Is Dartmouth on the Decline?

by Sakina Abu Boakye and Min Kyung Jeon | 3/27/14 6:51pm

Recent controversies surrounding Greek life, sexual assault, administration upheavals and most recently, declines in application numbers have spurred some to speculate that Dartmouth is, to put it lightly, at a crossroads — perhaps even a slump. Upon hearing about the 14 percent drop in regular decision applicants this January, many students voiced concerns that the value of their degree will drop. However, the College has been no stranger to controversy in past decades, many of which touched upon issues still relevant today. This raises the question: is Dartmouth’s current predicament indeed unprecedented? And if not, how has the College recovered from similar controversies?


History professor emerita Marysa Navarro, who joined the faculty in 1968, said that though most community members supported the inclusion of women on campus beginning in 1972, a minority of students, administrators and alumni quietly opposed coeducation.

“Because of the resistance of the alumni to coeducation, Dartmouth pretended that the presence of women did not change the institution,” Navarro said.

What started as perhaps a quiet but grudging acceptance of diversity in the College morphed into a heated debate in the 1980s.


English professor Donald Pease, who joined the faculty in 1973, said that beginning in 1980, Dartmouth instituted several progressive policies to cultivate a more accepting climate for women and people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities. Fraternities faced losing their recognition if they did not follow minimum standards for behavior, such as maintaining civility and respect for women in their parties, Pease said.

The 1980s, however, were also marked by slander, destruction and lawsuits, stemming in large part from articles in The Dartmouth Review, the student publication founded in 1980 by a group of students saying they were disillusioned with the direction the College was taking.

The Review said the administration weakened the curriculum with what it referred to as “victim studies,” and the publication began running stories about faculty who taught these courses, according to a 1989 article in the New York Times. The Review also ran columns that called the dean of social sciences the guardian of “little Latin Commies” and a history professor “androgynous.” In the wake of the resulting uproar, faculty voted to condemn the articles.

Music professor William Cole, who taught at Dartmouth from 1974 until 1990, gained national attention for his clashes with The Review. In 1983, The Review ran a story describing Cole, who is black, as looking “like a used Brillo pad.” Cole subsequently sued The Review for slander and though the case was ultimately settled outside of court, the tension between Cole and The Review did not subside.

In February 1988, several staff members of The Review entered Cole’s classroom with cameras and tape recorders. A scuffle ensued, which resulted in Cole breaking one of the cameras. Dartmouth’s Committee on Standards charged three editors of The Review with harassment and disorderly conduct. The students were found guilty and suspended.

In response, the students brought Dartmouth to New Hampshire court, citing that their rights of due process and free speech had been violated. In 1989, a New Hampshire judge agreed, citing bias against The Review from one member of the Committee on Standards and reinstated the charged students. Cole ultimately left the College in 1990, claiming that his clashes with The Review “totally blackballed” him.

Cole’s experiences garnered huge amounts of outside coverage, most famously in the form of a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS in 1988. The interview, said music professor Bill Summers, who has taught at Dartmouth for three decades was far more controversial than the recent Rolling Stone article on hazing.

In late 1985, a group of students built several plywood shanties on the Green to protest the College’s investments in companies that conducted business in the apartheid-era South Africa. In January 1986, another group of students demolished the shanties. National headlines followed.

College President James Freedman was also subject to The Review’s criticism. In 1988, Freedman, who was Jewish, was depicted as Adolf Hitler in the paper’s pages.

At the beginning of the 1990s, over 2,000 people joined in a Dartmouth United Against Hate rally in an attempt to kindle campus unity and condemn The Review. In a move that stunned campus, Freedman publicly denounced the publication’s “reprehensible pattern” of bigotry and requested that community members instead engage in civil discourse when they have differences of opinion.

“It really dramatically reduced tension on campus,” Summers said. “It basically gave the Dartmouth community permission to stop fighting.”

In Summers’ opinion, this action by Freedman that allowed campus to focus on progressive academic changes. Among these turn-of-the-decade initiatives were the creation of the minor, the culminating experience as a distributive requirement, the Presidential Scholars program and the expansion of the Collis Center.


In the 1990s, as Dartmouth’s academic opportunities advanced under Freedman’s leadership, the campus filled with tense debate about the future of Greek houses.

“There is a long history of the College struggling to find the implication of both the single-sex fraternity and sorority issue,” Summers said, “but also the extent of use of alcohol.”

A faction of students disconcerted with what they perceived to be the divisiveness of single-sex Greek houses and alcohol-related incidents began to explore the idea of coeducational fraternities. Freedman also made clear his goal of diverting attention away from Greek houses by enacting a ban on kegs.

Then-student body president Andrew Beebe ’93 sparked the Greek house debate among students. In a 1992 speech, Beebe advocated making the Greek system coeducational. This statement pushed the campus into a forceful debate over the future of Greek life, resembling current campus climate.

The idea of moving toward coed houses gained traction during Beebe’s administration and continued to build support in the mid-90s. In 1996, an unidentified group covered the campus in posters accusing fraternities of rape and homophobia. Among the written accusations was the statement, “Frats assault. Frats rape. Frats suck.”

In 1998, the College attracted national coverage for a “ghetto party” hosted by Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Xi Delta sorority in 1998. Several editorials from the two Greek houses involved failed to pacify certain members on campus, and discussion around the issue continued for the rest of the term.

This decade ended with a bold declaration from incoming College President James Wright in the winter of 1999. As a part of a new program called the Student Life Initiative, Wright and the Board of Trustees planned to “end Greek system as we know it,” as a headline in a February 1999 issue of The Dartmouth read. In an interview with The Dartmouth, Wright said he and the Trustees were committed to not only transforming the Greek system but also realizing other social and residential changes.

Summers described the response from students to this initiative as “volcanic.” In February 1999, 1,000 students, most of them affiliated, marched to Wright’s house on Webster Avenue. The group supported keeping single-sex fraternities and sororities.

The same year, the Coed Fraternity Sorority Council voted to cancel all Winter Carnival parties to be hosted by Greek houses, sparking more protests.


In the past few years, Dartmouth has seen a whirlwind of controversies erupting around the same issues that surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s.

The March 2012 Rolling Stone article titled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses” decried the hazing rituals at Dartmouth fraternities and invited a maelstrom of media scrutiny. A year later, a group of students under the name Real Talk protested during Dimensions weekend to call attention to campus problems with racism, sexism and homophobia. Members of Real Talk later received anonymous death threats. In response, the administration canceled classes for a day of reflection and discussion, and numerous news teams traveled to campus to cover the controversy.

Last May, the Department of Education launched a Title IX investigation into the College, and in July Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority co-hosted a “Bloods and Crips”-themed party. In January, adding to recent controversy, a student posted a “rape guide” targeting a member of the Class of 2017 on Bored at Baker, an anonymous Dartmouth message board where students routinely post offensive comments.

A precipitous 14 percent decline in application numbers for the Class of 2018 furthered students’ fears of a tarnished image.

Speculations have linked the drop to the snowballing effect of recent controversies. The scandals have revolved around issues of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia on campus and spurred debates about Dartmouth’s degree of acceptance of historically underrepresented or disenfranchised groups. Such scandals have often been tied to debates over the Greek system’s influence on campus culture.


Jeffrey Durso-Finley ’90, director of college counseling at the Lawrenceville School, said that he does not consider the drop in applications to be part of a pernicious trend. Other liberal arts schools have been experiencing similar declines because of the overall decline in the college-bound population, he said.

Durso-Finley said he has not encountered applicants who have ruled out applying to a college because of their perception of campus issues. He said he believes that more so than the application rate, the matriculation rate best represents outsiders’ attitudes toward a college. If an accepted student selects another school over Dartmouth, that decision should be a greater concern for the College, he said.

The College’s yield rate has hovered between 48 and 52 percent since 2004.

Dartmouth has, however, increasingly relied on early decision since 2010. The rate of early decision students admitted as a percentage of total students admitted has hovered at around 20 percent, a level not experienced since the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

Sean Logan, director of college counseling at Phillips Academy, said that the recent controversies are not representative of the character of the Dartmouth community, though he added that applicants from high schools that lack access to information about might be more susceptible to believing the media’s negative portrayals of Dartmouth.

Dartmouth faculty’s decision in 2013 to eliminate college credits for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other such high school courses, Logan said, probably played only a minor role in reducing applications to Dartmouth this year. The types of students who apply to Dartmouth are usually attracted to the College’s strong sense of community and academic rigor, not the prospect of graduating early, he said.

Navarro said she thinks that the controversies that Dartmouth has faced are not confined to the College, but are problems affecting other institutions as well. However, Navarro said the College’s recent scandals related to sexual assault were never experienced at this magnitude — even in the 1970s.

Furthermore, Navarro believes that for Dartmouth to surpass this reputation of being in a slump, the campus would have to move beyond merely acknowledging its issues and take action.

“The institution is far more complex than it was then,” Navarro said. “The kind of passive acceptance that was the acceptance of coeducation cannot be the same.”

Summers, by contrast, said he believes that the current controversies reflect a “tepid problem that got unprecedented national press and national notoriety.” Summers said that issues related to alcohol use and the Greek system are certainly not unique to Dartmouth, but that they are still important to discuss.

Putting the perceived gravity of this decade’s controversies aside, it is hard to deny they bear a striking resemblance to past scandals.

Many of these adversities, especially those during Freedman’s administration, were improved by a series of academic and residential initiatives aimed at enhancing the bond among students and increasing the general campus sensitivity to the experiences of underrepresented groups.

Despite all of the controversies of the 1992-93 year, the Class of 1997 applicant pool was cited as the strongest that the College had ever seen. Summers said the spike in applications and the strength of the applicant pool can be attributed to the vast array of academic programs that Freedman created.

Pieces of our recent campus climate issues have roots in the past. Perhaps the key to resolving today’s tension is to look to the past, adapting previous solutions that worked toward uniting campus around a common commitment to intellectualism and acceptance of differences. The Greek system, racism, sexual assault — these are issues that will undoubtedly resurface and continue to shape the direction the College takes. So, is Dartmouth in a slump? It depends on who you ask and what statistics you weigh more heavily. What is certain, though, is that the cycle of scandals dating from the 1970s has and will continue to push the College, willingly or not, into progressive changes that will redefine Dartmouth culture.