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Dartmouth President Gets Mixed Review

Some Praise Call for Reform, But Others Remain Skeptical

Hanover — Students and alumni welcomed Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon’s call for reform and condemnation of “harmful behaviors,” but others questioned whether a committee will be able to solve problems on campus that some consider intractable.

Hanlon addressed a hand-picked audience of students and faculty members on Wednesday during an unusual “presidential summit,” where he said Dartmouth’s reputation is being “hijacked” and made bold declarations.

“It’s time for Dartmouth to change,” he said. “Enough is enough,”

The list of offenses was familiar — binge drinking and sexual assaults, discriminatory undercurrents in the campus culture and an insular, elitist social scene that hasn’t adapted to an increasingly diverse student body.

The stakes, however, may have never been greater, as the school’s reputation appears to have been diminished in the eyes of potential students and others.

Hanlon acknowledged as much on Wednesday.

“External scrutiny of our campus life has never been higher,” Hanlon said.

The day after Hanlon’s speech, many applauded the announcement of a presidential steering committee that will recommend actions to “end high risk and harmful behaviors.”

Lee Witters, a professor of medicine and biochemistry, said he was pleased to see commitment toward addressing the root causes of the problems with social life on campus.

“This sounds like this will be a level of public conversation unprecedented in the college,” Witters said in an email. “Dartmouth has long needed a strong and persistent moral voice and perhaps we now have one.”

Others were less enthusiastic in there response.

Susy Struble, a 1993 Dartmouth alumna who lives in California, said she doubts another committee comprised of members from the campus community will be effective. What the college needs, Struble said, is a group of behavioral experts and social science researchers who have no association with the college. A group of outsiders, she thinks, could help the college push past some of its “old dialogue.”

“I just don’t have hope, given past history, that another internal committee is going to do anything,” Struble said. “I have hope, but I have no faith.”

Hanlon is hardly the first Dartmouth president to try to redirect the college’s social climate.

For example, James Wright, who spent decades on the faculty before being named college president in 1998, announced the high-profile Student Life Initiative, an effort to broaden the social climate on campus beyond the Greek system to better reflect an evolving student body.

At the time, Wright said that the fraternity and sorority system “as we know it will not survive these changes.”

When Wright retired a decade later, the Greek system still dominated campus

“The problem with the whole Student Life Initiative is that we really set out to initiate a process, and there was a sense that we were announcing a result, a conclusion,” Wright said in a 2008 interview. “I think that we stumbled badly coming out of the box on that and spent some time trying to recover, and never did that gracefully or well, quite frankly.”

In the last year, applications to Dartmouth have declined by 14 percent, far more than any other Ivy League school.

Hanlon said in an interview Thursday that he doesn’t know what role concerns about the social climate on campus played in the decline. He said there are many factors contributing to the decline in applications, including cost, but officials are waiting to parse out the answer.

“Even if one student is turned off because of their perceptions of the social scene here, that’s one too many,” Hanlon said.

In recent years, Dartmouth has received nationwide attention for reports of hazing at fraternities, sexual assault and protests by minority students about the campus climate. There is an ongoing federal Title IX investigation into the college’s response to claims of sexual harassment and violence, and students recently protested at Hanlon’s office about a “Freedom Budget,” which is aimed at creating a more inclusive environment that encourages diversity.

And the recent acquittal of a former Dartmouth freshman who was accused of raping a classmate included testimony that shined a light on the college’s drinking culture, including heavy partying in the middle of the week.

Hanlon declined to answer specific questions about any of those matters on Thursday.

Senior Chisom Obi-Okoye, who is the senior class president, was invited to Hanlon’s talk on Wednesday and said she thinks others are skeptical, but said she was impressed to see the administration and the Board of Trustees trying to address these issues.

Obi-Okoye said she doesn’t think Dartmouth is “truly diverse,” and said that she would like to see the college develop admission policies that create more diversity, not just through race, but socioeconomic status. And once those students arrive on campus, there needs to be more support for them so that they feel included.

But Bill Sjogren, a 1967 alumnus now living in White River Junction, said issues of sexual assault, hazing and binge drinking are all internal problems that have a long history at Dartmouth.

“I think the problem has been ignored and swept under the rug,” Sjogren said. “Dartmouth is so concerned about it’s image. I think the college has been shamed into this in public. ...I think people will look back and say this is the best thing that’s happened to the place, being forced to confront it.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.