The Baby and the Bath Water

Apr 23 2014

In Charlie Whelan'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, any 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.

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 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.


Housing: How About Some Data?

Apr 22 2014

Mike Wooten.jpgWhere is the data in the discussion on reforming Dartmouth's housing policy? Has anyone canvassed alumni from different eras and asked them how and where they made their best friends at the College? In fact, have any anthropological or sociological tools been brought to bear in this discussion? Jim Kim used to talk about his "ethnography" of the College, but I fear that this was no more than another empty, but impressive-sounding, term from our ex-leader. Similarly, Director of Residential Education Mike Wooten (right) regularly throws up a storm of jargon, but I have yet to hear a single statistic from him. Memo to Mike: properly sourced numerical data contains more information than buzzwords.

Dartmouth's housing policy can be divided into three eras since the advent of coeducation:

a) 1972 to the mid-1980's, when students had the option of remaining for four years in a dorm and all classes were mixed in each residence hall;

b) Mid-1980's to mid-1990's, when students were shunted around campus each time they returned to Hanover, but all classes were mixed together;

c) Mid-1990's until today, when freshmen were segregated in their own dorms, and upperclass students moved from dorm to dorm.

How about a survey of alumni from all three periods? They can then share with us their perception of the quality of their residential experience at Dartmouth, and from their responses we can pick and choose policies based on real information.

My correspondent today was in no doubt about the importance of his dorm life in the late 1980's, even though he was a member of a fraternity. And my own experience in the 1970's -- in a dorm that was almost like a private club -- was the highlight of the social side of my time in Hanover. Will anyone from the last twenty years speak highly of dorm life among Dartmouth students? Shouldn't we find out the answers to these questions in a manner that befits a College where first-class research is conducted?


The Law of Unintended Consequences

Apr 22 2014

A College insider from a class in the late '80's writes in with a review of the administration's consistently wrong-headed policy towards the fraternities over the last three decades:

Silly me, when I first saw the headline that Hanlon was taking on "extreme behavior" at Dartmouth, I thought he was talking about the activists who occupied his office!

LUC.jpgIt all, of course, comes back to the decades of mismanagement by the administration and Trustees. In a nutshell, the story is this: since Freedman, the administration has waged war on the fraternities, and tried to abolish them. Wright doubled-down when he first came in via the Student Life Initiative, whose expressed intent was to re-engineer the Greek system. The real reason that the administration wanted to outlaw them is that they aren't PC (for example, for many years the fraternities supported the Indian symbol and the traditional alma mater). The administration used the phony rubric of physical facilities, etc., to try to squeeze them financially, and get them to surrender to the College.

The result is that they basically turned the fraternities into outlaws, and cultivated hostility and distrust between the fraternities and decades of administrators. This approach basically drove the fraternities underground. While there certainly were excesses in my day, my impression is that the fraternities are much worse and more extreme today. I know with complete certainty that drinking is more excessive -- to put the matter simply, when I was a student we played beer pong with one beer per player. Today the norm is five beers per player and often more. This will sound odd, but in my day the point of the game was to socialize and have fun while drinking beer. Today, it is to simply get drunk.

At the same time, the central planners destroyed the dorms as a viable competitor to the fraternities in a variety of ways, mainly by moving students around and destroying dorm continuity. So kids were living in different dorms every year with a different set of friends. When I was there, my dorm was a co-equal part of my community with my fraternity.

This was reinforced by Dartmouth's unique schedule, where kids frequently spend quarters away from Hanover, either in foreign study programs or doing something else. So it is not infrequent to not see friends for several quarters, so you need a home away from home. The Greek system provides that.

Rather than hostility to the Greeks based on PC concerns -- but dishonestly represented as something else -- which bred corresponding distrust and outlawry, the College administration could have sought decades ago a more productive collaborative process with the Greeks that recognized that they play a uniquely valuable role in providing continuity at Dartmouth. They could have also cultivated the dorms as a competitor -- as they were during the time I was in Hanover.

Instead of thinking about what students want and need and building up from there, the administration has for decades adopted a top-down central planning strategy of trying to coerce into existence the communities that the administration wants. So, for example, there used to be no freshman dorms. That was changed several years ago. Why? I think for social engineering purposes -- the administration thought that the upperclassmen were bad influences on the freshman, and so were interfering with the Freedmanite goal of engineering the "new Dartmouth man/woman." Instead, this policy simply destroyed dorm continuity over time and increased demand for the fraternities.

A remarkably failed experiment in social engineering. And now the College appears set to try to impose new central planning and social engineering to try to rectify the sins of prior generations.

The Trustees, of course, were a complete joke this whole time. Completely out of touch with any of this, they were unwilling to look through the smokescreen put up by the administrators that all was sweetness and light. A complete and utter failure of leadership across the board.

Addendum: An older alumnus is equally pessimistic:

President Hanlon seems to think his mission is to reform the mass culture of 17-21-year-olds. Lots of luck with that.

It makes one wonder whether the old single sex approach to higher education didn't have a sound basis.

Hanlon wants to serve as the spiritual leader of a moral reform movement to change students' social lives. Nothing about seeing that there is sufficient rigor to the educational experience that students aren't left with endless free time for partying.

Having validated the complaints of the protestors, he is now stuck with this role. It starts to look like yet another failed presidency in the making.