Interrogating the S.L.I.
By Joseph Rago | Monday, January 31, 2005
'The Confidential Files of the Student Life Initiative'—what?
At the end of November 2004, The Dartmouth Review obtained hundreds of internal, confidential documents from the Trustee Committee on the Student Life Initiative. These papers are a wealth of primary source material—memorandums, reports, minutes, letters, agendas, copies of handwritten notes—of a kind that is simply unprecedented, and it is almost impossible to overstate their value. They are a window into the deliberative decision-making process at the College, the way the institution works, and they let us begin to understand why some things happen and why others do not.
— Students protest the Student Life Initiative outside Psi Upsilon fraternity. —
These documents were provided by an anonymous source, and we are to protect his or her anonymity. The reasons are obvious: he or she was a member of the Trustee Committee, intimately involved in the planning and setting out of the architecture of the S.L.I. This process was supposed to be confidential.
In order to understand what the S.L.I. has accomplished, we need to understand what it was in the first place, as well as what it could have been. This is the first step towards a genuinely historical perspective on the S.L.I. and an appraisal of where we are today.
Hindsight, then, is a tricky thing. We are now far enough away from the actual process of hammering out what the S.L.I. would actually entail that we are able to know some of its consequences. But while the S.L.I. congealed five years ago, it remains with us still. It is a developing process—an initiative. So we are at one of those cross-roads of history, then. We know what has happened, but we cannot know what will come down the road.
These papers allow us to look at the S.L.I. without the gilding. They bring a degree of transparency to a sub rosa process. I would contend that the way the Initiative is pushed today is incomplete and perfunctorily presented. And these papers are critically important, because we can now know what was at stake and what is still at stake today.
The S.L.I. is at once not as bad as we thought, and in many ways far worse. It was not an isolated, one-off incident, but part of a broader ideological effort to radically alter the character of the College. This is not an unsupported claim. It is a fact, and these documents provide copious, explicit evidence of that. This is not widely discussed because while it could be discerned and it could be perceived it could not be proved. Now, it can. It is all there, in writing.
As an undergraduate and as a brother of a fraternity, I have the on-the-ground perspective to assess the validity of the S.L.I. in, well, actual student life. And my prejudices are not concealed. Personally, I have found the fraternity experience to be hugely meaningful, and I view the S.L.I. with deep skepticism. (Of course, perhaps a skeptical eye is necessary here. You can get the P.R. version of the S.L.I. from the College website.) I do not view the existence of the Coed-Fraternity-Sorority system (C.F.S.) as an ideological issue, though ideologies do inform the perceptions of many who opine or act on it. I cannot see a left or a right as to whether or not Dartmouth has a C.F.S. system.
Reporting is the task of finding the shards of telling information and organizing the evidence, and good reporting lets this evidence speak for itself. Most of this article is simply factual narrative. When I comment, it is obvious.
Moreover, the Review will provide, free of charge, a large volume of the most relevant material from these papers to anyone who requests it. You can now read dozens of documents that were previously confidential, and make your own judgments. I believe my interpretation to be the correct one, but you are free to make of it what you will. I encourage as many people as possible to take the paper up on the offer.
On January 11th, 2005, I sent by post a letter to the Office of the President, explaining who I was (we had met several times before) and enclosing several copies of my most recent issues, explaining what we had acquired, and requesting an interview. On January 14th, I received an e-mail message from President Wright, saying that he was traveling but received word of my letter from one of his assistants. He explained that he was not a member of the Committee on the S.L.I., "so it is likely the case that these are materials that I have not seen. In order to make this discussion more productive, I would prefer to see in advance copies of the documents that you wish me to consider." I complied and delivered a dossier of the most relevant material to his office on January 21st. "In any event, please contact [my assistant] to see if we can set up an appointment," President Wright wrote in his original message.
On January 25th, I received an e-mail from Sheila Culbert, the Special Assistant to the President and Professor of History, writing, "I have reviewed the documents that you sent over. They all appear to be confidential documents from the Trustee Committee on the Student Life Initiative... Because of the confidential nature of the committee and the materials you have sent over," she explained, "the president prefers not to comment on them. He does very much appreciate your willingness to share them with us ahead of any discussion, but now that we have seen them, we realize that it would not be appropriate for the president to comment on them."
I harbor no interest in a surprise attack. Rather, I would like to present the issues as they are.
Here, some history is necessary.
On April 5th, 1998, the Trustees elected James Wright as President of Dartmouth College. Though he had not attended the College as an undergraduate, he had served the College for three decades, since 1969. He had been a professor of History, and served for years in high-level administrative positions—successively, as the Dean of the Faculty, the Provost, and the Acting President (for a six month period in 1995).
Promptly on April 6th, President Wright delivered an address in Alumni Hall, where he laid out his "vision for Dartmouth." "I expect to engage in a wide discussion of who we are and what we aspire to be, sharing with you my perspectives and learning from yours," he said. He envisioned for the College, among other things,
a place where the out-of-classroom experience fully complements the formal classroom learning. A place where students enjoy the freedom and independence to shape their own lives. Freedom and independence entail responsibility. Being a member of a community involves necessary negotiations between our personal interests and the interests that bind us together. I expect to participate fully with the Board of Trustees, with faculty and administrators—and especially with students—in a full discussion of what membership in this community means.
Clearly, there is a lot going on here, and it was indicative of things to come. On February 9th, 1999, President Wright and the Board of Trustees issued a statement announcing the Student Life Initiative, inviting "the Dartmouth community to enter into a conversation on how social and residential life could best complement the academic experience at the College." They laid out five principles to guide that conversation: (1) "there should be greater choice and continuity in residential living and improved residential space;" (2) "there should be additional and improved social spaces controlled by students;" (3) "the system should be substantially coeducational and provide opportunities for greater interaction among all Dartmouth students;" (4) "the number of students living off campus should be reduced;" and (5) "the abuse and unsafe use of alcohol should be eliminated."
In April 1999, the Trustee Committee on the Student Life Initiative was established, co-chaired by Trustees Susan Dentzer '77 and Peter M. Fahey '68, charged with enacting the 'five principles.' The Committee included undergraduate and graduate students, administrators, faculty, and alumni, and was asked to evaluate constituent response to the S.L.I. and seek the counsel of experts, and, based on the evidence gathered, propose to the Board new approaches to residential and social life. The Trustee Committee deliberated throughout the summer and fall terms 1999 and on January 10th, 2000, the Board of Trustees released the Committee's recommendations to the Dartmouth public.
The documents explored here outline the process by which the Committee arrived at those recommendations.
The S.L.I. was about many things, not just about the Greek system. In a January 2005 interview in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, President Wright said the S.L.I.—referenced in the present tense, you'll note—is "about trying to provide greater continuity and coherence to the Dartmouth experience. As the College was becoming more diverse, it wasn't providing enough opportunities to learn from each other, which has been a cornerstone of the undergraduate experience here since the 1920s." Of course, providing more continuity and coherence is not divisive or contentious. The S.L.I. caused such a stir because it caught students off-guard and seemed to be extremely underhanded. Almost all of the controversy revolved around what many thought were its designs to eliminate the C.F.S. system at the College.
It is important to remember that the S.L.I. was hugely controversial, seismic. Part of it was the way it was announced—it was a total surprise to the student body and amounted to a public relations disaster. The administration released the details of the plan to the Associated Press before they released them to the campus. Most of the criticism was directed towards Trustee principle three, that the C.F.S. system "be substantially coeducational." The Daily Dartmouth ran a superfont banner headline blaring, TRUSTEES TO END GREEK SYSTEM 'AS WE KNOW IT.'
The problem, of course, was fundamental uncertainty. No one quite understood what "substantially coeducational" really meant, or what "as we know it" really meant, and many understandably assumed the worst. Would it mean co-ed houses? Would it mean no houses—doing away with the Greek system altogether? No one knew, but the prospects seemed poor. President Wright did not improve the situation when he declined to share what the new social system would entail, although he said "it's a view of the Trustees and a view that I share that it's time to move on to another and a different system."
Many were infuriated that the decision to implement the S.L.I. was decided upon in secrecy by the Trustees and without involving student input. A February 12th poll of more than two-thousand undergraduates found overwhelming support for single-sex C.F.S. houses, eighty-three percent in favor. "This is not a referendum on things," President Wright asserted. "We are committed to doing this." He continued, "We're going to become a coeducational system, one that is more inclusive of students that provides more variety, more options. I think that evolves, the timing of it, changing to this new system, will depend on a lot of things, it will depend on what we think the system should be like." When pressed by a Daily D interviewer on C.F.S. issues, he said, "What we want to see is certainly a significant decrease in numbers."
"College President James Wright has unequivocally stated that single-sex Greek organizations are doomed," ran an editorial in the Valley News. "Unfortunately, he has confirmed with equal vehemence that they could very well survive."
The day after the S.L.I. was telegraphed, more than a thousand students marched on the President's Mansion near midnight. The mob sang the Alma Mater three times, and dispersed. The student response intensified in the following days. The C.F.S. Council voted to shut down over the Winter Carnival holiday. On Saturday, hundreds gathered at Psi Upsilon and, in the words of one speaker, swore to fight "tooth and nail" to preserve the system as it was.
And it wasn't only the students who believed that the Initiative was an effort to wipe out the frats. In a February 12th e-mail we obtained, a professor wrote to President Wright, "Jim: I applaud the courageous decision that you and the Trustees have made with respect to the termination of fraternities and sororities..."
In the Alumni Magazine interview, President Wright acknowledged, "Much of the early S.L.I. discussion was on the Greek system—narrowly, but in retrospect, understandably—because you can't deal with the out-of-classroom experience at Dartmouth without dealing with that issue. At the time," he continued, "there were houses not meeting their own charters and commitments, not fully functioning as members of the community... One of the great success stories of the Student Life Initiative has been the way students who are part of the Greek system have stepped up and responded to things we've asked them to do."
It is correct in many ways. But in order to understand what the S.L.I. has done right we have to disengage the many issues it touched on and understand what it has done wrong. It was a sprawling, enormous enterprise—any comprehensive attempt to address the needs of more than five-thousand people would have to be. If we strain out the differences we can assemble a fairly-accurate balance sheet and appreciate how things played out.
The Student Life Initiative is a recognition that the role the out-of-classroom experience at Dartmouth performs is nearly as important as the role the educational experience performs. This is a good thing, historically true, and true enough today. But the S.L.I. was so divisive because it was a trigger for a kind of deeper frustration over what kind of school Dartmouth should be, and a lot of that frustration was and is over the role that fraternities and sororities play here.
That element aside, the S.L.I. has done many important things. It led to a greatly enhanced system of residential clusters, and to the formation of the Undergraduate Advisors program, which installs students responsible for programming on each floor of every dormitory. It also reaffirmed the College's commitment to move forward with the North Campus expansion, which will provide new dorms and decompress the residencies of the old dorms. Most rooms on campus will remain oversubscribed until the new halls are built, but once they are they will pave the way for the eventual demolition of the dismal River and Choate clusters, many rooms of which are little more than cells. The S.L.I. led to the creation of more recreational and performance spaces controlled by students; decentralized dining options and added more eateries; created more study space, open twenty-four hours a day; established more classrooms, especially for seminars; improved the residential and social life of graduate students; and created more social options beyond the C.F.S. system. No question, it diversified the options here on Hanover Plain.
It is easy to mock the 'alternative social options' that the S.L.I. people have cooked up—very easy, in fact. A typical example occurred in February 2002, when 'Bigger Better Later,' a now defunct programming organization, bankrolled the "Kick @$$ Party," a lavish extravaganza in Leverone Field House which included a mechanical rodeo bull, a pedestal joust, an inflatable "lazer tag" arena, "extreme trampolines" ("propels you thirty feet in the air!"), an "adrenaline obstacle course and screamer slide," enough catered food to feed the thousand students they expected to turn out, and a small fortune in door prizes: a wide-screen television, a D.V.D. player, a Sony sixty-C.D. changer stereo, a Playstation 2, a Nintendo 64, a high-end sleeping bag, and hundreds of other hand-outs. This, whatever your opinion on the Greek system, is excessive.
It strikes me as typical—an enormous waste of money, and not very fun besides. But, if some students really do enjoy this sort of thing and if the College wants to put out, well, have at it. As one professor said when the S.L.I. was released, "Keep Greek system as it is, but let competition show what's better." I suppose.
This no secret. The full report is available on-line and also in the College Archives.
The S.L.I. report did cite the many positive benefits of the C.F.S. system. It asserted that it made "important contributions to campus life" and recognized that it was very popular with students and satisfied "many students' needs for socializing and for making meaningful and lasting friendships." Fraternities and sororities provided "continuity." "Although selective in terms of membership," they were "relatively open and democratic in the sense that the events they sponsor are usually free of charge and widely accessible." They constituted the "prime venue for social activities on campus."
But there were also terrible depredations, it seemed. They were: "selectivity and sense of exclusiveness," "less diversity," "single-sex makeup," "behavioral issues," "the abuse of alcohol," "lagging physical standards in some organizations," "dominance of the system," and "uneven membership." (These houses have all these problems and there's not enough people joining them?)
The report asserted, "The C.F.S. system as currently constituted requires major improvements." It mandated that Rush be moved to the winter term of sophomore year and that it be "less exclusive;" established a moratorium on new organizations; called for the elimination of permanent bars and tap systems; recommended that residence in C.F.S. housing be limited to seniors and junior officers; and the drastic renovation of the physical plants. Safety and Security, the campus police, was to have "free and continuous access" to all houses on campus. It also mandated the registration, with the College administration, of all social events occurring within proximity to campus. "It is unlikely that all present organizations will be able to meet the new standards, with the result that the number of organizations will probably be reduced," the S.L.I report concluded. The changes, they said, were "idealistic but achievable."
Professor Culbert wrote in her e-mail, "The Committee met with a number of different community members and groups including faculty, students, administrators, and alumni. They heard a range of ideas." This, they certainly did. In fact, the swath of ideas they received and considered is staggering. They hosted innumerable forums, and spent over a hundred and fifty hours engaged in the deliberative process.
In a huge June 24th, 1999 compendium, there are—to name only a few—detailed proposals from the Organic Farm, the Japan/Korea Affinity House, Dartmouth Television, the Programming Board, the Dartmouth Film Society, the Environmental Studies Department, the Paleopitus Senior Society, the Dartmouth Outing Club, Rohit Ricky Joshi '01, the Ledyard Canoe Club, the Women's Resource Center, the 2002 Class Council, and a club called 'Swing Kids,' which has since disbanded ("Our mission is to encourage participation in swing-related events and provide dances... Swing and ballroom dancing in particular, are uniquely suited to enhancing coeducation by providing an enjoyable medium for both sexes to interact comfortably and without social pressures common to Greek affiliated spaces...).
Linda Kennedy, the current Director of Student Activities, submitted the "Gabfest Proposals," "the result of a set of informal conversations begun in February to think broadly about how the College might respond to the Trustee's Five Principles." The centerpiece of her proposal was a "Common House," a centrally located structure described very much a like a fraternity building, that would be given over collectively to recognized student organizations and "would be a key component in empowering students to control their social lives." A sample Saturday night at the Common House included,
In late afternoon managers from the Men's Varsity Soccer Team arrive to begin setting up the tables and chairs for their special dinner the night before the big game. One player's father is a professional caterer and... makes use of the barbeque grill outside and the players have juice and snacks while playing some volleyball in the yard and "helping" him cook... At 11 p.m. AfriCaSo is ready to open the doors for Jump Up! a Caribbean festival celebrated in the spring. They line the front walk with torches, cook a small pig on the barbeque, serve fruity drinks and dance in the living room and on the porch to the sounds of a student steel drum group. The party goes until 4 a.m. and is considered to be a grand success by all involved. The party cleans up after itself...
The Director of the Collis Center contributed some "Ideas for improving campus climate," noting that many here can feel isolated if they do not like "cold weather" or "small towns," among other maladies.
The alumni response was mixed. The Alumni Council issued resolutions supporting the efforts to build new dormitories and new social spaces, though they urged "leaving as much of student social planning up to students as possible." Regarding the Greek system, the Alumni Council supported "higher standards" but was of "divided opinion" as to the efforts to make "major changes" to the fundamental nature of the organizations. They advocated "due process" in disciplinary decisions, "permitting the formation of new C.F.S. organizations," and "reexamining the apparent preference for the coed selective organizations."
In July 1999, Dean of the Faculty Edward Berger, in conjunction with the Provost, Susan Westerberg Prager, submitted a 'Final Report' to the Committee on the Student Life Initiative called 'Faculty Perspectives on the Student Life Initiative at Dartmouth College.' Most of the report was made public, though the Trustee Committee also received a 'Confidential Addendum' that included unadulterated faculty perspectives.
Surprisingly, given the stereotypes of the faculty with respect to the C.F.S. system, much of their commentary was practical and thoughtful, though dozens of professors seemed oddly fixated on the lack of "great café spaces" in Hanover. One professor called for dormitories that were "humane." A professor of Classics argued "that we not delude ourselves into thinking that we can or, for that matter, should, eliminate the use of beer or other spirituous liquors by changing the structures in which students live and interact with one another." Another professor called for more "student autonomy in terms of planning their social life, and I would say our current method of allocating student activities monies (through COSO [Council on Student Organizations]) is problematic in that regard." She continued,
First, there's way too much adult oversight (do we really need Linda Kennedy, who chairs the committee, plus 2-3 faculty members appointed by the COP to decide if La Alianza Latina can have $50 for a taco party???). Second, there's too much focus on allocating money event by event: as I understand it, if La Alianza Latina want to have a weekly taco party throughout the term, they have to apply for funding on a week-by-week basis. This seems ridiculous. At a minimum, they should be able to get $500 for a term-long taco party budget. But, even better, why not give them $1000 for the term (or whatever) and let them spend it how they want: for 20 taco parties or one big blow-out with a Latino band?
A Russian Professor commented, "[The fraternities and sororities] always seem to be discussed in the collective and in the negative, when in fact there is a whole spectrum of behavior ranging from very positive to very negative." Another said, "Wiping frats off the face of the Dartmouth landscape will not in and of itself kill the problem. I don't think Dartmouth even has that much power to control. While fraternities may be accountable for perpetuating a fundamentally distasteful and dangerous ethos, I am not convinced that eliminating them by fiat, or subterranean buyouts, will be our bridge to the 21st century."
Of course, there were also many grievances. Most centered on the horrors of the C.F.S. system. One professor was disturbed by the "historical association with WASP and heterosexual culture." "Alcohol, to my thinking, is not a major problem;" an Art History professor commented, "rather, it is the misogynistic, racist and dysfunction culture of alcohol that seems to plague the existing social system at Dartmouth that needs to be addressed." She urged social engineering in response. "I strongly urge, therefore, that a response to the trustees five principles set out the goal of new social structure, which would *allow* students to congregate as they please, but which would *necessitate* that students of different backgrounds and interests mingle on a day-to-day basis."
At times, the depth of the bitterness is astonishing. One Religion professor noted, "I personally wish the Greek system would just go away...We want students to come here and major in whatever they want (even though there are certain students that I might wish weren't our majors in the Religion Department); we want them to take whatever classes they want and have the proper prerequisites for (even though, again, there are certain students that I might wish weren't in my classes)."
A History professor wrote in, "I believe that the strangle hold that the Greek system has upon student life has, in general, not been beneficial... By reproducing a numbingly unimaginative and often destructive social life centered around the massive consumption of alcohol, their effects have often been frightening." She drew from her personal experiences directing a foreign study program. "Among the students on my program were, unbeknownst to me, four boys (and I use the word advisedly) from one fraternity... It took me a while to realize that this foursome was a kind of dead weight on the program. While the other students went to plays, walking tours, rock clubs, on weekends toured the British Isles, these boys drank. They didn't even drink interestingly, for example, have a drink everywhere that Dickens had drunk, or find the oldest pub in London, or go to pubs with live music. No, they just went to the pub nearest their flat every weekend and got plastered." These "four boys" forced the other students to become "leaden, weighed down, stifled. Classes were the opposite of lively."
The main problem with the C.F.S. system, most professors claimed, was that they were "predominantly based on exclusion." In the words of a typical professor, "There are many things that I object to about the Greek system, but perhaps the biggest is its institutional premise of exclusivism: that you can't belong to a particular house unless the current members decide they want you. This bothers me because it seems to me so completely antithetical to some of our greatest ideals of a liberal arts education which are ideals concerning the open exchange of ideas and openness regarding areas of inquiry."
But frats are exclusive. As President Wright said immediately after the S.L.I. was announced, "By definition, a fraternity or a sorority is not inclusive of all members of the community."
— Dartmouth's fraternities and secret societies, circa 1915. —
Who can point to a single thing that is inclusive of all members of the community? Almost nothing is.
Exclusivity is all over Dartmouth. It is branded into this institution. First of all, this is a difficult place to get into—this hardly needs to be said. That's exclusivity. And once you get here, once you join the community, you're excluded all the time. The East Wheelock program (whereby 'gifted' students can apply to live in a more 'intellectual' environment) is exclusive. So are performing arts groups. So are publications. So are the sports teams. So are the Honors programs in the academic departments. And, really, so is the faculty. There is nothing inherently wrong with exclusivity—this is an elite school, after all—and it's difficult to understand why the selective membership procedures that fraternities and sororities practice are any less legitimate than the other types of selection that go on about the campus.
And even there—the idea that Greek houses practice some sort of segregation against the campus is ludicrous. Nearly every social function the houses hold is opened to the entire campus. Anyone who wants to attend is free to do so, including those who are unaffiliated, open to all comers. A recent report issued by the Office of Pluralism and Leadership found that Greeks are in fact more diverse than the student body as a whole.
The distinction collapses under the lens of class as well. Most C.F.S. houses charge a lower rent than do the dorms, and especially off-campus housing from a landlord, and the houses would probably charge an even lower rate were there not College regulations in place that prevented them from doing so. This difference can amount to a couple of hundred dollars per term and that can mean a lot to a student with a large financial-aid package. Furthermore, because the houses are almost entirely student-run, they can waive many other costs if a member is financially-strapped.
And, in fact, if the issue is examined in the historical sense, most fraternities at Dartmouth are local organizations—that is, unaffiliated with a national fraternity. This is because national fraternities, in the fifties and sixties, insisted on membership policies that prohibited Jewish people and racial minorities, and most fraternities at Dartmouth—the large majority, in fact—broke away over the falling-out.
And, while we're on the topic, the S.L.I. Committee was itself a very exclusive process—a body of deliberation whose members met in private and conducted their discussions in secret.
That's certainly true. But the architects of the Student Life Initiative were not open about their intentions. The S.L.I. was called, time and time again, a conversation. It is worth recalling what President Wright asserted in his April 6th, 1998 address, "I expect to participate fully with the Board of Trustees, with faculty and administrators—and especially with students—in a full discussion of what membership in this community means." Yet there is not a "full" dialogue if one player is operating with subterranean objectives that it does not fully disclose and in fact is willfully concealing.
It is best understood if we look now to the way the Trustee Committee conducted its deliberations. This is the primary importance of the confidential S.L.I. files—we can examine what the options were and what the eventual decisions were.
According to an undated memo titled 'Guidelines for Arrays of Alternative Approaches,' several goals were outlined. The ambition of the Committee was to consider "3 to 4 alternative approaches for each domain or sub-domain" that demonstrated "sensitivity to input received by Committee" and covered "a range of radicalness." Another memo covered the "policy issues" with respect to alcohol and the Greeks. It is a long list of questions, including, "Will the College permit the consumption of alcohol?," "Will individual possession be permitted?," "Will the school consider its jurisdiction to include all College property and all student-sponsored social activities, including those held off-campus?," "Will drinking games [and] chugging... be prohibited?," "Will students be required to perform a certain number of hours of volunteer work?," "Will the College invest in new facilities to create alternatives to fraternities and sororities?," and "Will fraternities and sororities be banned?"
We are also in possession of the "3 or 4 alternative approaches" that the Committee considered. These are drawn from a July 28th memo that was "the revised version of the document that you went over at your last meeting in Hanover on July 21-22." The proposals covered several domains, including "Student Housing," "Eating and Social Spaces," "Social Organizations," and "Alcohol Policy."
It is the section on social organizations—fraternities and sororities—that is most controversial. It is reprinted, very nearly in full, on page fourteen. 'Alternative A' ("Improve Present C.F.S. system") includes provisions for the upgrading of physical plants, which would require houses "to complete work on schedule using private resources[;] if houses cannot perform necessary work on their own, they will be de-recognized with presumption that the College eventually would assume ownership and make necessary repairs." It proposed "far greater penalties and fines" for alcohol violations. It would "discontinue all open parties" and require C.F.S. houses to "open up" their "social spaces" to residence facilities and other student groups. It would "end parties following Wednesday night house meetings" and "establish a curfew." It would "restrict number of students living in each house."
The "degree of radicalness" only gets more extreme from there. 'Alternative B' ("modified C.F.S. system with no mandatory provision to go co-ed") would not require C.F.S. systems to go co-ed unless they failed to meet the standards of 'Alternative A.' 'Alternative D' would "convert C.F.S. houses into new mandatory co-ed system."
'Alternative E' would eliminate the Greek system entirely and latches onto Linda Kennedy's "Common House" idea. These houses would be composed of roughly two-hundred men and women—every student at the College would be required to join up—and might be created by a "three-year phase in period." "All students" would become members of "DCH houses and all existing fraternity, sorority and coed houses would be de-certified by the College." You can read the entire proposal for yourself.
When I wrote that the Student Life Initiative was part of a broader ideological effort to radically alter the character of the College, this is what I was referring to. The semiannual efforts to end the Greek system as we know it are rooted in an undisclosed plan to fundamentally displace the historical character of Dartmouth College.
On July 21st, the Trustee Committee was addressed by Norman E. McCulloch, Jr. 1950, a former Chairman of the Board of Trustees. (The McCulloch dormitory in the East Wheelock cluster is named in his honor.) His remarks add greatly to our understanding of the Student Life Initiative. He outlined the Trustee's institutional vision for Dartmouth College, which was largely based on two objectives: strengthening the academic prestige of the College and eliminating the C.F.S. system. The program would take "patient but steady implementation over, perhaps, a decade," he said, but "these major evolutionary changes will have an enormous impact on the essence of a Dartmouth education and further cement the College's ability to stand with pride and confidence with the country's very best universities."
In McCulloch's turn of phrase, the important charge was "institutional maturity." He alluded to a November 24th, 1986 confidential memorandum that he drafted to the Board of Trustees—he was Chairman at the time—that proposed
THE BOARD ADDRESS THE WISDOM OF GRADUAL BUT NONETHELESS FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT IN THE PHILOSOPHICAL BASES WHICH GUIDE OUR LEADERSHIP OF THE COLLEGE. SPECIFICALLY, I PROPOSE THAT WE BEGIN A DIALOGUE AIMED AT EMPHASIZING THE ACADEMIC STRENGTHS OF THE COLLEGE AS A FIRST PRIORITY. PARENTHETICALLY, THE SANCTITY OF "THE DARTMOUTH FAMILY," WHILE IMPORTANT TO OUR CULTURE, ASSUMES A LESSER ROLE. IN SHORT, I PROPOSE THAT WE RAISE OUR SIGHTS AND REACH FOR INSTITUTIONAL MATURITY, INDEED, THAT WE "GROW UP."
An enormous part of this, he said, was the fraternity system. "The evolution of the College has made it largely outdated and irrelevant and it should be phased out... Therefore, the message must go out... that the Greek system has served its original purpose, has overstayed its welcome and must be completely replaced by social and residential alternatives more consistent with and supportive of the College's academic purposes." The evidence is very explicit—McCulloch situates the S.L.I. in the larger context of diminishing the importance of "the Dartmouth family"—that is, loyalty, fellowship, to each other, to the institution. And the whole problem, he is saying, is the fraternity system. You can read the entirety of his remarks on page fifteen.
No, it isn't.
This is a very explicit institutional agenda. It is not the nattering of a few radicals here and there.
And what has changed is that the defenders of the Greek system have declined precipitously both in number and in vociferousness. And, moreover, their position at the College has changed dramatically. It is no exaggeration to say that students and alumni are now the primary supporters of the system. This is not the way it used to be.
Here are some telling excerpts from a 1960 report, issued by the Dean of the College Office in conjunction with the Inter-Fraternity Council, catalogued in College Archives. "Fraternities on the Hanover Plain, as elsewhere, form a significant backbone for all campus activity, serve as the nucleus of social life, and provide the individual with an experience of living in close daily contact with a relatively small group of fellow students dedicated to the same ideals and sharing a mutual concern for one another which is lacking in the dormitory." That's a pretty succinct summation. At heart, fraternities are concerned with fellowship, and fellowship, whatever might be said about the current state of the College, no longer holds the same primacy that it once did. McCulloch makes that obvious.
The benefits of fellowship, however, are clear. The 1960 memorandum continues, "There is no other institution on this campus which provides comparable benefits to those derived from the fraternity experience."
I cite this report in depth, not because it is old (though it is), but because it shows where priorities used to lie. Fraternities were generally viewed as central to the life of this campus, an integral part, in fact. The memorandum says it straight out: "Fraternity life is inseparable from College life, and the one augments and completes the other." The fraternities were incubators for loyalty and emotional centers for experience, the notion that the Dartmouth student "stands behind his College with a loyalty and dedication unequalled at similar institutions," and loyalty and dedication were taken for granted as essential to the life of the institution. Today, that is less clear, and less important. It is impossible to imagine the current Dean of the College issuing this statement: "The loyalties and interests and ideas of the seventy-two percent of upperclassmen who are fraternity men are totally consistent with and an integral part of the loyalties and interests and ideas which are Dartmouth itself. Together they do, in fact, form the cornerstone of campus experience."
McCulloch and the Board of Trustees have explicitly stated that they wish to negate that.
When current Dean of the College James Larimore attempted to mend student-administrative relations last spring, the most he could muster were pale enthusiasms. In an article dealing with the progress of the S.L.I., he wrote, "Over the past four years, Dartmouth's Greek organizations have made many positive changes through a recommitment to the founding ideals of scholarship, accountability, inclusivity, brotherhood and sisterhood, leadership, and service. My colleagues and I are proud to support the efforts of students to ensure a bright future for Greek life at Dartmouth." This is rather meaningless. There's no real feeling there. There's none of the vitality or keen interest that marks the 1960 memorandum. It's mechanical, impersonal, resigned.
Also, "inclusivity" is not a word. Literally.
Problems, sure. Many aspects of the C.F.S. system can be unhealthy or foolish. Any institution—Dartmouth College, a frat house—is going to fall far short of utopia. But if the Student Life Initiative was really just about improving the Greek System—fixing its problems—this is improvement by way of brass knuckles. A lot has changed since 1960.
If there is indeed this effort in place to eliminate fraternities and sororities, why are fraternities and sororities still around? And how do you explain the support that Dartmouth currently provides for the C.F.S. system?
Courtesy Dartmouth College Library
— W.E. Littig aerial view of the campus (1904). —
I do not quite know the answers to these questions. They are important and need answering.
Our source on the Trustee Committee says that the final vote on the various "alternatives" and the future of the Greek system was a very close thing, a matter of a few votes. It could have gone either way.
Furthermore, the Committee—at least, some of its members—managed to realize and appreciate the importance that the C.F.S. system plays at the College. The system, somehow, got a last chance—for now. The process also confirmed the importance of undergraduate and alumni opinion as a brake on the inclinations of the administrative Elect.
And, it must be said, the College does provide important support to the Greeks. Most houses are covered under an umbrella insurance policy that dramatically reduces costs. The College also offers low-interest loans to houses for renovations and physical improvements. The College re-recognized Phi Delta Alpha, which was on long-term probation. And Rush—or, the new member selection process, as it's now so called—was moved back to the fall term earlier this year, allowing the houses to shore up their financial positions earlier, and, more importantly, allowing them to bolster group cohesion.
The faults are myriad, I believe. Many of its mandates are cosmetic and petty. For example, an undated Office of Residential Life report, 'S.L.I. Thoughts for Action Plan' states, "Bars should be eliminated from any student organization space. The presence of a bar or bar areas only perpetuates the notion that drinking alcoholic beverages is a significant part of the organizational culture." So what happened? The houses cut the tops off the bars and put them onto cinderblocks, or cut the bottom off, and put them on wheels. Simply a bureaucratic shackle, that changed nothing. "We recognize that some of the new standards we propose may sound unreasonably stringent and overly specific," the S.L.I. report went. No kidding.
This bureaucratization of student life is the main result of the Student Life Initiative. It has created a huge administrative burden. The S.L.I. did away with the 'minimum standards' that used to govern the C.F.S. system and replaced it with something called an 'action plan,' which hews to the six principles that Dean Larimore pointed out in his article: scholarship, accountability, inclusivity, brotherhood and sisterhood, leadership, and service. Organizations are required, every term, to enumerate, in a computer program, their proposals for fulfilling these objectives. At the end of every term, they are required to go back and evaluate their progress on those fronts, and are in turn evaluated by the Office of Residential Life. The process is dense, convoluted, and vague, and literally takes the entire officer core hours to complete. Now we are told that the action plan will be evaluated by some kind of composite number system, although no one can explain how the numbers will be generated or how they will be employed.
And the pointless frustration of registering a social event—adhering to the Social Event Management Procedure—is ludicrous. Firstly, by 10:00 A.M. the Thursday before the weekend of the event, an officer of an organization must fill out an online form with the basic information about the event (e.g. time, place, type of alcohol served, expected attendance, names of three student hosts). Then, the same officer who filled out the form must call the Office of Student Activities to arrange an appointment to discuss the proposed event. Linda Kennedy, the Director of Student Activities, or Eric Ramsey, her assistant, tells the student how many kegs (or the equivalent amount of cans of beer, fifths of hard alcohol, or bottles of wine) will be permitted at the party. This number is derived from an equation that warrants a full explanation.
It is derived from organizational record-keeping. Kennedy or Ramsey examine the organization's past events and determine the expected attendance, with no consideration for such factors as how many other parties were registered that night, how many houses are on probation, or timing in the term. This number is also based on headcounts done by Safety and Security officers during their walkthroughs. These safety visits are usually carried out at the beginning of a social event (to check out the setup before most guests arrive) and at the end (to ensure that the party continued to run smoothly and that the kegs are untapped when the registration period is over). Kennedy or Ramsey then take this number and divide it by two in order to approximate the number of legal-age drinkers who will be in attendance. Then, assuming one drink per person per hour, that number is multiplied by the hours for which the party is registered. This number is then divided by 150 (the apparent number of servings in one keg). This final number is only rounded up if the equation comes to within .5 of the next whole keg. For example, if the equation comes out to 2.45 kegs, then the party will only be permitted two kegs.
Now that a number is established, Kennedy or Ramsey provides the student with keg tags, wristbands for those of age, and a mimeograph that summarizes the other details of the event (how many monitors will be in place, where those monitors will be, what variety of snacks will be served, and so forth). This document is also faxed over to the Office of Safety and Security, where somebody there is in charge of getting that information to the officers who will be on duty the night of the event. An e-mail is also sent to the Office of Residential Life, filling them in on the whole situation.
What has happened is that the Student Life Initiative has become thoroughly disconnected from actual student life.
Beyond the pettiness and the enormous administrative load, there are more fundamental problems with the Student Life Initiative. One is utopian thinking. There is a pervasive sense that an ideal social world can be willed into existence with some arcane initiative. They are not mindful of limitations. The Student Life Initiative evinces no understanding of the density or the recalcitrance of a culture, because its framers see things not as they are but as they would like them to be. It is a delusion worthy of Pangloss.
There are more essential problems still. Many people in power at this institution have reduced all of the problems with Dartmouth, all of its perceived flaws, to a single variable: the existence of the fraternity system. And yet I have always found its adherents to be smart and thoughtful and fun, and to contribute greatly to the life of the College. Perhaps the C.F.S. system is not antagonistic to the academic goals of Dartmouth College, but it might just be, perhaps, complementary.
Yes—to a point. But the Student Life Initiative is dishonest, concealing many of its most basic premises. It is impossible to look closely at the implementation and execution of the S.L.I. and not think that there is some incremental, slow-motion process running below the surface, some hidden motivation. The vision that Norman McCulloch outlines certainly provides a large arena for conspiratorial thinking, and it is difficult not to dip into the paranoid style. The Dartmouth that he envisions—and it is not easy to know just how many are in concordance with this vision, to know how likely it is that that vision will come into existence—is not the Dartmouth that I want to attend or ever hope to see.
Allow me to draw one other correspondence, if only as a hypothetical.
In 1987, then Professor James Wright chaired an ad hoc Committee on Residential Life. Its findings, issued in April 1987, came to be known as the 'Wright Report.'
"We believe with the Board of Trustees," they wrote, "that fraternities and sororities play too large a role in the social life of this campus... Our charge and our goal has been to reduce the role of fraternities and sororities in the social life of the campus and we have concluded that such a reduction does require a reduction in membership... If individual fraternities or sororities should ever discontinue operation and their houses or other similar living units become available for College purchase and use, the College should exercise this option..." It went on,
As a matter of principle the College should place a higher value—and provide greater support—to organizations that are coeducational and diverse as opposed to single-sex organizations that are largely social... We recommend the principle of a delayed rush. Spring of sophomore year is the preference of the majority of this committee... We recommend that the College explore the consequence of not permitting fraternity and sorority houses to be open in the summer term. During this term the College should assume a greater responsibility for the supervision of the maintenance of the houses.
"We understand that our recommendations are part of a continuing process," they wrote.
In June 1987, the Board of Trustees issued a statement discussing the Wright Report. On the C.F.S. system, they wrote, "There is widespread consensus that these organizations, funded by their individual members, have provided virtually the entire social life for this campus and that we need a more balanced set of social options."
"These are issues that have been on our plate for a long time," Trustee William King commented after the Student Life Initiative was handed down. Trustee Kate Stith-Cabranes echoed, "They have been since I became a Trustee ten years ago. Last year, we had an opportunity to choose a new President who we knew would address these issues."
"The decision that was made by the Trustees last week was two decades in the making," President Wright explained to the faculty. "When the Trustees chose me as President, they had these issues in mind."
"Such a cultural modification may take 5-15 years to implement, and is, I feel, far larger with more widespread implications than we now realize," Norman McCulloch postulated. "The increase in new facilities and social alternatives must take place before, or in lockstep with, the decline of the Greek System. Change must be gradual."
"A majority of the Committee also supported the elimination of the residency for selective social organizations," the Student Life Initiative report stated. "However, the Committee concluded that the elimination of residency is not now practically feasible because of the overall shortage of beds in the campus housing system. As a result, the Committee proposes that those C.F.S. organizations that can meet new higher standards continue to be residence-based organizations until June 2005. At that time, as part of a major five-year review of selective social organizations, the Board of Trustees should consider whether to permit residence-based organizations."
Are we now in the midst of a transition period, where Greek houses are momentarily tolerated as bilgewater, only held onto as ballast until they are finally flushed out?
It is impossible to tell.
It is. But that is not the note I wish to end on.
The Student Life Initiative may point to the vitality of the Greeks, not to, say, their decline and fall. The Coed-Fraternity-Sorority system remains as vital as ever, and it gains more strength and importance every year. No other student activity on campus, with the exception of 'taking classes,' garners more participation among undergraduates. And now, perhaps, we have reached a kind of détente. It may turn out that the Student Life Initiative is a lasting compromise, in the sense that fraternities are given a stay of execution. But no one can know, because we do not know and cannot know what is occuring behind closed doors now, just as five years ago no one knew the true extent of the motives behind the S.L.I. as it congealed. This is the discouraging imperative of the modern age at Dartmouth College.
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