Dartmouth Shifts—to the Right?

June 28, 2005

Last month, in an election to choose their representatives to Dartmouth College’s Board of Trustees, alumni bypassed four candidates nominated formally by the institution and chose instead two men who had criticized college policies that they believed restricted free speech, damaged fraternities and sororities, and diminished athletics programs. Just days before the election results were announced, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said that the college had clarified its policies in a way that made it “a national leader in the battle for free expression on campus.”

And last week, Dartmouth’s board ended a six-year-old moratorium barring the establishment of any new “selective residential social organizations” — read: Greek organizations — making way for the potential creation of new sororities, particularly. (At that same meeting, the trustees approved a $38 million expansion of athletics facilities, citing a backlog of needs.)

It was tempting to read those developments as signs that the college, which has been locked for years in contentious disagreements with a cadre of alumni who believe Dartmouth has abandoned some of its most honored traditions to bow to liberal political pressures, is responding to the recent alumni pressure by edging back to the right (or at least the center).

And sure enough, even though the newly elected trustees, Peter Robertson and Todd J. Zywicki, joined the board the week after the vote to end the Greek moratorium, some of Dartmouth’s alumni critics saw it just that way. Said John MacGovern, whose alumni group, the Hanover Institute, advocated the election of the new trustees:: “There has most certainly been a change in direction by the administration, and in all likelihood it comes as a result of the election” and the signals it sent from concerned alumni.

What MacGovern and others see a pattern, though, Dartmouth officials say is just a coincidence of timing involving the normal machinations of well-conceived college governance unfolding over several years. “There may be people who would like to see some causal relationship,” said James Larimore, dean of the college at Dartmouth, who made the recommendation to end the moratorium that the trustees approved last week. “The trustee election was not a factor at all. The work we’ve done with the Greek organizations to get them to this point preceded the recent trustee election by five years.”

Larimore calls the change in policy much more of a “natural progression” than a “seismic shift of any kind.” Dartmouth’s trustees declared the moratorium in 1999 in response to a perception that the college’s fraternities were dominating campus social life in a negative way, emphasizing alcohol use and exclusivity. In 2000, in drafting a broad “Student Life Initiative,” the trustees declared that the moratorium should stay in place for at least five years, until June 2005, while the college worked with the existing fraternities and sororities to raise the standards by which they operated.

Since that time, Larimore said, student leaders in and out of the Greek system and campus officials have collaborated to set new “standards of excellence” for the fraternities and sororities to meet in six categories, including scholarship and leadership, and students in the Greek system “have worked hard and the alumni have really stepped up and made some big changes.” Greek organizations did nearly 30,000 hours of community service last year, up significantly from years before, Larimore said. And he cited such developments as one fraternity’s sponsorship of an annual anti-homophobia program called “Why it’s not okay to yell ‘faggot’ from the front porch” (this from a frat where a member had done just that).

Last week’s trustee vote to end the moratorium, which gives Larimore the right to approve the creation of new Greek organizations, recognizes that progress, he said, adding that the change was most likely to result in more sororities, Dartmouth women are as interested as men in Greek life but have fewer than half as many options.

“There was a great deal of skepticism from alumni who believed we were out to get rid of Greek life,” Larimore said. “But our duty to the institution as administrators is to do what we think is right, to look at the confirming and disconfirming evidence on contested issues and figure out the correct way to go. That’s what we did here, and any other theory ignores the hard work students have put into things over the last five years.”

For his part, MacGovern said it didn’t really matter why Dartmouth has altered its policies on Greek life and other issues important to alumni like him. “As long as changes start being made, we don’t care if they acknowledge that the pushing made a difference.”

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Schools: Dartmouth College Cases: Dartmouth College: Abolition of Speech Code