Education
6:00 am
Thu May 8, 2014

Dartmouth Investigation Once Again Puts Spotlight on Campus Life

Baker Library at Dartmouth
Baker Library at Dartmouth
Credit Daily Joe via Flickr CC

Susy Struble was a 16-year-old high school student when, during a weekend visit to Dartmouth College, she was raped at an off-campus party.

Like many rape victims, Struble chose not to tell anyone about the assault, and two years later, she was back at Dartmouth as a student.

One night during her freshman year, she opened her door to a tall, sandy-haired man. Obviously drunk, he forced his way in, pushed Struble against the wall and tried to kiss her. Struble was able to fend off her attacker, who she realized was the same man who had raped her two years earlier.

After graduating in 1993, Struble fled west and later settled in the Bay Area with her husband, also a Dartmouth graduate, and their two young children. For years, she kept a quiet distance from her alma mater, whose reputation as an inhospitable place for young women is a centerpiece of the national debate over sexual assault on college campuses.

Related Infographic: Sexual Assaults At New Hampshire Colleges

Dartmouth is one of dozens of U.S. colleges and universities currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which enforces guidelines that protect students from gender discrimination. The federal intervention, which was announced last summer, came shortly after more than three dozen Dartmouth students filed a complaint under the Clery Act, accusing the school of failing to report allegations of rape, sexual harassment and other crimes.

Struble says she decided to “re-engage” with campus affairs in 2012, after a lengthy article in Rolling Stone magazine shined a light on Dartmouth's alcohol-soaked fraternity scene, which several female students described as predatory and dangerous.

“When that story was published, I couldn’t pretend that nothing was happening, that the problems weren’t still there,” she says.

The tagline on the Dartmouth Change website reads 'We are better than this.'
The tagline on the Dartmouth Change website reads 'We are better than this.'
Credit via DartmouthChange.org

To push college leaders to take a more aggressive approach in dealing with sexual assault, Struble helped organize a coalition of alumni, faculty and students, called Dartmouth Change. The group launched a petition drive, demanding that Dartmouth "do everything in its power” to stop sex crime on campus, and created a website with a list of resources for victims and a log of campus rape reports.

Its mission has taken on greater urgency since the federal investigation began, which triggered a fierce debate that’s added to the tension on campus.

In one incident, a group of students forced their way into an annual event for prospective students, loudly complaining about widespread sexual harassment and bigotry on campus. Administrators, citing "threatening and abusive online posts" aimed at the protestors, were forced to cancel classes the following day, replacing them with a day-long program of diversity training.

The college attracted more unwanted attention in February when a freshman came forward to say she was sexually assaulted after being targeted in a “rape guide” published at Bored@Baker, an anonymous online forum for Dartmouth students.

I can't help but think, putting myself in the place of a high-achieving college student and looking at all this hazing and rape trials and sexual assault conferences, that it seems like a place that has lost sight of what's important.

Campus outrage over the episode was still simmering when news came of a 14 percent drop in applications for the Class of 2018, the steepest decline in two decades. While admissions officials attribute the decrease to "demographic shifts," others see it as evidence that Dartmouth's reputation is threatening to overwhelm its stature as one of the country's elite institutions.

"A one-year dip in applications is not enough data to show a long-term effect – there are other factors that might be at play here," says Stan Colla, class of 1973, who lives in Hanover. "Nevertheless, I think some of these social issues probably have had an impact."

Joseph Asch, class of ‘79, is founder and editor of Dartblog, a website that is often critical of the Dartmouth administration. Asch largely blames Dartmouth’s tuition – more than $60,000 a year – and the college’s decision to no longer accept Advanced Placement credits for the admissions drop.

Yet, he says, “these crazy campus-life issues, which succeed one after the other in their vulgarity,” can’t be easily dismissed. And while Dartmouth can help itself most by "changing the conversation" to how it can improve academically, Asch says, "I can’t help but think, putting myself in the place of a high-achieving college student and looking at all this hazing and rape trials and sexual assault conferences, that it seems like a place that has lost sight of what’s important.”

TRIAL BY FIRE

Dartmouth greeted the 2013-14 academic year with a new president and another headline that underscored the need for reform.

Philip Hanlon, Class of ’77, had hardly settled into the job when the latest campus crime statistics showed a 60 percent increase in sex offenses, from 15 in 2011 to 24 in 2015.

While campus officials stressed the data might simply reflect increased reporting by victims, rather than a spike in attacks, Hanlon has shown every indication that he’s taking the latest numbers seriously.

In February, he was one of nine college presidents who met with Vice President Joe Biden for a “listening session” at the White House. The event was part of the Obama Administration's Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which released a report last week that included new federal guidelines for responding to sexual violence on campuses.

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. Enough is enough. - Philip Hanlon, Dartmouth president.

Two weeks later, Hanlon announced changes to Dartmouth's own disciplinary policy. The proposal replaces the current system of investigating sexual assaults, which is carried out by a five-person panel made up of students, faculty and staff, with a trained outside investigator, who will gather the facts and submit a determination to a three-person sanctioning body.

Students found to have engaged in “penetration by force, threat, or purposeful incapacitation or where an assault involving penetration is motivated by bias” would be expelled from the college.

Hanlon followed up the policy announcement with an emotional speech in which he charged, “Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme behavior, masked by its perpetrators as acceptable fun.”

“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 said. “Enough is enough.”

Hanlon concluded by calling on “every member of our community to be a part of this discussion, and more importantly, part of the solution. Each of us must ask, with every action we take on this campus, are we strengthening our community, or undermining it?”

Hanlon’s comments were widely covered by national media outlets. On campus, they were met with sincere appreciation, if not overwhelming optimism that Hanlon can succeed where others have failed.

Lee Witters, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, says he admired Hanlon's decision to take “a moral stand” against the college’s worst elements. “While you could look at these issues as social, they are really moral issues here, as well, in terms of how we behave to each other,” Witters says. “I think having a president step up and say that is important.”

Stan Colla says the scandals and bad publicity have subjected Hanlon to “trial by fire.” But so far, he says, the first-year president has handled the situation well. To Colla's ears, Hanlon articulated what many at the college now recognize about Dartmouth - that, as the campus grows increasingly diverse, stubborn adherence to tradition is hurting the 245-year-old institution's brand.

“His declarations have been pretty clear," he says. "That it must stop, there is no excuse for it, and it is doing damage to not only the college’s reputation, but to everything the college hopes to engender - that is, the intellectual, physical and moral strength of its members.”

A PUBLIC RECKONING

Colla and others are acutely aware that Dartmouth has been down this road before, and previous attempts to bring the college’s social life in line with acceptable standards of behavior have failed.

Indeed, since Prohibition, nearly every Dartmouth president has had to contend with widespread condemnation of the Greek system, which John Sloan Dickey, who led the school from 1945 to 1970, once called a "sanctuary for juvenile delinquency."

Fraternity life at Dartmouth is an institution, which some claim is a big part of the school's problem. Alpha Chi Alpha house in Hanover.
Fraternity life at Dartmouth is an institution, which some claim is a big part of the school's problem. Alpha Chi Alpha house in Hanover.
Credit Tbass Effendi via Flickr CC

During the 1970s, a plan to shut down the fraternities received broad faculty support, but was rejected by the Board of Trustees. At least two high-level committees that studied the problem in the 1980s and early '90s concluded that the Greek system was hurting Dartmouth's academic mission, but nothing was done to address the concerns.

In 1999, a Student Life Initiative aimed at neutralizing the role of frats and sororities drew a lawsuit from a half dozen alumni, who saw it as a covert attempt to shut down the Greek system for good. The case was quickly dismissed by a Superior Court judge who said the plaintiffs provided no evidence to support their theory.

Nonetheless, a large "pro-Greek contingent" of alumni succeeded in stripping away some of the more substantive changes that were proposed, says Colla, who was vice president of Development and Alumni Relations for Dartmouth at the time.

Giavanna Munafo, a senior lecturer in Women and Gender Studies and former director of Dartmouth's Center for Women and Gender, says the current administration will likely face similar push back from alumni.

“The Greek system is too embedded in the culture here,” Munafo says, “and if we go in that direction, there is no way we can avoid the conversation. Because Dartmouth College is not willing to say this is a necessary component of changing our culture.”

 Struble says a key element of Dartmouth Change’s strategy is building a consensus that improving the campus' social environment is vital to the college’s future. Gaining that consensus will require disabusing alumni and others of the belief that Dartmouth’s problems are no more serious than those of any college.

To reach that point, Struble says, the college needs to have “a very public reckoning,” something that venerable institutions like Dartmouth have not always welcomed.

"The college’s reaction has always been to try and control the issue, which they very much see as a public-relations problem," Struble said. "What I find disappointing is the college has missed an opportunity to stop things before they got worse. They've been kicking the can down the road for years now."

Struble says she was glad to see Hanlon's willingness to challenge the more toxic behavior on campus with greater emphasis than past Dartmouth presidents. And she declared herself pleased with the introduction of tougher disciplinary sanctions and a new investigative model, both of which have the potential to be more supportive of victims.

But Struble is clearly worried the administration won't go far enough.

On Tuesday, Dartmouth Change issued a statement, criticizing appointments to a steering committee launched as part of Hanlon's Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative. Composed of faculty, staff, alumni and students, the committee is charged with making recommendations to trustees that will address sexual assault, high-risk drinking and the "lack of inclusivity" on campus. The committee's deadline for the report is November.

Struble say that while she trusts the "personal capabilities" of the committee members, Dartmouth Change is asking the administration to commission an outside panel of non-Dartmouth affiliated social scientists and experts on sexual violence to conduct a survey of the campus' social and cultural life. A campus climate study, she says, would provide valuable information about the scope of the problem, who might be at greatest risk and the underlying cause.

More importantly, perhaps, it would assure the Dartmouth community that Hanlon is committed to an "honest and transparent dialogue" about sexual assault.

"There is a lot of research about why we have sexual violence and why we have it on college campuses," Struble says. "We want to know what's unique about Dartmouth, what's unique in perpetuating the problem. Get the data, show us what it says and help us figure this stuff out. Because we are beyond the point where we are able to do that for ourselves."

Dartmouth spokesperson Justin Anderson says the "public component" of the committee's work will be a key to generating the best ideas. Over the coming months, the panel will hold public forums, conduct small-group and individual meetings and launch an aggressive effort to gather community input through the Moving Dartmouth Forward website.

As for taking on the Greek system, Anderson says Hanlon is committed to letting the committee do it's work without influence from his office.

"I do think this is designed to be very different than past efforts," Anderson said. "This process will only be a success if we can truly mobilize the community and make the community feel as if they were heard.

"Whatever the recommendations are, they will not be decreed from above," he says. "They will be developed from the ground up. We think that is hugely important."

So does Susy Struble, who says she would like nothing better than to someday feel good about sending her own children to Dartmouth.  

"I love the place," she says. "If I didn't, despite my horrible experiences here, I wouldn’t care, I would just walk away. It really matters to me, and I really want to see the college get it right."