[Print] Alumni Organization on Sexual Assault

Recently, The Dartmouth Review had the opportunity to speak with Susy Struble, the organizing member of DartmouthChange. A member of the Class of 1993 and a concerned alumna, she recently cofounded the organization with the goal of understanding the extent of the sexual assault problem on Dartmouth’s campus and working with alumni, administrators, and current students to reduce its severity.   

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Please tell us a bit about yourself, your experience at Dartmouth, and how you came to be involved with Dartmouthchange.

Susy Struble: Well, I’m a 1993 graduate of the College. I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and it was just an enormous deal for me to come from a public school in a tiny, Midwestern farm town and go to Dartmouth College. It meant a lot to my family and it meant a lot to me. While I was there, I had an amazing experience and I deeply love the place. I was involved in the Greek System, and loved that. I definitely got involved in issues surrounding sexual assault [and I] was an early organizer with a group called Greeks Against Rape, which tried to facilitate open discussions in the sororities and fraternities and between sororities and fraternities about the problems of sexual assault and harassment and general relationships between the sexes. That was all during my junior and senior year, so that was about my level of my involvement when I was at the College. Since then, I’ve moved out West. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area right now and I’m a pretty active alumna, and when I became aware of the College’s ongoing problems with sexual assault, it was an obvious place for me to try to make a difference.

 TDR: What were the origins of DartmouthChange and what made you decide to wade into the campus debate about sexual assault?

Struble: The genesis for DartmouthChange was certainly my experience on campus, and that of too many of my brothers and sisters as well. [I really ended up] getting involved after 20 years of being away from the campus after reading the Rolling Stone article that came out. Wherever the truth of all that actually lies, it just put a bug in my ear that things maybe haven’t changed so much on campus in the last 20 years. I can think back to the late 80’s early 90s [and] we were Neanderthals back then certainly, and I thought we cannot possibly be the same as we were then. So I started asking around and [trying] to find out what’s actually going on around campus to see if there’s anything we can do. In thinking about it, I don’t know that there’s ever been a real concerted effort to try to get all of the different constituencies of campus – alumni, faculty, students, employees, greater Hanover community members, and parents – together to have a dialogue and work to reduce the divisiveness of this problem. 

TDR: Since its inception, how has DartmouthChange approached its goal of confronting the sexual assault issue and what sort of progress has it made? 

Struble: About ten months or so, I started making some phone calls, connecting with some students on campus, some faculty members on campus, some other alumni in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere, and we very informally tried to understand, first things first, what is actually happening on campus. Our primary question was: what is the scope and severity of the problem and where is the College in terms of responding appropriately with preventative and counseling measures? Since then, we formally got together six months ago [as an organization] and said that it’s time for us to engage more strongly with the administration and trustees, and we started having meetings.

TDR: Were administrators and board members receptive to your efforts? 

Struble: Yes and no. The few trustees with whom we’re in touch have been responsive. Middle level administrators and down have also been open and helpful. One of us [has] been having some discussions with mid-level administrators about improving sexual assault reporting to make it easier and to help identify serial offenders, and he is hopeful that there may be some change in that area. But we’ve been frustrated with engagement at the upper levels of the administration. It’s clear to us that – at least at this point in time – they want to appear open but only so they can check the box that they met with us. For example, we asked to participate in COSSA [the Committee on Safety and Accountability] – which for some reason was launched even though it conflicts with another administration created committee, the SPCSA [Student Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault] – because it seems like this is where the rubber is hitting the road for the administration’s policy strategy, and [they] flatly denied us access. We tried to work through the Alumni Council, and [found] molasses there too. We proposed to the Dean of the College that we would help organize and fund a set of immediate, concrete actions, but were ignored. Some of the proposed items were based on the findings of the first annual community symposium on sexual assault. We weren’t really getting anywhere at all. So [two or three weeks ago] there was the second annual community symposium on sexual assault, which is hosted by the [SPCA]. [At that event,] we formally announced ourselves as an organization and published our web site – a soft launch, if you will – and said, ‘here we are, here’s what we’ve been doing over the past [few months], here are our suggestions to the College and our recommendations going forward.’ We were received very well by the audience.

TDR: What makes your approach to the problem of sexual assault on the campus unique?

More so than anything, we believe that we’re unique because of the broad coalition of support that we’ve been forming. What we’ve been trying to do is, like you at The Dartmouth Review, provide an alternative viewpoint and platform for all of the different constituents that make up Dartmouth. We think it’s absolutely essential that everybody be involved and engaged in finding a solution because it’s a community problem. For all of us to stay informed, to stay together, to hear a viewpoint other than the one the administration puts forth, to be more directly engaged with students and what’s happening on campus, and to act collectively – that’s what DartmouthChange is all about. 

TDR: Do you have any specific policy recommendations for the administration?

Struble: One of the things we would like to see is a reliable set of data that gives us an accurate sense of the problem. At the moment, we really don’t have an honest understanding of what really is the scope and severity of the problem. Are things bad or are they worse? How do we compare with other colleges and universities? [Sexual assault is obviously a moral problem, first and foremost, but if you look at it from a business perspective, with tuition so high, parents and students are really curious about what kind of return on investment are they getting. The safety and the general social environment and the integrity of that environment are of concern for students and parents as they’re looking at different colleges. There’s really no way for them to have an honest comparison across campuses. Now, there are numbers out there, largely as a result of the Clery Act, which was passed in 1990 and requires any institute of higher education that receives federal funding to report the number of sexual assaults that happen on campus each year. Based on these numbers, we know that Dartmouth has a pretty high number of incidences per capita relative to its peer institutions. But there is still a great deal of argument about what these numbers actually mean. As we know, with sexual assault, the reported incidences are really just a fraction of what actually happens. Based on this reality, there is some thought out there that higher rates of reporting might not necessarily correlate actual higher [rates of] incidence.  It might actually mean that you have an environment that is better for reporting, which would be great. We just have no idea. These numbers aren’t good enough for us to compare. Before we do anything else, we need an established, independent way of ascertaining when, where, and how sexual assault is happening and whether or not the administration’s efforts had any effect to date.

TDR: Beyond quantifying the number of issues and understanding what the metrics are, have you advanced any policy initiatives?

 Struble: After we get a better sense of the data, we’d like first and foremost to see more education. And to be clear, we’re not talking about the didactic, everyone has to sit in the classroom and get beaten on the head with this stuff kind of education that everyone immediately thinks about. There can be much more nuanced and interesting types of discussion and open learning that can happen throughout students’ time on campus. We think that that’s absolutely essential. Right now, the only thing that is really done is the Sex Signals program, which is mandatory for all incoming freshmen, but there’s not really anything else after that. The College is now instituting a new bystander intervention program, which you might have heard about. They’ve been touting it for about three years, [and] it’s taken them three years to actually do set it in motion. While we’re extremely hopeful about it, we fear that because it’s not mandatory, it might not have [the desired effect]. It’s a small pilot program, and it’s certainly not the silver bullet we’ve all been looking for. At the same time, there are also some low hanging fruit that we’re surprised the College has attempted to tackle yet. 60 to 70 to 75 percent of rapes, depending upon what research you consult, are committed by serial offenders. That’s just too easy. Get rid of those people, somehow address that problem, and you address a massive amount of pain and difficulty on campus and with students. We’d like the College to understand that this is a civil rights issue. It’s a civil right of every student on campus to have an education free from the threat of violence. I’m not sure that the administration has been taking that seriously enough when you look at the lack of focus on prevention that I think we’ve had over the last 40 years of co-education. 

TDR: Based on your experience, do you think that as a rule, the College would do better to have more alumni involvement in day-to-day issues and its approach to larger problems within the community? 

Absolutely. I can understand that it’s more of a management headache for the administration, but I think [having more alumni involvement] is essential. Talking about the problem of sexual assault, we’re all part of the problem, we’re all part of the solution, right? Alumni are absolutely key. We have a strong voice in terms of our donations, the brand we helped build around the College, our own actions when we go back and visit campus, our decision to send our children to Dartmouth, and our work in advising the Greek system. We’re essential. We are Dartmouth, as much as students that on campus right now, as much as the faculty, as much as Hanover community members.

 TDR: Have you been following the #realtalk debate over the last few days?

 Yeah. It sounds like it’s been a crazy week for everybody on campus.

 TDR: From the perspective of a concerned alumna who is engaged with some of the problems that they have been mentioning, how do you view the protest and the administration’s response to it?

 I’m just sorry that it has come to this point. We see this as an indication of the sexual assault’s severity on this campus and how it has reached a point where it really needs to be addressed head-on. After all of these years, [DartmouthChange] hopes that all constituents can get involved and work with the administrators on the ground to come up with a real solution to this problem. We, personally, can’t claim to know the solution. There isn’t a silver bullet. Our recommendations are just a starting point that we put forth after some months research and thought. We are obviously open and welcome to all input. That’s the only way we’re going to get beyond this, with full participation and engagement from all community members.

 TDR: Well, we certainly wish you the best of luck in the pursuit of your goal. Thank you very much for speaking with us today. 

— Nick Desatnick