Editorial: A Disturbing Portrait of Student Life

Given that both accused and accuser were members of a small and elite academic community, the recently concluded Dartmouth rape trial was bound to be divisive whichever way it turned out. So it has proven to be in the wake of the acquittal late last month of Parker C. Gilbert on charges that he entered the unlocked dorm room of a sleeping classmate last May and sexually assaulted her.

Both on campus and in the Upper Valley, some have seen in this verdict a gross miscarriage of justice where others have found appropriate vindication for the defendant.

We can only say in this regard that it is risky to draw any conclusions about a trial without having been physically present during testimony. No matter how fair-minded and conscientious news reporting is — and in this case, the Valley News’ was exemplary — it can do only so much. It cannot, for example, easily convey whether jurors appear skeptical about particular testimony or whether they are paying closer attention to some witnesses than others or if one lawyer’s narrative of events seems more plausible than another’s. Even a full transcript of trial proceedings falls short on these important matters, much less the summary a news report inevitably constitutes.

The second point to bear in mind is that while the adversarial nature of criminal proceedings often makes them a bruising affair, it is not apparent that there is a better way to establish whether a defendant is guilty or not. That does not mean that the jurors always reach the right conclusion, only that society has put its faith in them to do so. In this case, if the jurors found that the accuser’s testimony did not bear the close scrutiny to which the defense subjected it, they were duty-bound to reach the verdict they did.

Aside from the controversial nature of the verdict, the most notable thing about the trial was the portrait of Dartmouth student life painted by the testimony of various witnesses. It was demoralizing to learn that on a Wednesday night, a number of young men and women privileged to attend one of the nation’s premier colleges could find nothing more fulfilling to do than to study for a while as a prelude to getting loaded. Alcohol consumption seems to have been transformed somewhere along the line from a social lubricant to the purpose for which social occasions exist. There is a certain emptiness in this, as if all the conscientious striving to gain admission to an elite university had somehow drained young people of their inner resources.

While we are on the subject of behavior and alcohol consumption, let us wade into another controversy engendered by this trial. In the wake of the verdict, our colleague Jim Kenyon wrote in his column that the simple expedient of changing dorm room locks to a key pad system that locks the doors automatically might have averted this particular incident and perhaps others.

This drew a sharp Forum response that his focus was on the wrong thing: Sexual assault is a problem of male behavior, not of what women are or are not doing.

This is absolutely true, although not the point of the column. Parents and educational institutions unquestionably need to do a better job of teaching boys and young men to treat women (and themselves, for that matter) with respect and not as objects for their gratification. Part of this discussion needs to focus on the pernicious effects of alcohol abuse. That predatory behavior is so common even on college campuses like Dartmouth’s is testimony to the failure of society and its institutions to face up to this problem.

Had we a daughter about to go off to college, though, we would strongly advise her to lock her dorm room door and not to drink to the point where her faculties were severely impaired. This is not because we would think her somehow responsible in the event she were sexually assaulted, but only to possibly spare someone we loved from a human tragedy with lasting traumatic effects.

The uncomfortable truth is that the world is full of dangers to which both women and men are subject, although they are not necessarily the same dangers. Until we remake that world for the better — and relations between the sexes are placed on a sounder footing among young people than they are at present — the old injunction still carries force: Be careful out there.