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Double Down on the Greeks

Panhell Logo1.jpgThe phrase “alternative social spaces” has been part of Dartmouth conversations at least since I was a student in the late 70’s. Today’s Collis After Dark is only the latest iteration in a string of venues that have come and gone, all without seriously impacting the social monopoly of the College’s fraternities.

Yet, there has been change over the years. As the Esquire Magazine article that we reproduced recently took pains to note, in 1979 only 53% of upperclassmen were in fraternities and sororities. At that time, the ratio of men to women on campus was 3:1, and there were two newly formed sororities. However, if you do the math, even then the number of men in frats was less than it is today, despite decades since then of hip administrators trying to create social spaces that will pull students away from the frats. Not only have the deans not succeeded in their goal, they have failed.

Phil is right that reinvigorating dorm life will add a great deal to the College’s social scene, but dorm continuity won’t do the trick of providing meaningful competition to the fraternities’ party monopoly and the various unpleasant sides of Greek life that go with it. Make no mistake about it, only competition will oblige the brothers to clean up their act. In Phil’s and my day, the dorms were real alternatives: when the drinking age was 18, a dorm social chair could simply call up Moe’s (now Stinson’s) at any time, and in short order a delivery truck would come by with a keg of beer. No registration-permission-certification-walkthroughs-arrests-Good Sams, etc.

The long and the short of it is that most students want to be with other students in a place where alcohol is served (especially free alcohol) and where the students present just want to have fun. That’s not going to happen in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center, at Collis After Dark, or in the Hop and the Black Arts Center. These are good spaces, but nobody can seriously believe that they will accommodate several thousand students on a weekend night. If you do the math, you can see that they will make barely a dent in the predominance of the fraternities.

There is only one real option for making Dartmouth social life safer: double down on the Greek system. Create more local sororities, ones with their own house (financed by the College) and with the freedom to serve beer. Students have spoken with their feet about Greek life. Despite the fraternities’ dark side, a loud, beer-soaked place is where most kids want to be. However, sororities will be different in one way: women will control their own space, and the presence of residents will ensure an environment where women more effectively watch out for each other.

Right now there are fifteen fraternities at the College, eight sororities, and three co-ed houses (see here). Most of the sororities are nationals (due to College pressure) — under their charters they cannot serve alcohol — and several of them have 150 or so members. Unless there comes to be a rough parity at the College between sororities and fraternities, and unless women have enough alternatives so that they may shun houses known for their dangerous excesses, no amount of alternative programming will change Dartmouth’s core social dynamic. Forty years of experience have shown us that.

Addendum: For the uninitiated, it is worth noting again and again the special side of Dartmouth Greek life: most parties are open to anyone: members, non-members, affiliated, unaffiliated. The patrician exclusivity that marks houses at many other schools is entirely absent in Hanover. This is a Dartmouth tradition worth cherishing.

Addendum: Nobody would assert that the sororities don’t have their excesses, too. However, this space’s goal is not perfection; is it simply to seek relative improvement. Let not the best be the enemy of the good.

Addendum: The extra housing provided by six or seven new sororities will help reduce the pressure on housing that Phil spoke about recently. When a group of new sororities and their 200 or so new beds are in place, the awful Choates can be demolished and re-built as standard-quality dorms, and after that, the River Cluster can be sold to Tuck to be filled with Wall Street wannabes in the for-profit 4+1 program.

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