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Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth Gone Wild

Does any doubt remain that Dartmouth is an institution in trouble? And not just because of this year’s double-digit percentage drop in applications.

Testimony given by students during the nine-day Grafton Superior Court rape trial that ended last week with a not guilty verdict provided a window into the work hard, play hard ethos that has come to define the college.

The view wasn’t flattering.

While a lot of colleges are struggling to get students to drink less and more responsibly, the party scene at Dartmouth exposed at the trial made Animal House seem like a Disney production. The beer pong, pre-gaming and throwing back of a few shots isn’t reserved for weekends. In Hanover, apparently, Wednesday is the new Saturday.

From students’ testimony and media accounts of the trial, I gathered that May 1, 2013, was a fairly typical Wednesday night on campus. Students spent their early evening hours hitting the books and participating in extracurricular activities, such as rehearsing with campus singing groups.

But the night was still young.

At about 10 p.m., the college’s fraternities and sororities held their weekly “meetings” for members, a primary purpose of which seems to be to get the kegs tapped.

A senior testified that he downed four shots and several beers at his fraternity — before going out. Now I understand what a friend, who is an alum, meant when he told me the joke at Dartmouth is that guys guzzle a six-pack before deciding if they’re going to drink that night.

Retired Hanover Police Chief Nick Giaccone, who stepped down last year after 40 years with the department, told me that one of the biggest changes he witnessed in the last few years was “women at Dartmouth, drinking the same way as the men.”

The trial, which Giaccone attended, seemed to bear that out. The accuser, a freshman, testified that she had consumed three shots of vodka in her dorm, but wasn’t “in the mood to drink” that night.

The jury also heard testimony about defendant Parker Gilbert, who was acquitted of all charges, and two freshmen friends “pre-gaming” in his room that night.

Later in the night, Gilbert and his accuser both attended a party in the basement of the Beta Alpha Omega fraternity, which, from a photo shown at the trial, has its own bar. In a text message to a male friend the next morning, Gilbert, who is no longer enrolled at Dartmouth, didn’t mention his sexual encounter with the accuser in her dorm room, but let it be known he was “wasted” at the party. To which the friend replied, “I was drunk as ... too.”

Dartmouth prides itself in accepting only high-achieving high school students who are driven to succeed at the next level. But how academically rigorous can a college be, if every Wednesday night is a party night? It makes me wonder if what people say about the Ivy League is true: The hardest part is getting in.

Dartmouth is a campus swimming in privilege. At the trial, one student talked about being partial to 10-year Macallan single malt Scotch whisky. (I wonder if he wears a smoking jacket.)

Roughly half of the college’s 4,200 students receive no financial aid. That’s likely to mean mom and dad have the ability to write a check for $60,000 a year to cover Dartmouth’s price tag.

For some, the Ivy League acceptance letter that they — and their parents — have coveted promotes an I’ve-arrived mentality. Which, when mixed with a sense of entitlement, can be a combustible combination.

On Monday afternoon, I walked around campus. I met a dozen or so bright, articulate kids. They confirmed what was talked about during the trial. Wednesday nights, along with Fridays and Saturdays, are filled with big-league partying.

What can Dartmouth do about it?

For years, there’s been a lot of banging of the drum to shut down all the frats and sororities. But unless the college and town can figure out social alternatives for students on weekends, I’m not sure what it would accomplish.

(Notice I haven’t mentioned that Dartmouth could benefit from a police crackdown on underage drinking. It’s not a problem that a community can arrest its way out of. Hanover tried that approach. It’s an ineffective deterrent, which can lead to more risky behavior, such as students being reluctant to seek life-saving medical attention for themselves and friends when they’ve overindulged.)

But putting a stop to the Wednesday night fraternity and sorority meetings, which seem to serve as the kindling for the mid-week parties, could be a place to start.

If that doesn’t work, President Phil Hanlon might have a chat with his faculty. Students told me there tends not to be a lot of heavy lifting in their Thursday classes. A few more pop quizzes on Thursday mornings might be in order.

Last Thursday, a lengthy story in the student newspaper, The Dartmouth, carried the headline, “Is Dartmouth on the Decline”? It was a solid piece of journalism about Dartmouth’s decades-long struggle to become more inclusive, and what that means to students today.

The “declines in application numbers have spurred some to speculate that Dartmouth is, to put it lightly, at a crossroads — perhaps even a slump,” the newspaper wrote. “Upon hearing about the 14 percent drop in regular decision applicants this January, many students voiced concerns that the value of their degree will drop.”

I’d argue that the value will rise in inverse proportion to their blood alcohol levels.