Dartmouth Once Again Weighing Value Of Greek Life On Campus

Jan 19, 2015

Credit Allison Quantz for NHPR

Classes are back in session at Dartmouth College, which means winter recruitment for fraternities and sororities is getting underway. It’s been a controversial year for Greek life from Clemson University to Johns Hopkins, and Dartmouth has not escaped unscathed. Later this month, recommendations addressing social life are expected to be publicly released. 

At Dartmouth, fraternities and sororities are the social scene. The percentage of students participating is nearly twice that of any other Ivy. Sophomore Ben Rutan is a brother at Sigma Phi Epsilon and he says being part of the Greek system is key.

Credit Allison Quantz for NHPR

"When you join a frat you’re joining all the different groups the guys are in, so you get more involved with the entire community in terms of the different activities and parts of the social life and academic life that people have going on behind the scenes." 

But Greek life at Dartmouth is, of course, controversial.

Related Story: Dartmouth Investigation Once Again Puts Spotlight On Campus Life

"What is this great value that the Greek system lends to the college experience that we can’t possibly live without?"

This is biology professor, Ryan Calsbeek. He’s co-chair of the Committee on Student Life and he thinks now is the time to dump the Greek system. Over the last several years, Dartmouth fraternities have seen their fair share of unflattering headlines, dealing with issues of sexual assault, extreme drinking, and hazing. 

Last Spring, President Philip Hanlon responded by forming a steering committee tasked with making recommendations on student social life. That committee’s report is expected to be made public later this month, but Calsbeek is not enthusiastic about its process.

"Dartmouth doesn’t need another committee, you know, to be debating these issues behind closed doors."

'What is this great value that the Greek system lends to the college experience that we can’t possibly live without?' - Biology Professor Ryan Calsbeek

After the presidential steering committee was announced, Calsbeek and a handful of his colleagues wrote down their own recommendations. In October, they started circulating an open letter to the administration, signed by more than 230 faculty members, calling for the end of Greek life. That was followed in early November by a faculty vote to abolish the system. With three people choosing not to vote, the final tally was 116 in favor, 13 opposed.

"Almost entirely at this point that gesture’s symbolic. It’s not the first time the faculty have voted to abolish the Greek system," Calsbeek says.

Indeed, faculty members have been calling for an end to Greek life for decades, most recently in 2000. This past October, however, the student newspaper jumped into the debate, when it ran a full, front-page editorial calling for the abolition of the Greek system. The paper’s editor at the time, senior Lindsay Ellis, says the editorial drew an immediate response.

"You can see on our website there are hundreds of comments criticizing our decision to run it and I’m not surprised by that in the slightest."

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Comments ranged from enthusiastic agreement, to reasoned disagreement, to pretty serious anger. Ellis says the newspaper’s stance is unpopular on a campus that’s nearly 70% Greek. The argument is generally framed as those who are affiliated with Greek-letter organizations versus those who aren’t. But, that line is starting to blur--Ellis, for example, is a member of a sorority.

"I personally had a positive experience in my sorority, and I wouldn’t be part of it if I didn’t. But I think that kinda comes down to separating my own personal experience with what I think about Dartmouth institutionally."

'If you destroy a system that created those bonds, those relationships, I can't help but think people are going to say, you know, I just don't want to give money this year because this is not the institution I recognize and that I admire.' - Joe Asch of Dartblog (Class of 1979)

 Other fraternity and sorority members are thinking long and hard about how to keep their social system. The Greek community put forth their own proposal in hopes of swaying the presidential steering committee. Their defense of Greek life suggests things like tracking who on campus buys hard alcohol and increasing the visibility of sober monitors at parties. Joe Asch, class of 1979, says this back-and forth over Greek life isn’t new.

"I think there’s a sense of deja vu all over again. About every ten years there’s a faculty letter, or there’s some kind of initiative to reform or change or abolish the system. So I think a number of us have seen this come down the pike and leave without a trace."

Asch is the lead writer for Dartblog, a daily website that covers Dartmouth and Hanover news. As a community member, Asch worries that eliminating Greek life could create a rowdy bar scene in quaint Hanover. And as a Dartmouth alum, he’s concerned it might close other alumni’s pocketbooks.

"When alumni come back, they very often go back to their fraternity because that’s where their great memories are. So if you destroy a system that created those bonds, those relationships, I can’t help but think people are going to say, you know, 'I just don’t want to give money this year because this is not the institution I recognize and that I admire.'"

Credit Allison Quantz for NHPR

Ryan Calsbeek, the Biology professor, suspects money is part of the decision, but if that’s the case, he wants to hear it.

"If it is money, say that. Are the alumni from these Greek houses such a huge fraction of the donorship to the College that we can’t live without that money? Fine. Then admit publicly that money is driving this decision."

There’s been no response from President Hanlon--who is an alumnus of a Dartmouth fraternity--regarding the faculty vote or the newspaper’s front-page editorial. And the College declined to comment on this story. Instead, the administration is waiting until the steering committee recommendations go public.

For current students, those recommendations could have a big impact. Ben Dobbins is a freshman, which means he has a decision to make about joining a fraternity.

Credit Allison Quantz for NHPR

"I’m not really sure at the moment ... um, still trying to figure things out. I think that there are definitely some good things about the fraternities and some bad things as well, so that’s why it’s a matter of weighing for me."

Dobbins has till next year to make up his mind. In the meantime, increased dialog on campus is making the decision to join a fraternity or sorority a little more complicated.