Lessons from the Fire

It started with a 1991 Mazda Navajo rolling over three times in a single car accident on the I89 near Sharon, Vermont.

It was October 1997. That month Dennis Rodman had just returned from the second longest suspension in NBA history, an economic crisis in Asia caused the Dow to drop 554 points in a day, the US government launched the Cassini-Huygens unmanned spacecraft to view Saturn and its natural satellites, and at 6:55 AM on the 17th while driving two friends, one a fellow brother at Phi Delta Alpha, back from a trip to Burlington, somewhere between the second and third roll of his 1991 Mazda Navajo, Adam Dansiger ’00 was launched from the driver’s seat and sustained massive head injuries.

He would recover, but with persistent health problems. A crushed pineal gland meant that Dansiger could no longer produce hormones on his own. His right side remained entirely paralyzed and he was blind in his right eye. In the wake of the accident, he had trouble with his short-term memory. He would not return to Dartmouth.

Save the Greek system.

There’s something here that can, and needs, to be saved.

Two years later, the College administration received a letter from Adam Dansiger implicating his own house, Phi Delta Alpha, of, among other things, serving alcohol to minors, extending “dirty” bids to freshmen, and, in no uncertain terms, named Phi Delt as the impetus of his 1997 car crash.

Police found no evidence of drug or alcohol use on the part of anyone in the car. Nevertheless, a 2000 Daily Dartmouth article quotes Adam’s father Zeev Dansiger as saying that his son had gotten “’in with the wrong crowd’ at Dartmouth, which eventually led to the near-fatal accident.’”

It remains unclear whether Dansiger joined that crowd in college or high school as well as what connection those choices had to do with the crash. Nothing would ever come of threats of lawsuit directed toward the College and Phi Delt.

The body of the accusations leveled at Phi Delt outside of the accident, though, was more than enough to prompt serious investigation into the fraternity on the part of the administration. After reviewing records and talking to members of Phi Delt at the time, then-Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman found that there were sufficient grounds for a hearing.

And then came the fire.

In the early hours of December 9, 1999, on what was undoubtedly a terribly dark and cold Hanover morning, four brothers of Phi Delt entered Chi Gamma Epsilon through a window.

What started out as an attempt to find a party turned into a prank, and then something far worse. A set of drapes were doused with citronella oil and ignited on a basement pong table, while a refrigerator was lifted and carried back to Phi Delt.

Eight people were asleep upstairs. All escaped without injury, though the physical plant sustained $6,400 of damage from fire and smoke.

Two separate hearings were held to investigate and judge the brotherhood on both incidents.

Damien Williams ‘01 was arrested and charged with one count of a Class A felony arson while Ross Fenderson, Brandon Purcell, and David Lopez ‘00 were charged with criminal trespassing.

In a public apology, Williams wrote to The Daily Dartmouth from the Grafton County House of Corrections in Lebanon, New Hampshire in July of 2000.

“I know that I am in no position to expect forgiveness from anyone, but at the very least this public apology is a step in seeking forgiveness from myself.”

Phi Delt had already been derecognized that March for a minimum of two years.

Reading through the editorials and news articles surrounding Phi Delt’s derecognition, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the current campus climate with respect to the Greek system has happened before.

President Hanlon’s steering committee has a fourteen-year-old antecedent that announced its own recommendations in January of 2000, only a month after Damien Williams lit a match.

An announcement on January 10th in The Daily Dartmouth reads, in all caps, “REPORT RECOMMENDS DRASTIC CHANGES TO GREEK SYSTEM.” The report was in part a culmination of then Dartmouth President James Wright to end the Greek system “as we know it.” The committee recommended more stringent facility, membership, and organizational standards, knowing full well that this would push organizations toward derecognition. The report stated, “This reduction is desirable in order to eliminate the historical dominance by the [Greek] organizations of Dartmouth social life.”

In almost every sense, the recommendations and goals of the old steering committee seem very much the same as those of the modern day iteration. The committee aligned themselves singularly to the mitigation of destructive behavior. The Greek system, through its connection to excessive drinking and high-risk behavior, fell in the crosshairs.

Even some of the policy options swirling around today’s steering committee echo last decade’s: placing adult bartenders in registered parties, reviewing the use of affinity housing, and eliminating pledge term had all been raised, though the last of which has only recently come to pass.

Yet the context of the discussion has changed. More than joining Dartmouth’s conversation to determine its future, the national media has taken a leading role in supplying the tone for discourse. Dartmouth is being rapidly painted into a corner, one where a reputation for binge drinking and assault waits. The rumors circulating this steering committee have more to do with outright abolition than drastic change.

The Chi Gam fire received no significant national media attention. It’s squeezed in the Columbia Spectator between an article on former housing secretary Jack Kemp’s campaign endorsement for George W. Bush and an article on Alfred Musema’s sentencing for war crimes in the Rwandan Genocide. Fourteen years later it’s entirely inconceivable that such an event would slip past the radar of national news outlets.

The Greek system has become a popular target again at home as well as nationally. With the new steering committee’s recommendations looming in the near future, The Daily Dartmouth’s editorial board ran a front page: “ABOLISH THE GREEK SYSTEM.” The editorial doesn’t lose any steam after the title:

“Let’s do what needs to be done, the only action in line with our principles of community, and abolish the Greek system.”

“But our “Animal House” reputation is well-earned. For many, Greek life takes precedence over academics. It is an investment (perhaps a risky one), a path to acceptance, friends, sex, drugs, love and jobs.”

“Hundreds of leaders have tried to reform and change Greek life to be more inclusive, safe and fun for more people. But consider the implications of this — each year, hundreds of student leaders pour their energy and time into what boils down to social life.”

It’s possible, though, that this is simply the arrival of something a long way coming.

Fourteen years ago, trustee and then co-chair of the steering committee Peter Fahey ’68 reportedly framed the committee’s recommendation as a temporary solution to what might be the long-term problem the administration saw in the Greek system’s existence. Fahey warned during the committee’s ultimate presentation that the Greek system “must demonstrate its positive attributes or face the more drastic options recommended by some members of the committee.”

Though Zeev Dansiger’s premise linking the crash to Phi Delt his son’s horrific crash didn’t stick, the letter proved true in too many other areas. The fire was more than enough to bring the house down.

The house had engaged in a rivalry with neighboring Chi Gam, mostly in the form of innocent pranks. Still, former Deal of Residential Life Martin Redman recalled, “The fire really crossed a threshold.”

Regarding the fire, past Phi Delt President Tom Callahan ’84 said “I wouldn’t regard it as in the category of pranks between fraternities. It was an individual action of extraordinarily poor judgment that was completely out of the realm of acceptable.”

Internally, the house’s culture was becoming wholly unsustainable. Corporation president, and house advisor, George Faux ’84 explains:

“It was a culture that decided that the way to make your name was to be a little harder than the guys before. It got to the point where all of the tongue-in-cheek stuff fell away and people started to self-select out. We started to lose the guys who had more balance, who were scholars, athletes, and campus leaders, and were left with the guys who only wanted to hang in the basement.

We reached a point where we got down to single digit pledge classes. Other people didn’t want to be there. It wasn’t a pleasant place and it was a far cry from the Phi Delt that we had known, which had 105 strong members our senior spring.”

Redman added, “The group that was there at the time had been “dirty” rushed by the house. The house was on hard times. The alumni weren’t paying enough attention, so the guys were mostly on their own. I don’t think they ever really came together as an organization and as a house in a way that should have been. “

A two year period of derecognition was no coincidence. By then, all members of the house in 2000 would be graduated. The organization would effectively cease to exist as it had, presenting a chance to reverse what had become a rapidly compounding downward spiral.

“Unfortunately, I had to make the decision. But I can tell you with all certainty that I could have permanently expelled the house. I chose not to. While I thought the situation was egregious, I did not believe that the history and track record of the house warranted permanent expulsion. I thought it could be fixed with time,” Redman said.

So far The Daily Dartmouth editorial board’s call to ABOLISH THE GREEK SYSTEM has been most successful in exciting a new slew of pro-Greek arguments in campus discourse. The paper’s own editorial section has been filled with censures of the board, from “Vandermause: Reform, Not Replace,” to “Traynor: Think it Through,” to  “Cathcart: Setting the Record Straight,” to “Harder: Inclusivity – A Greek Perspective,” to “Brooks: Denying the Undeniable,” to “Peters: Don’t Hijack the Paper.”

Most of these authors float the arguments that most affiliated members have by now become familiar with. They’re the touchstones one habitually reaches for when trying to explain what makes Dartmouth’s Greek system so unique.

It’s more inclusive. It’s more academic. It’s safer.  It’s more philanthropic. It’s more ____.

But here’s the issue: each of these arguments boils down to comparisons with the less-well-behaved Greek systems of peer institutions. From the other side of the aisle it’s rhetorically the same as “Well, we’re not as bad as the other guys,” and its equally as persuasive.

As a result, the Greek System is on the defensive, even if its supporters don’t seem to know it. A proponent of abolishing the Greek system can just as easily play the same game by imagining a system that is, in the same way, more ____. In some spots, this is actually pretty easy. It’s not difficult to imagine a system that’s more inclusive when by nature of rush, the Greek System is, on some level, exclusive.

The failsafe mechanism that many of these authors go on to employ, then, is by entirely denying the possibility of any such world in which the Greek System can be removed for the establishment of some new system to accomplish any, or several, of the above goals. The world without the Greek System, they argue, is a Vacuum, and anyone arguing against the Greek System is necessarily pro-Vacuum.

But again, there’s no reason why abolishing the Greek System forces its opponents to defend nothing as an alternative. With the pressure on affiliated members on campus to defend the status quo, some intrinsic value needs to be pointed to, something that cannot survive in a world without the system. The day after the College boards up the last fraternity, inclusivity, academics, safety, and philanthropy will all, in some form, still be here.

And so Fahey’s challenge to defenders of the Greek System to “demonstrate its positive attributes or face the more drastic options recommended by some members of the committee,” remains only unsatisfyingly answered by naming its comparatively positive features, especially when the stakes have been raised so high.

“Yes we’re open, sorry for the inconvenience,” read the four-by-twenty-foot banner slung across the Phi Delt balcony in the winter of 2003.

Two years had passed and for the first rush since derecognition Phi Delt opened its doors. With no undergraduate brothers left on campus, over fifty alumni returned to Dartmouth over a period of five weeks to repair the house and hold rush.

The house had been derelict for some time, leaving it vulnerable to break-ins and theft. “It was a disaster,” Faux said, ” Kids had broken in and stolen things. We replaced pipes, we did bathroom work, and we bought a new boiler. All to bring it back to what it was and make it livable again.”

After fixing the house, the alumni of Phi Delt still had to find people to live in it. On the night of rush dozens of alums, some graduates of the college as early as 1978 along with many from the 1980s and early 1990s, gathered in Phi Delt and tried to sell kids half their age on the house that they had come back to rebuild.

An ad placed in The Daily Dartmouth entitled “Back in Business,” read that the alumni were seeking to recruit “well-rounded, high quality men interested in helping us rewrite the next chapter of our organization’s history.”

“Rewrite” was meant seriously. Here was the chance ORL Dean Redman had foreseen. It was time to reconstruct Phi Delt from the ground up.

It may not have looked so serious, though.

“It was like that movie ‘Old School.’ It was a bunch of old alumni standing around in the first floor of Phi Delt, welcoming prospectives into the house, introducing ourselves, and saying ‘damned glad to meet you.’ We got to know the folks who were already thinking about joining Phi Delt and a few others who were coming by the house in a kind of macabre sense of curiosity to see if the rumors were true and we were actually having a rush,” Callahan recalled.

“It was tough. There are more pleasant things to do than being the 40 year old guy handing out bids in a dormitory,” said Faux.

But if the process had its awkward points, the Phi Delt alumni were confident in their reasons for returning. For two years the experience that had so defined their Dartmouth career had been totally and imperially wiped out. Here was a chance to bring it back.

“The Phi Delt brotherhood and community was a major part of my Dartmouth experience in the years 1980 to 1984 and also since graduating. When the fraternity was at a point where it could either survive or whither away depending on whether it could attract a new generation of students to participate in it, I wanted to do what I could to contribute to making that possibility a reality. I think we all felt that way. But Gig Faux was the key in rounding us up and making us realize that this was make-or-break time for the organization,” Callahan said.

“It’s played such a central part in my life, well beyond the basement. The ups and downs of my life have been shared and spent with a very close-knit group of people: primarily most of those coming from Phi Delt. I know how important it’s been for me. I know how important it’s been for us. I wanted that opportunity to be there for another generation of guys coming through,” said Faux.

That 50 alumni, most twenty-plus years into real life, would put their lives on hold to come back to their fraternity house’s first rush back since being derecognized is, by no means, able to be considered “normal” behavior. But more than demonstrate the lasting affinity members have toward their houses, the example is enough to make The Daily Dartmouth editorial board’s view of the Greek System, as something that “boils down to social life,” seem seriously deluded.

For many throughout their time at Dartmouth, Greek life provides a locus of meaningful relationships, bonds that strengthen and grow over the course of a College career between students and students and between students and the College.

Yet this argument never finds its footing within the conversation. In removing the discussion from Dartmouth, the language and symbols with which we engage the topic provided by media pundits across the country are similarly estranged from what we can actually find on the ground. We’re arguing against the backdrop of the “Animal House” analogy (for once can we admit that saying “Dartmouth, the inspiration for National Lampoon’s ‘Animal House’,” is a lot like saying “Christmas, the inspiration for National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation’,” or “Vegas, the inspiration for National Lampoon’s ‘Vegas Vacation’”) and seeing satire instead of what’s actually standing in front of us.

But it might be that the real danger of our defenses of the Greek system is that it aids this process by removing the discussion from what is so genuinely intrinsic and unique to Dartmouth’s Greek system in the same way. We start dealing in comparisons of inclusivity, safety, and academics, that, though true to the system, are still cohabitants with the real, demonstrable, “positive attribute” of Greek life: its near-uncanny ability to forge lasting friendships over four years of college that last for the lifetime afterward.

More than provide an answer Fahey’s challenge, though, this is the line that defenders of the Greek system ought to draw. We’re not defending our social lives. We’re defending the people we’ve grown close to and the place that’s made it possible. We’re defending the opportunity for future affiliated students to enjoy that same experience.

“I’d say the same things to you guys what I said back then: what is it that we value? And if people are perceiving that all we really value is parties with alcohol, with injuries and a whole host of other issues, then that’s a problem and that goes against what the values of a Greek organization should be,” Redman said.

A decade and half has passed since the fire. There are only two reminders left in the house. In the kitchen, there’s a plaque dedicated to the class of 2005 for bringing the house back from the brink.

It lists the members of the class of ’05, the first back after the fire, as well as a quote from President Wright in a markedly different tone than his vow to end the Greek system “as we know it”:

“Few people can spend four years at Dartmouth knowing that they fundamentally changed the campus. The 25 Phi Delts in the Class of 2005 can, indeed, say they have done just this.”

On the other side of the first floor, the 2000 composite still hangs in the library. It’s smaller than all of the other composites in the house, with fewer members to take up the space. A small font along the bottom row of pictures lists members who aren’t pictured. Damien Williams is one of them.

If the story of Phi Delt’s derecognition and rerecognition offers a chance to see what’s good and strong in the Greek system, it still stands in stark contrast to the tragedy and mistakes and regret that all find a home in the beginning of this story.

Yet in reconciling Phi Delt’s end with its new beginning, it may just be possible that, taken as a whole, we end up with something that challenges what opponents of Greek life tend to assume: that the Greek system, and the harmful aspects of its culture, cannot change.

In the decade and a half since the fire Phi Delt looks more than ever like the place that Faux left in the summer of 1984. “I am proud of Phi Delt today; it has the strengths and attributes that I remember from my time as an undergraduate,” he said.

It’s become again a home, if only for three years, for students who spend their time on academics, athletics, and leadership roles around campus alongside the time spent together in the basement.

The full story, then, is not only that there is something worthy of being protected in today’s Greek system. There’s also something capable of being preserved alongside whatever the system may look like in the future.

There’s something here that can, and needs, to be saved.

Let’s make that our argument moving forward.