Outside, Looking In
This June I tagged along on a tour of my alma mater with my teenage cousin. Like high school students everywhere, he’s looking at colleges, reading brochures and—most importantly—listening to what students tell him about their schools.
Our guide was fine, I suppose. He made sure to say he rushed a fraternity and he pointed out some non-Greek areas as “alternative” social options. I quickly recognized the sly language that creates a mainstream culture and an “other” culture, and I asked if he knew anyone who lived in affinity houses. (I loved Foley House, the College-owned non-exclusive, coeducational, cooperative-living house.) “Sure,” he said, but he failed to offer any information about those options. He also failed to acknowledge the press Dartmouth has received this year regarding protests from a group of students—Real Talk Dartmouth—asking for discussions about sexual assaults, racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and other community ills.
Still, I sold dear old Dartmouth as well as I could. I took my cousin out to lunch with a highly respected professor who’s remained a good friend. I bought him a T-shirt hip enough to simply sport the word “green.” I showed him my favorite spots on campus, in quaint Hanover and across the river in Vermont. We explored some of the amazing offerings available in the arts and we saw the sustainability-advocating Big Green Bus. Later I emailed him my favorite poem by Robert Frost, class of 1896; asked him to listen to words from Mister Rogers (Fred Rogers ’50), who spoke at my Commencement; and mentioned Mindy Kaling ’01, Shonda Rhimes ’91, Kirsten Gillibrand ’88, Louise Erdrich ’76 and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel ’25).
But my cousin is not applying. This smart, funny, political, talented student will not even try to get into the College, and, frankly, I don’t blame him. “I didn’t really like Dartmouth,” he told me, “because 60 percent of the students were in a fraternity or sorority and because of all the sexual assault.”
He has a point. Dartmouth is known for its Greek system and now its sexual assaults. It’s a community built on exclusivity and privilege, traditions that breed the equally dangerous crimes and hatred that earn the College press.
It’s hard to be a Dartmouth alumna, because I am truly ambivalent, filled with love and hate, loyalty and shame. I learned a ton while an undergraduate, thankfully without personal stories of hazing and hate crimes. Rather, I learned to read Caribbean-American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, learned how it felt to be an other and learned I wanted to work to help other others. In short, I spent four years living in a place where Lorde’s idea of the “mythical norm”—where the “trappings of power reside” in those who are “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure”—was not so much mythical as actual.
Greek houses and senior and secret societies create disparate communities, based—from what I could tell—on many of Lorde’s categories. We stood divided on a tiny campus. Friends rushed Greek houses, conforming to stereotypes and throwing open parties. Then “tapping” began: Connected students were secretly invited to join senior and secret societies that wielded power across the campus and through alumni.
This all felt anachronistic in the early 2000s, when I wrote opinion columns inThe Dartmouth that cost me friendships, and it feels even more anachronistic today. In 2001 a group of students—we called ourselves the Dartmouth Student Force and were open to all—plastered the campus with provocative posters, wrote letters to the trustees and eventually produced a book of personal essays for incoming students that addressed essentially the same problems student protesters address today. We had very little effect, if any, on changing the culture. People feared certain frats, rapes were reported (and not reported) and racist, homophobic, classist and anti-Semitic incidents occurred. Evidently these things still happen today.
So what will it take to change our College on the Hill, to be proud of our Ivy League institution rather than reluctant to include it on a resume? I had assumed money and media attention would make a difference, but although those may help, they won’t override the thrills of exclusivity. As long as the administration continues to recognize these Greek houses and senior and secret societies—such overtly privileged and exclusive organizations—students at Dartmouth, as people do everywhere, will continue to join groups that offer privilege and prestige, cost money and divide.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about Dartmouth today is that even the grassroots-minded progressives, the noble misfits who stage protests and speak for those with smaller voices, are somewhat connected to one of those exclusive, privileged groups: Casque & Gauntlet. This spring I wondered why I was late to hear about Real Talk Dartmouth and why hundreds of alumni had signed petitions before I had. It turns out the organizing has taken place largely within a senior society—granted, one known for valuing community and respect, but still exclusive and reliant on tapping—and its alumni association. I’ve since been told that Casque & Gauntlet was the only place that felt safe to many of these student protesters. This is, of course, the saddest news of all, but I know plenty of students and alumni who wouldn’t feel welcome in that “safe” building—I know I would not enter. Consequently, even this action toward change is not collective. It is divided.
A friend of mine, Christopher Schons ’88, compared our alma mater to other institutions that appeared impervious to change before ultimately collapsing. “I hope the status quo at Dartmouth will collapse also,” he wrote me, “and give way to the College we know it can be.” I can’t think of a better, more ambivalently Dartmouth way to capture such hope.
Abbye E. Meyer is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Connecticut. She has been published in The Children’s Literature Association Quarterly and The Huffington Post, and she has been working and teaching with nonprofit education organizations and schools in the Boston area for much of the past decade.