Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon called for a halt to student intolerance, drinking and sexual misconduct that he said have damaged the school’s reputation and contributed to a plunge in applications this year.
“Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme behavior, masked by its perpetrators as acceptable fun,” Hanlon said at a summit last night of student leaders, faculty and alumni at the campus in Hanover, New Hampshire.
In the past year, the 245-year-old Ivy League college has gained national attention for sexual assaults, intolerance of minorities, excessive alcohol use, hazing and anonymous Internet threats, Hanlon said in his speech. While insisting that these harmful behaviors are mainly the work of a “few who wrongly hide harmful behaviors behind the illusion of youthful exuberance,” Hanlon told the invitation-only summit that the school must change, and that he will lead it.
“It is time for us to act in order to preserve what is unique, joyous and fun about the undergraduate experience at Dartmouth and to end the extreme behaviors that are in conflict with our mission and fundamentally harmful — to individuals and to the fabric of our community,” he said. “This is the right thing to do, and the time to do it is now.”
Hanlon, who took office in June, said he will form a Presidential Steering Committee composed of students, alumni, faculty and staff to consult with experts and suggest actions to curb harmful behavior. The committee’s recommendations will be presented to Dartmouth’s board in the fall, he said. The college has 6,300 undergraduate and graduate students.
Eight trustees attended the summit, including General Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt, a 1978 graduate, who spoke at the meeting, Hanlon said today in a telephone interview. Presentations by the officials were followed by breakout sessions where attendees engaged in broad-ranging discussions about how to improve the school, said Geovanni Cuevas, a history major who has completed his junior year. While he is taking a year off from school and working in the Hanover area, Cuevas was invited to the meeting.
Discussion wasn’t limited to the campus behavior problems Hanlon addressed in his speech, Cuevas said. Participants were encouraged to brainstorm about the possibility of underground tunnels between buildings and other ideas for improving the campus, he said.
“I’m very appreciative of the space that was created for students to speak about their ideas,” Cuevas said. “I’m leaving this meeting thinking about why these sorts of summits don’t occur more often.”
Since returning to his alma mater, Hanlon has been talking with faculty and students about a new academic vision for the school. While Dartmouth has many resources for achieving these aims, campus incidents involving drinking, sexual assault and racism stand in the way, he said.
Extreme behaviors “occur on every campus, and on our campus they were standing between us and achieving this vision,” he said in the interview. “We have too much at stake here; we need these behaviors to end.”
Rather than demanding that students change, Hanlon and Dartmouth’s board should be examining their own leadership efforts, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based advocacy group.
“‘Animal House’ happens when adults let it happen,” she said in a telephone interview, referring to the 1978 movie based on Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta fraternity. “Today, the ultra-expensive colleges and universities are often run and advertised as pleasure centers.”
The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating sexual misconduct and harassment at Dartmouth last year. The probe began after a group of students filed a complaint under the Clery Act, which requires schools to accurately report all incidents of campus violence.
Hanlon has proposed outside investigations of assaults and stiffer penalties for those found responsible, including mandatory expulsion for the most egregious offenses. He has said he will create a center for prevention and response to assaults.
As part of a forum series called “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” the college plans to hold a discussion of sexual assault on April 22 that will be led by General Counsel Robert Donin, Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson and Leigh Remy, director of the Office of Undergraduate Judicial Affairs. The school is also planning a conference on sexual assault in July.
Hanlon called for change in all the school’s social spaces, including residence halls, campus organizations, and fraternities and sororities. Some faculty, students and alumni have said Dartmouth should restructure or eliminate its system of fraternities and sororities. Alcohol-drenched fraternity parties were highlighted as high-risk areas for sexual assault in a 2012 article in Rolling Stone.
The timing of the summit — Wednesday at 8 p.m. — may have contained a message to fraternities, said Tom Luxon, an English professor who has taught at Dartmouth for more than 20 years. The Greek houses usually hold Wednesday night meetings, which later become parties that last long into the night, he said.
“I think the president has deliberately chosen the house meeting time,” said Luxon, who said he wasn’t invited to the summit. “Dartmouth is famous for partying pretty heavily on Wednesday night.”
Hanlon said there was no such meaning in the meeting’s timing.
Dartmouth has long struggled with its fraternities, which have had many powerful alumni as members. James Wright, who served as college president from 1998 to 2009, failed in an effort to force all the Greek houses to accept both men and women. David McLaughlin, who was president from 1981 to 1987, said after he left the post that fraternities were unsafe and probably “needed to be eliminated.”
Hanlon, a 1977 Dartmouth alumnus who was a member of the Alpha Delta fraternity, has said he believes the groups contribute to college life. About two-thirds of Dartmouth’s eligible students — sophomores and older — are affiliated with a Greek house.
Fraternities and sororities pose particular problems for low-income students, said Melissa Padilla, a Dartmouth sophomore. Some charge as much as $500 per term for membership, a cost she couldn’t expect her mother, who works in a poultry plant, and construction-worker father, to provide.
“There’s no way I’d ask my parents to give up a few hundred dollars a month just so I could belong to a social club,” she said.
Padilla was one of about 20 students who staged a 48-hour sit-in of Hanlon’s office from April 1-3 to protest a lack of inclusiveness at Dartmouth. The students were protesting what they said was an inadequate response by the administration to the Freedom Budget, a series of demands for increased recruitment of minority students and faculty at the school, among other requests, said Jalil Bishop, who participated in the sit-in and is president of the Dartmouth Afro-American Society.
Bishop said he wasn’t invited to the summit.
Dartmouth’s board is in constant discussion about measures to make students feel safer and more welcome, Nathaniel Fick, who leads the board’s student affairs committee, said in a telephone interview. Trustees are alarmed by the drumbeat of attention to incidents at the school, Fick said.
“They’re generating a lot of attention because they’re serious issues,” Fick said. “We need to be leaders in responding.”