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The Baby and the Bath Water

In Charlie Wheelan’s introductory remarks at the Should the Greek System Be Abolished? debate, he made an especially fine point:

Charlie Wheelan.jpgI would urge you to be analytically rigorous. This is my inner public policy professor speaking to you. I appreciate the comments that came before me, but when I hear things like “strongly associated with,” I get very uncomfortable because what I care most about is causal relationships. It is entirely possible that Greek institutions exacerbate/cause behaviors that we do not like, particularly with regard to binge drinking and particularly with regard to sexual assault, but it is also true in some counterfactual where people binge drink in another place, where 18-22-year-old irresponsible people congregate in different ways [i.e. without fraternities], many of those problems would still exist. It is incumbent upon us to figure out what causes those behaviors that are unacceptable to everybody who is part of this community, and to change them, rather than to call for abolishing the system writ large, rather than changing the things in the system that are most dangerous to the students who are here.

We should circle back for a moment and ask ourselves what it is about Dartmouth that inspires the fierce loyalty of its alumni. Could the fraternity system be an integral part of Dartmouth’s uniqueness? Even the most skeptical observer has to acknowledge the possibility that an aspect of the College in which 67% of upperclass students participate (far higher than any other school in the Ivies) plays an important role in bonding students to the College.

My larger observation is that we are playing with fire here. Any precipitous decision about changes in Greek life could have far-reaching consequences for the school. As we saw yesterday, an action can have unintended consequences, and in effecting one change, we could well cause many others. The modification to the beloved-by-many Dimensions show is a case in point. Some people, it seems, bridled at the rah-rah nature of the performance. It didn’t show the College, warts and all, they said. So the ever-pliable administration has decided to sanitize the event. Another beloved tradition bites the dust; and Dartmouth loses its individuality in yet another way — and possibly a good many prospies.

A further example is the new Foltian academic calendar that provides a six-week break from just before Thanksgiving to after the New Year. The administration achieved its aims of saving a little money and relieving students of the burden of flying home for Thanksgiving and then coming back for exams, but at what a cost: painfully compressed terms, negligible reading periods, a football game in the middle of exams, an interminable Xmas break in Hanover for students unable to return home, and so on.

We risk the same unintended consequences as regards the Greek system. As Professor Wheelan admonishes, we should tread carefully. Precipitous and unthought-out moves could leave us with a school that still has problems with binge drinking and sexual assault, but not the Greek institutions that have bound so many people to their friends and to their College.

Addendum: Another example of ill-considered change was the College’s decision to no longer grant academic credit for AP courses completed in high school. Clearly the deanery did not do its homework on the issue as regards practices at other schools (all the other Ivies grant some kind of credit for AP work, contrary to assertions made at the time of the faculty vote on the issue). The end result is that, while the College may take in more money in tuition, many people believe that a good many prospective students are shying away from applying to the College, particularly some of the strongest candidates, because they cannot get any credit for AP work.


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