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Column: Brave Words From Dartmouth’s President

If you are the proud parent of a Dartmouth student, you should send a thank-you note to President Philip Hanlon. Actually, if you are the proud parent of a college student anywhere, or one nearing college age, you should also drop Hanlon a line.

Because while the stemwinder of a speech that Hanlon delivered last Wednesday night was aimed at what he described as “extreme behavior” at Dartmouth, Hanlon’s admonitions could apply to colleges, and college students, anywhere.

“Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme behavior, masked by its perpetrators as acceptable fun,” warned Hanlon, who arrived on campus just last year. He cited sexual assaults, “a culture where dangerous drinking has become the rule and not the exception” and “a general disregard for human dignity as exemplified by hazing, parties with racist and sexist undertones, disgusting and sometimes threatening insults hurled on the Internet.”

Hanlon noted “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.” Dartmouth, he said, cannot “be held back by the few who wrongly hide harmful behaviors behind the illusion of youthful exuberance. Routinized excessive drinking, sexual misconduct and blatant disregard of social norms have no place at Dartmouth. Enough is enough.”

Dartmouth has long been known as the rowdier, frattier Ivy. Hanlon, class of 1977, belonged to Alpha Delta, a real-life inspiration for Animal House, where the math major’s still-extant mustache earned him the nickname “Juan Carlos,” after the newly installed king of Spain. So it would be comforting — certainly for me, as the parent of a freshman elsewhere — to imagine that this is a Dartmouth-specific problem.

Likewise, college has long been a time for excess, for youthful experimentation, for testing limits and learning the painful, head-throbbing consequences. So it would be comforting as well to imagine that the excesses of the present day only seem excessive because we have conveniently forgotten our own appallingly stupid behavior.

If only.

Dartmouth has a problem — with alcohol, with sexual assault, with out-of-control and out-of-line behaviors — and it is suffering the consequences of its bad reputation, with applications down 14 percent last year. But so do many other schools with equally selective admissions.

“This is very definitely an issue that’s on the minds of every college and university president in the country,” Hanlon told me in an interview.

Yes, we did dumb — OK, really dumb — things in college, although we did not face the Internet-enabled temptation to broadcast and memorialize them, or to enlist the supposed anonymity of cyberspace to spew hateful thoughts. Yes, some problems that were swept under the rug then, such as unwanted sexual activity, are more apt to be understood now as sexual assaults, reported to authorities, and taken seriously by them.

But, as Hanlon observed, “the intensity level of drinking is higher than when I was here” as a student, with drinking not only at parties but in residence halls beforehand. “The pre-gaming, which I hear about from every college and university president.” In part, the current situation is an odd artifact of the raised drinking age. This change has undeniably saved countless lives but has not diminished campus drinking. Rather, it has elevated the pursuit of alcohol to an art form that students practice with an intensity they once devoted to SAT prep, and encouraged its mass consumption, in dorm-room shots sessions, for fear of ending up boozeless later in the night. Meanwhile, binge drinking is an arena in which women are achieving a dubious form of gender equity.

And alcohol is at the root of many other problems. As Slate’s Emily Yoffe has demonstrated, binge drinking is a risk factor for sexual assaults. You don’t need a study to know that alcohol helps fuel hazing gone wild and abusive language.

No one expects college students to suddenly swear abstinence. But they might be convinced to slow down. Dartmouth has taken steps such as banning freshmen from fraternities for the first six weeks and “social norming” counseling that advises new students how much older peers actually drink. “Medical transports” for alcohol abuse were down from 36 in the fall of 2010 to seven last year.

So Hanlon’s words are brave and important. Brave because they are honest about a problem that many college presidents would rather play down, and because they risk cementing Dartmouth’s already bruised reputation. Important because they apply to college students far beyond the bucolic confines of Hanover.