On Power and Dissent

by Janelle Ruley | 11/8/99 6:00am

I went to EKT and AXA on Friday night. I hung out and danced and even drank a little. I saw my friends, and I had a good time. Had the subject come up, I would have said to anyone in either basement that I think the Greek System should be eliminated completely and without hesitation.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Many have said yes. It's an issue I grapple with every day -- how do I justify my enjoyment of the benefits of the Greek System while fundamentally being opposed to its continued existence? Who am I to be critical of something that has meant so much to so many of friends, something of which I have never been a part? I'll respond now the same way I did when Julia Levy, reporter for The Dartmouth, asked me: I go to houses to see my friends. On Friday and Saturday nights, that's where I can find most of them, and that's where they hold their programming events during the week. I go to houses because it is the primary social outlet on this campus.

And that is precisely what I'd like to change. It's not my intention to negate or even disagree with my friends' positive experiences. When I say the Greek System should go, it's my plea for the future of the College, not just a disregard for the present. I've asked our Trustees to make radical change because I believe that if Dartmouth is ever to realize its potential as an institution of excellence, the Greek System has to go right now.

Randy Kennedy, in his [Sunday, Nov. 7, 1999] New York Times piece, asked one basic question: can the culture of a place be changed without first being destroyed? I submit that the answer is no. At Dartmouth College in 1999, the answer is no. The nature of undergraduate student life here is such that nothing else matters so long as the Greek System exists. Remember the Ghetto Party? How long was the campus riled up? One week? Two maybe? We've been talking about the Greek System's impact of social life since before Coeducation. I was near tears that fateful Wednesday in February when the Student Life Initiative became very public. It was abundantly clear to me that what students care most passionately and most loudly about is the Greek System. No issue of race or gender or global problem will ever engender the strength of response and involvement than one that strikes at house affiliations.

Part of the power (and problematic nature) of the System and its hold on our social culture is that it precludes dissenting opinion. I've seen that happen in the media as well as in current campus dialogue. In The Dartmouth a week ago was a very lengthy news article about a group of five seniors (of which I am one) who talked with the Committee on the Student Life Initiative about ending the Greek System. This article was one of the first I've read that has given significant space to people willing to speak publicly about ending the Greek System.

Perhaps that says more about current opinion than the publication of that opinion. Just as I am not affiliated, I am not on the directorate of The Dartmouth. I have no control over what is printed or what people choose to say. Yet still I am dismayed to observe that coverage of the Initiative has been heavily reflective of Greek voices. Why is it news that people are "anti-Greek"? That five people are dismissed as a "small faction" and thereby disempowered sends a message to the rest of the community that dissenting opinion does not matter and is not worth expressing. I don't care about hate mail as much as I do about voices that are silenced. When there is only one daily newspaper, that newspaper's bias is transformed into power; when a newspaper has power, the word "unbiased" becomes impotent and dissenting voices are marginalized.

During a reception commemorating the Trustee vote to admit women students to Dartmouth held in November of 1996, Trustee Kate Stith-Cabranes delivered an address to kick off the event. She commented: "Let me tell you that from my perspective, it was a bizarre debate, this debate about whether Dartmouth could have women and still be Dartmouth." As current students we don't understand how this place is different from how it was in 1970. But we certainly care about it and can see that it has retained a unique character. I ask you now, "Can Dartmouth eliminate the Greek System and still be Dartmouth?"

After all, isn't that what we're debating: how to negotiate a balance between the Dartmouth we know and the Dartmouth we would like to see? What could be an innocuous question has polarized a debate that is not about choosing a "side." The College is fortunate to be a place that rarely inspires indifference from its community; chances are that if you know the place, you have some sort of emotional investment in it.

What are we so afraid of as to prohibit dissention in the current dialogue? That when we come back, Hanover will look entirely different? Or that it will feel different? Or that the students won't be as special as we are? Perhaps that is exactly how alumni from before coeducation feel about the impact the admission of women students has had. Regardless, their feelings haven't changed our experience. The reality is that Dartmouth will continue long after we graduate, and it will be home to a new breed of student. We have the power now to shape that future -- the Trustees are listening.

In the 1993 report by the Committee on Diversity and Community at Dartmouth, it was noted: "There could be no more intellectually debilitating environment than one that encourages sameness." In response to unpopular beliefs I've articulated, I've been told that I am not a leader because people won't follow me. My definition of leadership, though, has little to do with followers and much to do with empowerment. Five seniors have come together to offer an opinion that Dartmouth social life will only change if the Greek System is eliminated. Agree with us? Speak up; don't allow yourself to be marginalized. Disagree with us? Don't shut us out of the dialogue. Show us how.

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