Declaration of Independence

The choice not to pledge a frat was the right one, and I’m glad I made it.

On what I remember as a not-yet-too-cold night in the fall of 1980, I spent several hours of my sophomore year in the basement of a Dartmouth fraternity—it doesn’t matter which one—trying to decide whether to pledge.

Early in the evening a senior who the year before had befriended me on the College basketball team shouted to me over the music that the brothers were prepared to offer me the third bid of the night. I hadn’t been thinking in terms of rank, but it was clear that my friend—whom I admired greatly—thought I would understand that this was a high honor.

Within a few minutes two others were being toasted (more precisely, they were being made to chug), and my friend was asking me if I wanted to go next.

“No, thanks,” I told him, and the party went on. Through the night he came back to me again and again.

“Whenever you are ready.”

“How about it?”

“Just say the word.”

I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I believe I understand now why I refused to join my peers as they pledged their sacred honor to the brotherhood and, by extension, to the College’s Greek system.

It’s not because I was more sober than the rest of them. I wasn’t.

And it’s not because I found the hazing morally objectionable. To that point the fraternizing—while of course it had involved excessive drinking—had been almost entirely affirming. Only later would I learn what my peers went through to fulfill their commitment: the iron fist of pledge term that is jammed inside the velvet glove of pledge night. Had I said yes to my friend’s invitation I suspect I would have seen my pledge through; after all, like so many 19-year-olds, I fancied myself as capable a partier as the next guy.

I chose not to pledge that night for the simple reason that I had discovered just enough of an alternate path to make me realize that I could thrive at Dartmouth without joining a frat.

The ensuing days and weeks and months were among the most satisfying of my life. Soon I was welcomed into Dartmouth’s most often overlooked affinity network, sometimes referred to as “GDI” for “goddamned independent.” My own psychic need for belonging was no less than any other late adolescent, and if pledging a fraternity filled this need for so many of my fellow ’83s, the decision not to pledge filled it for me.

Whether they were rejected by a fraternity or were the ones who did the rejecting, an assortment of “independents” became my closest friends at Dartmouth. (I claim many now as lifelong friends.) And if sometimes the only difference was that we sat around partying in our dorm rooms instead of in a fraternity basement, at other times the difference was much bigger than that.

As a GDI at Dartmouth I felt liberated—to immerse myself in my studies, dedicate myself to a sport (I switched from basketball to volleyball) and an extracurricular passion (a student magazine we called The Harbinger) and squeeze every last ounce of opportunity out of the D-Plan (my off-campus destinations included London, Paris and Washington, D.C.).

I am not suggesting that I wouldn’t have gotten a fabulous education if I had joined that fraternity. But I know the fabulous education I did get was made possible because I didn’t pledge.

As I read the now-notorious accounts of Andrew Lohse ’12, first published in The Dartmouth in January and now spread virally across the nation via Janet Reitman’s feature article in an April issue of Rolling Stone, two things come welling up within me—the memories of my fateful decision to pledge GDI in 1980 and a renewed astonishment at the capacity of Dartmouth’s Greek system to perpetuate itself.

Whether Lohse’s indictment of the Greek system is precise in all its details—whatever the actual contents of the now famous SAE “vomelet”—his account is entirely consistent with scenes I can recall from my nights in the basements of Dartmouth fraternities in the early 1980s.

Clearly these institutions are very, very effective at preserving and transmitting their organizational culture across generations of students. Surely this culture includes many noble values, traditions and practices—a genuine camaraderie, a spirit of community service—but only the willfully blind can fail to see that alcohol abuse, misogyny and hazing are also on the list of bequests.

Outgoing President Jim Yong Kim is quoted in Rolling Stone as saying, “One of the things you learn as an anthropologist, you don’t come in and change the culture.” Having spent the last 25 years leading organizations far smaller and less complex than Dartmouth, I have no beef with that way of thinking.

But there is another tradition at Dartmouth—call it “the road less traveled” or goddamned independence—that is as much a part of the College’s DNA as the Greek system. And I believe that those who care about the College and its students should undertake a more concerted effort to understand, celebrate and promote this tradition.

Across the decades the College has conducted study after study of social life on campus—sometimes the studies have taken the Greek system as a central focus of their inquiry, sometimes not. And more than a decade has passed since President James Wright launched his ill-fated Student Life Initiative.

But has anyone ever investigated thoroughly the social dynamics and emotional and psychological supports that enable so many students to resist the lure of the fraternities, even while living out their freshman and sophomore years within Dartmouth’s Greek-dominated social status quo?

As I look back on the night I spent in that fraternity basement more than 30 years ago I realize how perilously close I came to giving in. I am not passing judgment on my many friends who pledged that night—I’m simply saying that, for me, the choice not to pledge a frat was the right one, and I’m glad I made it.

So what would it take to encourage more students to pledge GDI?

What could be done to communicate more effectively to freshmen that there exist at Dartmouth viable social alternatives to pledging a Greek organization? What kinds of institutional interventions would help returning sophomores recognize the abundance of GDI signposts that exist at Dartmouth? What would it take to support more intentionally and expansively that sizable share of Dartmouth’s extraordinary 18- and 19-year-olds for whom the path of independence from the Greek system offers the best chance of taking advantage of all that the College has to offer?

I am guessing that what was true in my days at Dartmouth is still true today, that many who pledge GDI line up for a time as fierce opponents of the Greek system, as I did, their initial opposition mirroring quite closely fraternal loyalty. And I am sure it is also true, as it was in my day, that this way of seeking to create an adult identity—by defining oneself in relation to the Greek system—gives way in due time to a more varied and well-rounded self-understanding for the vast majority of Dartmouth students, whether Greeks or GDI. I am sure the ages of 18 and 22 remain very, very far apart on a spectrum of emotional maturity.

Of course it is right and good that the controversy swirling once again around Dartmouth’s fraternities should earn renewed attention from the College’s students and faculty and administration. And of course relations with the Greek system should figure prominently on the agenda of the new search committee charged with finding Kim’s replacement.

But as I reflect on my experience in light of l’affaire Lohse, it seems to me the fundamental challenge facing the College is the same as it was in my undergraduate days. The fundamental challenge is not that of reforming the Greek system, but rather that of strengthening Dartmouth’s less-heralded tradition, the tradition of goddamned independence.

John Fanestil is executive director of the Foundation for Change, a nonprofit foundation supporting leaders, organizations and networks in under-served communities of the San Diego/Tijuana region. He is a Rhodes Scholar and author of Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death: Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die.


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