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Editorial: Extreme Behaviors; Enough Is Enough at Dartmouth

One of the hardest tasks any new leader can face is changing the entrenched culture of a large organization. Nonetheless, Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon is not shrinking from the challenge of cleaning up a campus environment that is contaminated by a toxic mix of sexual assault, hazing, high-risk drinking, Internet-facilitated threats and intolerance of minority students.

“Enough is enough,” Hanlon declared not once but twice in remarks prepared for delivery at a “presidential summit” last week to which selected students, alumni and faculty were invited. Hanlon, who took office in June, announced the formation of a “presidential steering committee” made up of students, alumni, faculty and administrators to come up with recommendations to be considered by the trustees in the fall.

The backdrop to this, of course, is a spate of negative publicity about the college resulting from what Hanlon termed “extreme behaviors” and a 14 percent drop in applications that plausibly is related to those behaviors and that publicity. Given that there are few institutions more image-conscious than Dartmouth, this must have been a powerful incentive to act. But we were glad to see that while Hanlon noted the damage that had been done to the college’s reputation, he did not frame the issue in those terms, but rather in moral ones. “The actions I have detailed are antithetical to everything that we stand for and hope for our students to be. There is a grave disconnect between our culture in the classroom and the behaviors outside of it — behaviors which too often seek not to elevate the human spirit, but debase it,” Hanlon said.

We take it for granted that the president, himself a Dartmouth alumnus, is not underestimating the difficulty of changing what we will call, for shorthand purposes, frat boy culture at a 245-year-old institution with a total of 6,300 undergraduate and graduate students. The Three Jims — Kim, Wright and Freedman — who immediately preceded Hanlon as president all took a crack at it and were largely frustrated.

For one thing, business executives intent on changing corporate culture can rule by fiat and, if that doesn’t work, change the players. A college president can’t fire the students, or the alumni or most of the faculty, so that’s not an option. Further complicating the job is the fact that big money — the lifeblood of the nation’s elite universities — flows from alumni who in many cases were inculcated with frat boy culture while in college and have carried it on to Wall Street.

On the other hand, eight members of the board of trustees attended the presidential summit last week, perhaps indicating that they recognize the gravity of the situation and have Hanlon’s back.

Still, skepticism is warranted about whether yet another committee, even one charged with consulting with experts and crowdsourcing possible solutions, can be effective. Given Dartmouth’s insularity, one wonders whether convening a panel of distinguished outsiders who have no ties to Dartmouth might yield fresher insight. Another possible way forward is to somehow shrink the total number of students who participate in the Greek system, with which nearly two-thirds of eligible students are now affiliated. If only 30 percent of students were members of fraternities or sororities, the grip of Greek organizations on the social scene would be loosened, if not broken. How that might be accomplished is not exactly clear to us, except that perhaps the admissions office would play a key role in gradually changing the composition of the student body to one where individuality trumped conformity.

Dartmouth is hardly alone among the nation’s colleges and universities in facing the challenges of “extreme behaviors,” and it is naive to think that the college will eradicate them by itself. But Hanlon has staked a lot, perhaps including his presidential legacy, on reinventing Dartmouth as a place that prizes individual dignity along with academic excellence in the development of young people. We suspect his resolve will be tested. We hope he will prove the skeptics wrong.