Changing The Culture
The Answer to Dartmouth’s Problem?
“Dartmouth has a problem,” asserted a group of students last month, calling attention once again to verbal and sexual abuse on campus. The alarmingly hostile reaction to the protest and to the 15 or so protesters — name-calling and threats communicated largely through the anonymous shield of social media — set in relief another problem. Too many undergraduates just don’t get it: Sexual assault and racist, sexist and homophobic hate speech have become disturbingly normal — not only at Dartmouth but at colleges and universities around the country.
At least Dartmouth’s activists, who now have been notified that they face college disciplinary action, aren’t easily intimidated. Last week, students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the Dartmouth administration has mishandled sexual misconduct cases and downplayed incidents of sexual violence, racism and homophobia. They were joined by students who filed similar complaints against Occidental College, Swarthmore College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some complaints, filed under Title IX of the 1972 Education Act, assert that colleges have failed to offer a safe environment for women. Other complaints, including Dartmouth’s, charge colleges with violating the federal Clery Act, which requires timely and accurate reporting of campus crimes.
The burst of student activism coincides with increased federal scrutiny of sexual assault and harassment at U.S. colleges and universities, which must comply with the Clery Act if they wish to participate in federal financial aid programs. The Education Department, for example, recently slapped a hefty fine on Yale University for failing to report two sex offenses that occurred on the New Haven campus more than a decade ago.
According to Dartmouth’s most recent Clery disclosures, there were 15 sexual assaults reported in 2011 and 22 in 2010. The statistics are among the highest in the Ivy League, a fact that has been variously interpreted. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Dartmouth students are more likely than students elsewhere to report sexual assaults. It’s far more likely that such crimes are under-reported here and everywhere. “Dartmouth has a pervasive culture of silence,” one student wrote in connection with last week’s complaint. “The students have so little faith in the reporting process and the judicial process that many of us no longer report” sexual assaults. A 2006 study by the college’s Sexual Abuse Awareness Program estimated that more than 100 sexual assaults occurred every year on campus. Earlier this month, a Dartmouth freshman was charged by Hanover police with four counts of aggravated felony sex assault.
Dartmouth “has been marketed as a safe and inclusive college, an ideal learning environment, an Ivy League university,” student Rachel Sands told Bloomberg News last week. “This is not true if you are a woman, gay, transgender, of color, or poor.”
Officials at Dartmouth have not seen the complaint and may never see it, according to a college spokesman, unless the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights plans to pursue an investigation. On paper, at least, the college appears to be doing what it can to address the problem. There are a host of administrative offices and campus initiatives to combat sexual misconduct and discrimination. Spokesman Justin Anderson said in a statement last week that “efforts include prevention, education, increased accountability, increased staffing and resources, better coordination, and strengthening of guidelines.” The college cancelled classes last month to hold a daylong teach-in.
Given the persistence and scale of the problem, however, administrative efforts to date appear inadequate. That may be because attitudes and behaviors are largely established by the time students matriculate, and changing those attitudes and behaviors is difficult unless students themselves — peer to peer, frat brother to frat brother — work to change them. At best, that’s not going to happen overnight.
Perhaps the college should consider revising admissions practices, seeking more students of “difference” in order to engineer a more hospitable social environment. It’s clear the current collegiate culture not only tolerates sexual assault, harassment and general boorishness but also pushes back hard at those who dare to speak out against such reprehensible behavior. Good for those students who are raising their voices and taking action.