Column: Dartmouth College Must Strive to Alter the Campus Culture

Readers need no introduction to the highly visible problems with sexual assault, binge drinking and incidents of racism, sexism and homophobia at Dartmouth College. The college has been reasonably forthright in acknowledging them. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon and other officials who wish to change the social climate and reduce sexual violence, excessive drinking and discrimination. Good people, like members of the group called Dartmouth Change, are working hard to address sexual violence by advocating reforms and encouraging more open communication.

These actions are necessary, but not sufficient.

The most telling aspect of the problem was revealed in a letter to the Valley News some weeks ago. Hanover resident Robert Belenky described the reactions of two young women who toured the Dartmouth campus — one his granddaughter, the other a college-age visitor from Russia. Referring to his granddaughter’s campus visit, Belenky wrote, “But she returned an hour or so later looking glum. ‘This is definitely not the place for me,’ she said. ‘The emphasis,’ she explained, ‘was on fraternities, sororities, sports and parties.’ ”

The Russian student’s response to her tour was similar: “I can’t believe this. Is this really one of the best universities in the United States?”

All schools and college communities are ultimately reflections of the norms, values and expectations communicated by the institution and projected through informational brochures, tour guides and admissions officers. And I’m not referring to the usual messages such as a commitment to safety, gender equality, diversity and nondiscrimination. I’m referring to other values that shape the culture of institutions.

My K-12 private school in New York City is very progressive and deeply committed not only to diversity and equity but to progressive social values as well. In the admissions process, I articulate these values forcefully and unambiguously. I often go so far as to say, with a twinkle in my eye, that there are many other schools in New York City, and if prospective students and their families don’t share our values there are lots of other places to apply. It is amazing to see the self-selection that follows. Folks looking for a pretentious, competitive, high-conforming school that offers bragging rights at a cocktail party don’t usually come back. Plenty of other folks do, and they are the ones who share our aspirations for their children and our world.

In addition to self-selection, we have multiple ways to discern the values and interests of our applicants and their families. Students’ applications hint at, or sometimes explicitly reflect, their interest in social justice, their gender or sexual identity, or their experiences with people different from themselves. It’s really not that hard to distinguish these students and families from those who are blind to their own privilege or exude an air of entitlement.

And, of course, if you want to avoid a campus riddled with those who might binge drink, sexually assault women or smugly taunt gay students and students of color, ask about those things during the admissions process. Trust me, the blatant or latent homophobes, misogynists or racist party animals would quickly find another campus to inhabit if Dartmouth made it clear they weren’t welcome.

I recall former President James Freedman speaking powerfully about positioning Dartmouth as a great liberal institution, characterized by diversity and intellectual energy. It seems that the college got half way there and stalled, perhaps because lots of people vested in the school liked things just the way they were — and are.

Dartmouth can finish the journey. The way is clear. But is there the will?

This is perhaps the crux of the problem: With the Greek system so deeply entrenched on campus, would Dartmouth risk discouraging those applicants who are partly or largely attracted to that aspect of college life?

Would candidly addressing white privilege and heterosexism turn away some otherwise interested candidates?

If the college addresses these issues head on, would it invite criticism of political correctness run amok?

Would some alumni and other donors feel that the character of their beloved college was changing and therefore pull back their support and affection?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is “yes.” Therefore, Dartmouth officials and trustees may wonder if they can afford to be so aggressive in addressing the problem. But with a 14 percent drop in applications this year and lots of negative publicity, can they afford not to?

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the private Calhoun School.