Moving Dartmouth Forward and the ‘Go Local’ Movement

The future of Dartmouth's sorority life?

The future of Dartmouth’s sorority life?

In his Moving Dartmouth Forward speech on the 29th of January, President Hanlon announced his desire to create “an environment where students are free of extreme behaviors and part of a safe and healthy environment.” He later expounded on his goal, describing a campus “where sexual assault… [is] eradicated…”

Sexual assault is an issue that has been at the center of contentious debate, and Dartmouth has been no stranger to its fallout. The ‘Dimensions Protest’ of 2013 was in large part intended to highlight the issue on Dartmouth’s campus and last spring’s Freedom Budget sit-in made sexual assault one of its main themes. What’s more, in the midst of Dartmouth’s struggles with the problem and an ongoing Clery Act investigation, Rolling Stone’s headline-breaking article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house rocked the American academy and galvanized the a national conversation about sexual assault and women’s rights more broadly.

Thus far, the administrations of Dartmouth and the University of Virginia have both taken similar approaches to the issue. Fraternities have been demonized, and they are being held up to increasingly draconian rules and regulations that will, at best, result in dubious changes to campus environments. Although President Hanlon was seemingly ready to take drastic action through his much anticipated Moving Dartmouth Forward campaign, it seems the plan succumbed to the same business-as-usual, wrist-slapping policymaking.

Interestingly, it was The New York Times that brought into popular attention a more practical alternative: the Go Local Movement. Indeed, a reform minded Steering Committee may have needed to spend a little more time studying the College’s own Sigma Delta, Kappa Delta Epsilon, and Epsilon Kappa Theta local sororities. One possible solution to the College’s woes could have come from empowering alternative Greek spaces – not subjugating them.

Female Social Spaces As They Are

Critics of fraternities often claim that Dartmouth’s fraternities have a monopoly on Dartmouth social life. They are not wrong. The campus at large routinely frequents fraternities as social spaces. Brothers and non-brothers alike can freely enter a fraternity for a casual game of pong in the basement or for a sports game viewing or for an open party. Most people by the end of their four years at Dartmouth, moreover, can pick up the nuances that differentiate the brotherhoods of each house. There is a sense of intimate relationships that is built in these social spaces.

From an internal perspective, fraternity brothers are able to cement their bonds of friendship and brotherhood with constant interaction. Like sororities, few fraternities have the space to house all of their members in their plant. The key to their unity is, instead, a network effect of sorts with fraternity brothers interacting with each other and each others’ friend groups in their own basements.

The same cannot be said of the College’s national sororities. National sorority bylaws prohibit chapters from serving alcohol or even hosting large scale events for non-members. These institutions therefore can not provide the external social benefits and services fraternities do for campus at large. They have no open basements or open parties. More often than not, sorority members are forced to leave their own houses and head over to a fraternity to play pong, attend a party, or just socialize with their friends that aren’t also in their sorority. There is little in the way of sustained interaction that occurs between sororities as social organizations and the rest of affiliated or unaffiliated campus on the sororities’ terms. Even the mixers that fraternities and national sororities host together are held at the fraternity’s house. This is exemplified in the way people perceive sororities too. Sororities are differentiated in the minds of most people by crude statements and stereotypes about their members’ physical appearance and outgoingness.

Local sororities, on the other hand, are a different matter. When The Review profiled Dartmouth local sorority Kappa Delta Epsilon (KDE), KDE President Emily Uniman ’15 remarked that her sorority operates “much like a fraternity.” KDE, along with Dartmouth’s other local sorority, Sigma Delta, can host parties and serve alcohol. This is a meaningful contrast to how national sororities operate. Members of these sororities can socialize and drink with themselves and their friends on their own terms in their own basement. Indeed, Uniman in the same article also remarked, “We give women on campus a space to feel comfortable, even if many of them are comfortable at fraternities. We give them a place to invite their friends, a place to call their own.”

Women control these local sorority spaces. These sorority sisters have the ability to kick overly troublesome or sketchy people out. They can determine what types of social activities they themselves will be doing – having dance parties each weekend or casual pong with good music.

Many assert that these types of female-dominated social spaces could be a key part of the answer to reducing sexual assault on campus. Women feel less vulnerable hosting and attending a party in their own spaces, where they are in control of the dynamic and the rules of the event and can expel anyone they choose from the house. The presence of sober, female sorority members at events ensures that someone is watching out for inappropriate behavior at all times. Having female bartenders also drastically lowers the probability of a phenomenon commonly associated with fraternity parties: students getting drugged by alcoholic drinks. This could also help combat a far more subtle and common date-rape tactic, where the perpetrator attempts to intoxicate a target to the highest degree possible and thereby impair the target’s decision-making abilities. Female bartenders would be less likely to serve a female partygoer that has clearly had too much to drink and female sober monitors are more likely to get help for vulnerable, drunk girls, leaving women better prepared to defend themselves and avoid precarious situations.

Given the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, these benefits to local sorority life make the Go Local Movement something worth considering, especially given how popular the Greek system is at Dartmouth.

Institutional Inequality

All of this is not to say that the localization of national sororities at Dartmouth is the social system’s panacea. Significant institutional inequalities exist between fraternities and sororities as they stand here at the College, and the Hanlon Administration would need to address these issues should they themselves signal support for the Go Local cause.

For one, most of Dartmouth’s fraternities own their houses and the land on which they stand. This provides a twofold benefit. Rent revenue from brothers who choose to live in their fraternities amounts to a significant annual fraternity budget. If a fraternity can pull together just 20 brothers to live in their plant and pay housing rent, this amounts to a nearly $200,000 annual budget. Social dues, which vary by house, form an additional $10,000 or so budget. These funds are used for brotherhood activities, trips, house maintenance, and other services for brothers. Fraternities can also exert greater autonomy if their own plant is owned and managed by them.

Dartmouth’s fraternities are also beneficiaries of generations of alumni. Again, this entails a twofold benefit. Generations of passionate alumni form a thick network for fraternity brothers as it relates to professional or even social opportunities outside of Hanover. But secondly, generations of alumni also correspond to generations of alumni donations. Most Dartmouth fraternities are backed up by endowment funds that shield them against otherwise debilitating costs associated with house repairs and even legal expenses. Dartmouth’s fraternities, then, are well rooted not only in their own traditions and legacies, but also economically.
Dartmouth sororities, however, lack comparable roots. This shortcoming has as much to do with the fact that Dartmouth only became a coeducational institution in the past few decades as it does with the fact that the Administration has routinely intervened in the upkeep, startup, and construction of its relatively novel sororities and sorority houses. Dartmouth’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity chapter house, for instance, was constructed using the national fraternity organization’s funds for the sole benefit and ownership of the local chapter; Dartmouth’s Kappa Delta Sorority’s chapter house, alternatively, was constructed with a combination of Kappa Delta national organization’s and the College’s funds, giving the College Administration undue influence in how the sorority chapter operates.

If a future Moving Dartmouth Forward-esque initiative were to encompass sorority localization, these issues must be addressed. The College cannot undo decades of history and endow its sororities with generations of loyal alumni backers; however, it can work out a plan to gradually give sororities full ownership of their properties and assist sororities to form their own endowment cushions.

Resistance to Change?

National sororities, however, are understandably hesitant to dramatically cut their national ties and go local. It is far from an easy transition to make, notwithstanding legal and contractual obligations national sororities may owe to their national organizations. Significant planning and deliberations must occur before such a move can even be discussed.

The process of going local would require sororities to re-evaluate both their organizational dynamics and physical plant. Extensive renovations may be needed to enable sorority house basements and bathrooms to take the beating fraternity basements and bathrooms do on a nightly basis. Sororities must also coordinate how they would handle the tasks of having an open basement – assigning people door and bar duty, buying dozens of boxes of beer and cans, etc. A culture of having sisters hanging out in their basements to act as monitors of their own house and as people who themselves contribute to their social scene must be encouraged. Freely distributing alcohol to college students, of course, is a liability – a liability sororities would now need to pay insurance to cover.

These are neither cheap nor easy tasks. According to The New York Times, going local would roughly double insurance costs per capita for sororities. Alcohol purchases alone would amount to costs in the five digits per year. Most fraternities have multiple officer positions to deal with such responsibilities. Fraternity presidents routinely spend hours each week in meetings with the Administration – time that multiplies each time the house breaks even a minor ordinance or a guest is Good-Sammed because they overconsumed alcohol. Social chairs divvy up the task of making the pilgrimage to Stinson’s to buy beer each night. House managers have to routinely coordinate basement clean ups and inspections and carry out necessary repairs and renovations.

Sororities may also be anxious to lose the benefits of affiliation with a national organization. National Greek organizations do boast large alumni networks. These national organizations have resources of their own to help construct or renovate sorority houses. The national organizations also help individual chapters deal with their respective school administrations and otherwise act as an umbrella organization for dealing with larger legal issues.

Sorority members and leaders are understandably anxious to have to take on these costs, risks, and responsibilities. And they would have little precedent to rely on for guidance in how to handle things.

Clearing the Way Forward

The merits of the Go Local Movement ultimately need to be decided by the sororities in question, for the onus of the transition will ultimately fall on them. But as public and private debate on the Go Local Movement continues, it’s important that the Administration, at the very least, meet national sororities halfway should they choose to go down the local path, for the merits of the transition may outweigh the short-term costs.

Joshua D. Kotran and John S. Stahel also contributed to this article.