Editorial: Undefeated Greeks; The Challenge at Dartmouth

A headline in Saturday’s Valley News posed the question “Can Hanlon Conquer Greeks?” Our answer is “absolutely not,” but it’s not clear that he wants or needs to. Peaceful co-existence would be fine.

Hanlon, of course, is Philip Hanlon, the new president of Dartmouth, and the Greeks are fraternities and sororities at the college. He arrives on campus at a time when the college’s image has been severely tarnished by allegations that its social scene, dominated by fraternities, is overtly hostile to women and minorities. Sexual assault and binge drinking are acute, long-standing problems on campus, and a federal investigation is pending into claims of student sexual harassment. And last spring, students who had staged a protest against the college’s response to sexual assault on campus and harassment of gay students reported that they had received death threats.

The Bloomberg News story below Saturday’s headline provided ample evidence of the difficulty Hanlon faces. Two-thirds of sophomores, juniors and seniors belong to fraternities and sororities, indicating just how pervasive the Greek system is at Dartmouth. Moreover, wealthy alumni are powerful patrons of the fraternity status quo, and can be counted on to fiercely oppose any sweeping initiative to weaken Greek hegemony. And their opposition can be registered where any modern American university is most sensitive to pressure — raising money.

At least two of Hanlon’s predecessors, David McLaughlin and James Wright, found this out when they tried to shake things up. Students and alumni alike took exception and largely prevailed, with the result that nothing much changed when it came to the Greek system. Hanlon’s immediate predecessor, Jim Kim, had no stomach for refighting that particular battle in his brief, high profile tenure.

Hanlon told the Bloomberg reporters: “Let me make very, very clear that harmful, unsafe behavior, whether it’s high-risk drinking, sexual assault or hazing, has no place on a college campus, any college campus. I am committed to Dartmouth being a leader and finding ways to improve campus student life.”

The new president does have credibility to address the issues. He is a 1977 Dartmouth graduate who belonged to a fraternity during his college years and apparently developed lasting friendships as a result. So he knows the scene and is unlikely to want to destroy it, which at least may serve to secure a fair hearing for whatever changes he has in mind. He also has experience dealing with these issues at a much bigger place, the University of Michigan, where he was the provost.

And Hanlon has a certain amount of leverage. Many Dartmouth students and alumni develop a lasting devotion to the place, the depth of which is almost unparalleled among institutions with which we are familiar. It’s clear that incidents of sexual assault and harassment of minorities are toxic for Dartmouth’s reputation — as well they should be. Hanlon can make the case to students, alumni and faculty (an under-represented constituency in this whole debate) that the college becoming a more inclusive and safer institution is essential if the degree they hold, or the college for whom they work, is to retain its prestige and merit the pride they feel in it, not to mention attract the kind of students it wants. Ultimately, self-restraint is the most effective kind, and fostering it is perhaps key to making Dartmouth a more tolerant place.