Moving Dartmouth Forward: What Could Have Been

I’m not worried about the 1%. I’m worried about the (missing} 10%.

I’m not worried about the 1%. I’m worried about the (missing) 10%.

The Moving Dartmouth Forward proposals released on January 29 by the Office of the President contained a number of initiatives and suggestions that have been met by controversy not only within the College itself, but across the country. After careful analysis of the Presidential Steering Committee’s final report, however, the quality of their suggestions to combat binge drinking, sexual assault, and exclusivity can be called into question. Though the Steering Committee’s official report is a strong effort to accurately address the issues said to plague the College, the document fails in several areas, including relying on dubious statistics, neglecting to address positive aspects of campus life, and faltering in certain logical derivatives.

The Committee’s report makes critical points based off a series of graphs that, quite simply, fail to accurately convey statistical information regarding students’ drinking habits. The graphs in question, cited as Figure A on page 4 of the official report, utilize the data collected during the AlcoholEdu course required of all students prior to matriculation. Regardless of the statement prior to the survey that the answers provided would be “confidential,” it is unlikely that students would voluntarily offer up information regarding illegal activity. Since the vast majority of students at the time were under the age of 21, answering any question in the affirmative would be confessing to illegal actions. While this would not discredit the survey results entirely, one can expect that the figure would be skewed towards students answering in the negative (Non-Drinker). The claim that 72% of Dartmouth students (compared to 59% of students nationally) are non-drinkers before attending Dartmouth can be taken, at the very least, as a slight overestimation.

The other major issue with these statistics is the fact that they, quite literally, do not add up, in multiple troubling ways. The first graph, detailing drinking habits of Dartmouth students compared to the national average, notes that incoming Dartmouth students actually tend to drink less than the national average. This statistic might not come as a surprise, however, when one realizes that a full 10% is missing from the graph of the national average. The graph displays that, on average, nationally, 18% of college students are high-risk drinkers, 13% are light/moderate drinkers, and 59% are non-drinkers; this total adds up to only 90%. What happened to these remaining ten percentage points? Perhaps these statistics were dropped from the percentage of non-drinkers, in which case, Dartmouth incoming students’ drinking habits would essentially mirror the national average. As this is the very first piece of hard evidence cited in the Steering Committee’s report, the fact that the statistics are of dubious reliability represents a major shortcoming on the part of the Committee, and in this case, significantly misrepresents the reality of Dartmouth’s drinking habits.

The report continues on to express disdain at the student body as a whole, and continues with descriptions that negatively reflect upon students; at one point, it even states that “…the committee has repeatedly asked how students are able to complete their classwork, often maintaining high GPAs, while engaging in such behavior.” While clearly intended as a humorous anecdote, this statement is also a testament to the strength of the average Dartmouth student, and contrasts greatly with the committee’s statement immediately prior, that “high-risk drinking… has a bearing on [students’] health and well-being; it also clearly affects their level of academic engagement.” No statistics are used to support these claims.

Later, the report notes that “the concentration of campus social life at Dartmouth in fraternities with little adult supervision [raises] special concerns,” right after noting that sexual assault “does not seem to be geographically localized.” There is, essentially, no older-adult supervision in Greek houses or residence halls. Perhaps, however, students that are charged with leadership roles on campus, conduct large-scale research projects, and even intern at multinational corporations and governments are not capable of playing nicely unsupervised; in that case, one might call for security cameras in every dorm room and armed guards at every door. Perhaps to that end, a “genuinely safe space” could be constructed.

Additionally, it seems as though the committee has essentially written off the positive aspects of Greek life at Dartmouth. A storied system at Dartmouth stretching back over 170 years, the College’s Greek community claims nearly 70% of eligible students as members. A poll by The Dartmouth during the fall of 2014 found that 87% of students, an overwhelming majority and over 30% more than actual affiliated students, supported keeping the Greek system at Dartmouth. According to the Committee, however, the popularity of the Greek system stems from the lack of a wholesome residential program at Dartmouth. It is only briefly mentioned, and never elaborated upon, that Greek organizations support “a real sense of community, growth of genuine and long-lasting friendships, and connections with alumni and Dartmouth’s traditions.” The philanthropic benefits of Greek organizations are disregarded as well, even though Greek organizations individually raised nearly $120,000 and devoted over 9,500 hours of service last year. Ultimately, a fraternity is a brotherhood, as a sorority is a sisterhood; their purpose is to foster friendships amongst members. Dartmouth’s organizations extend this mission even further not only by hosting open events, but by sponsoring an open space for socialization on most weekend nights.

Perhaps the most impactful suggestion made by the Steering Committee is the campus-wide ban on hard alcohol for all undergraduate students, regardless of age. Infringement on personal freedoms of legal students aside, the ban has been subject to controversy regarding its potential efficacy. The committee’s report cites bans as Bates, Colby, and Bowdoin Colleges as guiding policies; all three colleges have differing policies regarding hard alcohol, some looser and some stricter than Dartmouth’s. For instance, Colby College’s ban on hard alcohol only includes drinks containing 40% of alcohol or more, which is significantly looser than the others. In addition, several of the bans also cover drinking games, which Dartmouth’s fails to address; it is likely, then, that the acclaimed game of pong (which the Steering Committee condemns early on) will continue to grow in popularity as hard alcohol becomes less available. Furthermore, in 2013, Stanford also attempted a hard alcohol ban akin to these, which was quickly lifted after overwhelmingly negative reception. Currently, a survey by The Dartmouth reports that nearly 73% of students do not support the hard alcohol ban. Disapproval of this magnitude ought not be taken lightly.

Faults are also found with the breakdown of income distribution amongst Dartmouth students. For example, students with home incomes in the $0-24,999 bracket comprise 16% of the US population, yet only 5% of Dartmouth students. While “enhanced cross-cultural understanding, improved cognitive skills and learning outcomes, better preparation of students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society and a greater sense of community” are ends few would contest, socioeconomic diversity is something that cannot easily be achieved. Countless studies have supported the link between low academic achievement and low socioeconomic status. As an Ivy League school, it is inconceivable that Dartmouth would lower its academic standards to promote diversity, and equally impossible for the College to support stronger academic programs for academically-faltering communities nationwide.

Finally, a number of proposals submitted by the committee simply do not have enough logical substance behind them to be legitimate. One example is the suggestion to move rush period to winter term of one’s sophomore year. Dartmouth’s rush period already occurs in sophomore fall, a full year later than rush is traditionally held at most other schools. The reasoning behind this delay is to allow freshmen to get their bearings at the College and make an informed decision regarding participation in the system, instead of rushing into things immediately upon coming to campus. The committee’s reasoning for delaying rush further involves giving sophomores time to embrace the new residential house system, as if twenty-five percent of their academic career is not long enough as it is.

The committee also finds fault with the idea of students going out and socializing or partying on Wednesday nights, citing the fact that students have class the next day. In reality, however, what the committee fails to acknowledge is the fact that it is quite commonplace to have a class schedule with no classes on Tuesday or Thursday, or else classes that take place in the afternoon, which would give students time to recover. As students at Dartmouth do in fact maintain a high level of academic success, it would make sense that the roots of Wednesday as a social or party night stem from the fact that they will have fewer academic obligations the following day.

There is no doubt that the Steering Committee invested countless hours of time and expended a tremendous amount of effort in the drafting of this final report; indeed, they met individually over 30 times and with numerous student and other organizations since May of last year. For this reason, it is disappointing to see glaring statistical errors, a disregard for current positives, and unsound logic in the final report of suggestions. Moving Dartmouth Forward, at its heart, is a well-meaning initiative that intends to effect lasting positive change here at the College on the Hill. Indeed, it offers a number of quality initiatives, such as the move towards a residential house system and further strides to combat sexual assault. However, the movement has simply failed to reflect the realities of the majority of Dartmouth students. Top-down change can only be so effective when the student body is as passionate and traditions are as strong as they are. Only time will reveal the true efficacy of the Steering Committee’s suggestion and President Hanlon’s subsequent reforms. Perhaps Dartmouth is moving forward, but in this current atmosphere, we cannot let our hopes soar too high.