Initiative stuns student body

by Brad Russo | 8/1/99 5:00am

On February 9, 1999 students found a letter from the Board of Trustees and College President James Wright in their Hinman mail boxes. The letters, written subtly with no fanfare, were mostly ignored -- after all, administrative memos are common and are generally deposited in the nearby trashcans without ever being read.

However, this letter was different than most. In almost coded language, the Trustees used the mass mailing to announce their historic Social and Residential Life Initiative. It was the Trustees' vision that the College's future should be guided by five overarching principles.

While four of these principles -- calling for decentralized dining and more on-campus housing -- and the Trustee's method for announcing the Five Principles would have sparked considerable campus debate by themselves, the third principle stated that residential living should be "substantially coeducational."

By the next day, the cryptic principles were dissected and their meanings were made clear -- the Greek system was included as a prime target of reform.

"Trustees to end Greek system as we know it," screamed the headline in The Dartmouth the next morning. The newspaper's interview with Wright clarified the Trustees' Initiative, which he said would be the biggest change to the College since women were first admitted 26 years ago.

While in the coming days the term "substantially" continued to go undefined and some conflicting information was presented about the impact on the College's fraternities and sororities, it was clear the Trustees desired serious changes to Greek life -- increasing the interaction of men and women in the houses and de-emphasizing the role of alcohol within the system.

The announcement was made just days before the annual Winter Carnival weekend -- a weekend traditionally consisting largely of Greek parties. That weekend became the first in a series of martyrdoms resulting from the Initiative. Greek leaders voted to cancel all Greek events that weekend -- to send a signal of Greek opposition to the plan and to prevent embarrassing incidents from being broadcast around the nation.

That fear was magnified by a press corps camped in Hanover to cover the event. The Trustees' Initiative was covered by numerous media outlets including the Associated Press, Fox News, the BBC, the Boston Globe and The New York Times.

James Wright also became a martyr for the Initiative. The newly appointed College president was initially well-liked by the students. Ironically, Wright was a frequent visitor of Greek houses for dinners and other social functions -- visits he was forced to forgo after the Trustees' bombshell announcement.

Gone along with the Greek visits was student satisfaction with the president. Wright became the visible and recognizable symbol of the unpopular Initiative. Unlike the Trustees, who are rarely seen on campus and largely unknown to students, Wright was attacked around campus and in columns in The Dartmouth for the Five Principles.

The night after the announcement, approximately 1,000 students gathered in front of the president's house and chanted protests before loudly singing the alma mater.

"Judas, Brutus, Arnold, Wright" read one sign hung from a Greek house window decrying the College president as a traitor. Some students even circulated a petition calling for Wright's immediate resignation.

Wright made his first public appearance following the Initiative announcement at the opening ceremony of Winter Carnival. The event, which turned into a protest rally, was a sign of things to come for the unusual weekend.

Instead of Psi Upsilon fraternity's annual and popular keg jumping event, the fraternity turned their frozen lawn into a held a protest ground. Numerous students spoke from the fraternity's porch as crowd-members wore ribbons to show their opposition to the plan.

The weekend was nearly consumed by the week's announcement. Even visiting alumni spent much of their time meeting with Greek leaders trying to craft a plan for dealing with the Initiative.

While the campus and the broader Dartmouth community returned to their normal routines in the coming weeks, the shadow of the Initiative has continued to hang over many events and activities.

After the campus calmed to the issues of Greek life in the Initiative, students began to investigate other reforms called for in the same announcement -- more students living on-campus, dining decentralized from its current location in Thayer dining hall, greater choices and greater continuity in residential living options, the reduction in unsafe alcohol use, the addition of greater student-controlled social spaces.

With much still to be resolved in the specifics of the Trustees' vision, the question of how the initiative will affect aspects of College life remains on everybody's mind.

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