

Although MDF doesn’t state it, there is a tacit admission in the new housing plan that the college in the past essentially outsourced social life to the Greek life organizations.  Before MDF few meaningful attempts were made to create a social alternative that would rival the fraternities.  The insistence that most fraternity social gatherings be open to non-members, the opposite of the policies at most universities, underlines their importance to the College while at the same time giving critics of Greek life a greater opportunity to experience firsthand the behaviors they find so objectionable.  If the negatives associated with Greek life far outweigh the positives, the College’s actions in recent years raise questions.  Numerous resources have been committed to constructing college-owned and maintained sorority houses that offer women an opportunity to control the social environment and live in same gender housing.

It remains to be seen if the residential clusters will offer a viable alternative to fraternity/sorority life.  In all probability the competition will be a plus for the Greek system.  Monopolies in almost all areas are resented, given little credit for what they do well while providing an easy target for those who resent them.  Will the residential clusters capture the minds, hearts and thirsts of their student members?  Or will they have the same feeling as ordering decaffeinated coffee, sacrificing the oomph in favor of a better night’s sleep?

Controlling Drinking at Dartmouth; The Great Accommodation

MDF made many useful suggestions about how to curb excessive drinking.  By doing so, they will likely rein in other bad behaviors spawned by intoxicated students.  We should remember, however, the age of the clientele whose activities are being supervised.  Most fraternity members are 19, 20, or 21 years old.  (The initial opportunity to join a fraternity is sophomore fall; presumably all but the brightest, grade-skipping students have reached their 19th birthday.)  But the legal drinking age is 21!  That leaves colleges and fraternity governing boards in a conundrum with practical and legal considerations. 

Although some universities have tried, Dartmouth has not taken the Taliban-like approach of trying to eradicate underage drinking.  In addition to being futile, it would likely drive it even further underground and farther from the reaches of “adult” supervision.  If some of the MDF regulatory measures appear to be odd, it is because it is tricky to legally regulate illegal behavior.

A clear plan for enforcement is a vital cog in the changes MDF seeks.  Along with an increased role for security on campus, Dartmouth plans to add language to the student handbook specifically allowing college officials to enter student-occupied spaces, including fraternities if there is suspicion of alcohol or drugs present.  The college also envisions expanded roles for Undergraduate Advisors who would make “rounds” on nights when students are more likely to drink in their residence halls.  In the hope that increased awareness will be more effective than punishment, students will be educated on the negative effects of excessive drinking.

Ramifications for Fraternities

Many Dartmouth fraternities have a long journey to travel to make themselves compliant with the changes demanded by MDF.  Fortunately, SigEp recognized the need for reforms several years ago and has already made excellent progress in many of the areas highlighted by President Hanlon.

Although some might consider the concept of a fraternity nurturing the intellectual development of its members oxymoronic, SigEp takes this idea very seriously.  It takes pride in its GPA, which is consistently above the campus average and usually in the top two or three among all Dartmouth fraternities.  The GPA of a potential new member is taken into account during rush period, however, this can have an adverse effect on meeting other goals.  It is imperative that the fraternal brotherhood be seen as an “inclusive” experience.  Skimming the cream of the highest GPAs would likely lead to a more homogenous membership.  It would also be counter to Dartmouth’s admission process which strives to open the community to all forms of talent, not just the most academic.

In a similar vein, SigEp is trying to avoid having the fraternity experience available only to those who are economically advantaged.  The chapter and alumni board collaborate to offer a number of scholarship and fellowship programs to ensure that those with financial needs are not excluded from the fraternity experience. 

MDF calls for alumni to work more closely with student organizations including fraternities.  SigEp maintains a very active, nine-member Alumni & Volunteer Corporation (AVC) which manages the ownership, rental, maintenance and cleaning of the property.  The AVC collaborates with the undergrads in following the broken window theory of facility maintenance.  Items that are broken are fixed immediately and routine inspections by a professional property manager are made to assure that cleanliness standards are met.

The AVC is working with the undergraduate brotherhood in other ways to enhance the fraternity experience and to assure that living in the chapter house is an attractive choice.  The Hasenkamp Library on the first floor was constructed and recently refurnished in response to brothers who wanted a dedicated, quiet study space in the house.   The Experiential Learning Program where members of the Dartmouth faculty are invited to the house to speak on a topic of interest is increasingly popular not only among the undergraduate SigEps but also their guests.

Another MDF strategy to build bridges between the undergraduates and the balance of the Dartmouth community is Residential Scholars.  In exchange for free rent a graduate student would live in the house.  Ideally, this more mature individual would be a mentor to the undergraduates and help deter extreme behaviors.  Although the AVC does not relish the idea of gathering less room rent, it is favorably disposed to this idea and is exploring it with the brotherhood.

All SigEp brothers participate in the Balanced Man Program, a path to personal and professional development.  The program helps the undergraduate establish personal goals and encourages participation in community service. A hallmark of the Balanced Man Program is the elimination of pledges and the potential for hazing.  All members of the fraternity have equal status.  SigEp had already adopted this regulation before MDF demanded it.

SigEp has a male faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Government Brendan Nyhan, who began working in this role in 2014. It recently named Tom Palladino its Academic Chair and added two female faculty advisors.

The best scenario is when a faculty advisor serves as a bridge that fosters greater learning opportunities and increased understanding among the fraternity, other faculty and the administration.   This can help not only with opportunities for mentoring and to keep bad behavior in check, but also to have a point of contact who can help settle disputes before they mushroom out of control.

More Parties, More Rules, More Planning

Third party security, bouncers from the outside, is going to be required at very large, 150+ fraternity-hosted events where alcohol is being served.  Fraternities will absorb the cost of these chaperones.  The sober monitor plan is a program where designated brothers who have received special training will be present at events where alcohol is served but will abstain from drinking.

In addition to the type of alcohol permitted to be served (less than 30 proof) haggling is ongoing regarding the quantity.  Some prefer a finite amount of alcohol that can be consumed at any gathering.   Others argue that the new rules go far enough in restricting alcohol consumption.  The specifics of these new policies are expected to be made clear in the near future.

Spontaneity is also on the wane for large social gatherings where alcohol is served.  The new chapter house has a maximum capacity of 129 on the first floor and 141 in the basement.  Previous to an event SigEp is required to submit an electronic SEMP form to the GLOS office describing the event including the expected attendance.  The local fire Chief has begun to ask for these forms to review how many people houses are expecting.  Although it hasn’t happened yet, the Chief may be signaling his intent to randomly show up at registered events and see if they are overcrowded.  Campus security, the SnS, has made unannounced visits at parties and shut down those that exceeded allowable capacity.

The Way Forward

Anyone who believes that fraternities need only lay low and moderate their worst behaviors until the current ruckus passes should think again.  Moving Dartmouth Forward is not being viewed as a victory by the fraternity system’s legions of detractors.  It is a compromise that lays out a clear roadmap for change.  It would not be overly dramatic to view it as “change, or else.”  A little noticed sentence in President Hanlon’s introduction to MDF states “If, in the next three to five years, the Greek system does not engage in meaningful and lasting reform, and we are unsuccessful in sharply curbing harmful behaviors, we will need to revisit the system’s continuation on our campus.”

Fraternity life at Dartmouth is undergoing perhaps the most meaningful reformation in its long history.  It is changing because it should and it must.  We will not want to look back in several years and paraphrase John Belushi’s Bluto Blutarski by saying “two hundred years of Dartmouth fraternity life down the drain.”

For those of you visiting the chapter house for reunions and other alumni events, the AVC Board will demonstrate its support for MDF by serving good beer and fine wine at official events.  We urge you to come by, but please leave your favorite Green Machine punch recipe ingredients at home!