Blemish on the ‘Brand’?: Recent Controversies a Challenge to Dartmouth’s Reputation

Sunday, June 08, 2014
Hanover — When a management consulting company approached John Thelin a decade ago and asked him to pick an American university to include in a report on “The World’s Most Enduring Institutions,” he chose Dartmouth College.

But when, about two years ago, friends and co-workers of Susy Struble, Dartmouth Class of 1993, began asking about her alma mater, it wasn’t Thelin’s choice that had sparked their interest. Instead, they had read Rolling Stone magazine’s March 2012 article “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy,” a bitter and scatological expose of the excesses of initiation rites and daily life in the Greek organizations that include half of current Dartmouth students as members.

“I received a copy of that article from several different people, co-workers and friends, saying, ‘What the hell kind of place did you go to?’ ” said Struble, a software company manager in the San Francisco area who two years ago co-founded Dartmouth Change, an organization that claims 35 active members and 700 supporters and is pressing the college to respond more forcefully to the problems of sexual assault and harassment on campus.

Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of A History of American Higher Education, focused on different elements of the Dartmouth experience. Thelin recounted Dartmouth’s successful Supreme Court defense of its autonomy in the early 19th century and its later-in-the-century resistance to a “derelict president” who ultimately resigned. Thelin concluded that Dartmouth’s “history is not dispensable nostalgia or an antiquarian slide show. It’s the key to understanding the institution’s enduring vitality.”

But while one observer’s key may be another observer’s gloss, the “brand” of an institution of higher education can be a messy concoction of experience and remembrance. The brand’s ingredients may include history, the experiences of multiple stakeholders, tales of daily events and much else, all of which may reach widely diverse audiences through countless media channels and human intermediaries.

So, depending on the eyes and appetite of the observer, Dartmouth’s brand can comprise a mixture of winter carnival high jinks, Websterian affections, solitary conifers, Colbertian conservatism, Ivy-covered halls, gridiron conquests … and who knows what else.

Rolling Stone published “ Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy” after Jake Gaba, Class of 2016 and creator of the Dartmouth College- H appy video (73,000 views on YouTube), had been accepted to Dartmouth but before he decided to enroll. “I didn’t pay attention to it,” Gaba said of the magazine story. “My parents did.” He said the story’s catalog of bad behavior didn’t weigh much in his decision-making, in part because while growing up in Texas he had heard worse about public universities there.

Thelin’s personal impressions of Dartmouth developed during occasional visits to its “relatively rural, homogeneous and isolated” campus, including some as a wrestler for Brown University. Perhaps the college’s status as “a relative newcomer to coeducation” accounted for its “masculine and macho culture,” he said.

But perhaps there is no more stark demonstration of the power of the Dartmouth brand than Struble’s decision to attend. As a high school girl in Ohio, she longed to go to an elite school and made Dartmouth her first choice because of its small size, low student-to-professor ratio and opportunities for outdoor activities. It remained her first choice even after a traumatic campus visit at the age of 16. “I was raped at a fraternity party,” she said. “I still went there.”

For Mitchell Kurz, a Dartmouth trustee who retired as chief operating officer at Young & Rubicam, a large advertising company, to become a college counselor and math teacher at a South Bronx high school, the essence of the Dartmouth brand is simple and clear: “The promise of a superior Ivy League education.” And, according to Kurz, Dartmouth’s recent problems and the bad publicity they generated haven’t dampened the aspirations toward that promise among the mostly low-income students he works with.

Students near the Dartmouth Green a few days before commencement expressed their continuing belief in that promise.

Jean-Luc Beaubien, a member of the Class of 2017, recalled hearing a lot about “the Dartmouth family” and “the connection between the students and the rest of their class.” Not surprising, given that Beaubien’s mother is a Dartmouth alumna and his grandfather was Dartmouth President John Kemeny.

But Beaubien’s classmate, Milan Nguyen, said that as “a minority and a non-legacy” she shared that sense of family. “Once you come to Dartmouth, no one is marginalized,” she said. “It’s a very welcoming campus.” Negative publicity doesn’t reflect the Dartmouth reality, she added: “I think the media tries to be alarmist.”

Still, when events or news threaten to tarnish the Dartmouth brand, the college’s leaders pay attention, including President Phil Hanlon, who took office a year ago. Since the beginning of 2013, they’ve watched as a fraternity (Hanlon’s undergraduate affiliation, coincidentally) pleaded guilty to serving alcohol to minors, two Greek organizations sponsored a party with a “Bloods and Crips” theme, protesters crashed a gathering for prospective freshmen, and threats and rape jokes appeared on an anonymous message board. They’ve seen the case of a Dartmouth student accused of raping a classmate work its way through the Grafton Superior Court (a jury acquitted the accused student). And they saw Dartmouth’s name appear on a list of 55 higher education institutions being investigated the U.S. Education Department for having possibly violated federal law in their “handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.” (For the record, two other Ivies made the list: Princeton and Harvard, twice — both its undergraduate college and its law school.)

For those unconvinced that problems of sexual assault, binge drinking, hostility to minorities and fraternity hazing demand the attention of the Dartmouth community, Hanlon delivered this verdict in an April “call to action”: “Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by high-risk and harmful behaviors,” he said. “From dangerous levels of drinking, to sexual assaults, disgusting and sometimes threatening insults posted on the Internet, and parties with racist and sexist undertones, our social scene is too often at odds with our mission and the practices of inclusion our students deserve.”

Since then, the college has committed to bring in outside investigators in sexual assault cases and toughen punishments with mandatory expulsions in “the most egregious cases.” Hanlon also created a steering committee to spearhead campus efforts to stamp out high-risk drinking and sexual assaults and promote diversity and announced that the college would host a national Summit on Sexual Assault on College Campuses in July.

But, according to brand and market experts, it’s not just what you do, it’s what you say. College leaders must make sure that, as they focus on Dartmouth’s flaws, they don’t end up hiding its strengths, said Kevin Keller, a professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business. Otherwise, observers from outside Dartmouth may form an “impression from a distance (that) may be influenced by certain specifics that don’t necessarily characterize the community as a whole.”

That’s an especially urgent task in the digital world, where brand-affecting news and opinions can be disseminated through multiple channels, according to Reputation.com, a Silicon Valley company that bills itself as “the world’s leading provider of online reputation products and services.”

“For organizations in severe crisis, that’s typically reflected in search results (in which) negative blogs and articles dominate,” said Leslie Hobbs, the public relations director of Reputation.com. “That’s important because research shows that about 70 percent of people only click on the first four links in search results, and more than 90 percent never go past the first page.”

But at Dartmouth, according to Hobbs, you don’t need a digital weatherman to know which way the wind blows. “Some things don’t require technological assessment to see that they’re bad.”

Others doubt that the recent news will do much damage to the college’s reputation. “The Dartmouth brand is so strong that it would take a lot to knock it on its heels,” said Phil Coffin, a Dartmouth alumnus who runs an executive search firm in the Chicago area. He dismissed the Rolling Stone story as “the college hazing story du jour.”

“The positive elements associated with Dartmouth’s brand far exceed any bad press that has a short shelf life,” Coffin said. “People still think of Dartmouth as a place where very smart people get admitted.”

But impressions change. Jim Reynolds, another member of the Dartmouth Change group, left his job as an asset manager in San Francisco, where he was concerned that the drug problems of some teenagers on his block might eventually harm his young daughter. He decided to move to a small town or city with “a strong university or college presence” and chose Hanover as a “safe, suburban environment.”

But then, while he rode to New York City on the Dartmouth Coach, he met a recent Dartmouth graduate who was going to work on Wall Street who asked, “Would you let your daughter go to Dartmouth?” Reynolds was surprised to hear about “date rape, drugs and sexual assault” on campus.

While there is no shortage of persuasive anecdotes about the state of Dartmouth’s brand, it’s harder to find conclusive evidence. One data point surfaced in February, when the college reported a sharp drop off in applications. In a March email, Steve Mandel, the chairman of the board of trustees, characterized that decline as “an important wake-up call.”

The numbers were stark. While overall Ivy League applications were up 2 percent in each of the past two years, the volume of applications at Dartmouth fell 14 percent this year, after a 3 percent decline the previous year. That left Dartmouth as an outlier among its Ivy League peers as the only institution to post application declines two years in a row. Harvard and Columbia were down about 2 percent for the Class of 2018, but were up the year before. Princeton was down about 1 percent for the Class of 2017, but rebounded this year.

Justin Anderson, a Dartmouth spokesman, said college officials were still puzzled by the falling applications. “The reality is we don’t know the precise reason the numbers went down.”

Lisa Buchwalter, co-founder of BestFitCollege Consulting, a San Francisco area company that helps high school students choose and apply to college, said the drumbeat of bad news prompted a friend of hers who went to Dartmouth to decide that the college was not right for her children. The friend “urged her daughters not to apply” to Dartmouth, Buchwalter said. Her friend’s older daughter heeded her mother and is now at Yale, while the younger daughter has not yet decided where to apply, Buchwalter said.

But applications aren’t the only measure of interest among prospective students, Anderson said. The proportion of admitted students who plan to enroll at Dartmouth rose to 54.5 percent for the Class of 2018, up from 48.6 percent in the class of 2017. “Our yield went up dramatically,” he said.

And college and alumni leaders say the challenges and bad publicity haven’t diminished alumni support. Gifts from alumni rose 4 percent in fiscal 2013, to $67.9 million, up from $65.2 million the previous year, according to the Center for Aid to Education, which uses data provided by Dartmouth. The Dartmouth College Fund collected a record $51.9 million in fiscal 2013, with 44.5 percent of alumni participating, up from $47 million and 44.2 percent participation the previous year, according to Anderson.

Sue Finegan, president of the Alumni Association, said the increase in alumni financial support was “a bellwether for how the alumni feel about the school and feel about the brand.”

Something about the idea of a college “brand” doesn’t sit right with Beaubien, the grandson of Dartmouth President Kemeny. Using the term “implies that you’ve got something to sell,” he said.

Whatever the implication, in 2012 Dartmouth hired a director of market research whose job description, according to minutes of an October meeting of the Alumni Council, includes understanding “the needs, feelings, and perceptions of Dartmouth’s alumni and parents” and boosting “financial support and alumni and parent involvement.” Later in the same meeting, Mandel emphasized the importance of branding and marketing, according to the minutes.

And there seems to be a broad consensus that steps need to be taken to restore, protect or enhance the Dartmouth brand. The current focus on sexual assault, alcohol abuse and fraternity excesses creates “an opportunity for Dartmouth to be on the forefront of these issues … that face young people everywhere,” Finegan said. “People are really engaged right now.”

The priority, said Keller, the Tuck marketing professor, should be to “try to create a positive experience for the students and fix as many things as you can.”

Hobbs, of Reputation.com, said Dartmouth’s “immediate focus should be on making substantive changes to the way it addresses the problems of sexual violence and alcohol abuse.” She added, “People have to see that the college is working with internal and external experts to change an enabling culture, support victims as they seek justice and recovery, and create an environment that is much safer for students.”

Hobbs said Hanlon deserved credit for making this a priority. “The proof, however, will be in Dartmouth’s effectiveness at reducing these incidents and how the college responds to them — and people will certainly be watching.”

Struble, the Dartmouth Change co-founder, remains skeptical. She questioned whether the college was sufficiently committed to fixing what she views as the underlying problem in campus life at Dartmouth: a “dominant social system (that) is focused on segregating the sexes.”

That’s the system of Greek organizations — fraternities and sororities — that, according to Anderson, claim just over half of all Dartmouth undergraduates as members. So far, college officials have been careful in their public remarks to distinguish the Greek organizations from the social ills that, according to critics, fester in the fraternities’ realm.

Instead, college leaders have stuck to a script outlined in Hanlon’s November speech to the faculty of arts and sciences in which he said that the main deficiency in the “marketplace of social opportunities” for Dartmouth students was a lack of “strong residence-hall based options.” In a March email, Mandel elaborated by pledging that the college would “embrace the concept of the ‘house system’ ” and committing to invest in “academic programming and affiliated faculty … to foster community in these residential clusters.” In May, the college disclosed that architects were on campus surveying students and developing ideas for “a campus system of residential communities drawing on the house and residential college systems that exist at some peer institutions, but tailored to the unique environment at Dartmouth.”

The house system, according to Robert J. O’Hara, a former professor and house leader at Harvard and Middlebury, is made up of “permanent, cross-sectional, faculty-led societies that provide the advantages of a small college in the environment of a large university.” The structure originated hundreds of years ago at the elite British universities at Oxford and Cambridge, and in the 1930s began a philanthropically funded migration across the Atlantic to Harvard and Yale. O’Hara, on his web site collegiateway.org, lists 30 American universities that have at least one residential college or house, including a majority of the Ivies (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and Penn are in, with Brown, Columbia and Dartmouth still on the sidelines).

At some colleges, houses have been used to dislodge the Greek organizations, according to O’Hara. At Middlebury, Bowdoin and Union colleges, he wrote on his web site, administrations used house systems “to minimize the social influence of fraternities and sororities on their campuses.”

But Dartmouth officials have refrained from identifying Greek organizations as a target for their reform efforts. Said Anderson: “By creating neighborhoods you would not necessarily be draining students from (residing in) fraternity houses.” Anderson said the college projects that, in the fall, 3,800 undergraduates will live on campus and that 553 will live in fraternity houses.

In November, after pledging that the college would “take on,” through various measures, “high-risk drinking” and “sexual assault and violence,” Hanlon added that the voices saying “Greek life is too dominant on campus” were offset by comments from “the staunchest supporters of the Greek system that the campus would benefit from a richer variety of social options.”

Count Gaba, the Ha ppy video maker, among those who would welcome the house system. Gaba, who is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and is living there temporarily, sees the house system, which his older brother experienced while attending Yale, as “a great idea.”

Both Hanlon and his top lieutenant, Provost Carolyn Dever, who was dean of the college of arts and science at Vanderbilt University, have experience on campuses that mixed houses, or residential colleges, with a substantial Greek organization presence. At Vanderbilt, 2,800 of 6,800 undergraduates were in fraternities or sororities in 2011, according to the university’s admissions office blog. At the University of Michigan, where Hanlon was provost, the participation rate in Greek organizations is 22 percent among women and 17 percent among men, according to Princeton Review. Both Vanderbilt and Michigan have residential colleges on campus, according to collegiateway.org.

O’Hara said a house system could thrive at Dartmouth: “For a rural campus, a strong house system is especially valuable, especially for the undergraduate who is not the most sociable person.”

Struble said the talk of a house system is “a positive, but I think it’s sidestepping the issue” and questioned the college’s willingness to back up its words. “Dartmouth is basically handling this as if there’s a PR issue,” she said.

But Reynolds, the Dartmouth Change member, saw some progress from official Dartmouth. “I think they are moving now,” he said. “When we first started, they weren’t moving.”

And Hobbs predicted that, in the end, Dartmouth’s sterling reputation would be preserved. “Dartmouth is an Ivy League school,” she said. “They still have a very powerful brand. They’ve taken a punch. Will they recover? I think they will.”

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.