The Sway of Social Spaces

by Emily Brigstocke and Josh Koenig | 5/15/14 8:22pm

In recent years, students, faculty and outside observers have linked Dartmouth’s Greek system to the perpetuation of sexual assault, with some pointing to gender segregation, intoxication and hazing as sources of sexual violence. But the existence of final clubs, undercover Greek systems, social houses and similar social arrangements at peer institutions may indicate that Dartmouth’s system does not dramatically differ from groups at other schools without a strong Greek presence, and there are some signs that Greek leaders at the College have edged toward reform.

Dartmouth students are not alone in struggling with questions about the nature of Greek life. Across the country, scholars, students and college administrators have attempted to tackle the thorny issue of sexual assault on college campuses, and that conversation has often focused on the role of Greek life in both potentially promoting and mitigating broken campus cultures.

Of 873 current undergraduates polled by The Dartmouth, nearly 57 percent responded that they believe there is a positive correlation between Greek life and instances of sexual assault. Among affiliated students, this percentage dropped only 10 points, so nearly half of affiliated students said they felt that a system they opted to join played a role in perpetuating sexual assault at the College.

Many students interviewed began a summary of their concerns with Greek spaces by stressing that most houses segregate students by gender. Among the College’s 31 Greek organizations, 28 are single-sex organizations — of the 2,168 active affiliated students in winter 2014, approximately 96 percent join single-sex, residential houses. Several sociological studies have argued that such organizations perpetuate dangerous conceptions of acceptable behavior toward the opposite sex.

National media has pointed to Dartmouth Greek organizations’ themed parties like “Cougar tails,” in addition to intrafraternity emails, as promoting troubling gender distinctions.

While students acknowledge Greek organizations’ sway on campus, many do not link sexual assault with Dartmouth’s Greek system.

“Although the Greek system has an influence in culture and student’s social life, the Greek system is not the responsible actor for sexual assault,” Dari Seo ’16, a member of Alpha Delta, said.

Dartmouth students are quick to argue that criticisms of Greek organizations nationally — and particularly at southern schools — do not apply to the system at the College, touted by its members as more inclusive. In last month’s public debate on the Greek system held in front of over 180 community members, public policy professor Charlie Wheelan ’88 and former Phi Delta Alpha fraternity president Mark Andriola ’14 called for better data and analysis on sexual assault and campus Greek organizations.

Other students, however, like Becca Rothfeld ’14, argue that whether Dartmouth’s fraternities are more open than Greek organizations on other campuses does not affect the issue of sexual assault.

“It might be the case that all of Dartmouth’s fraternities are painted purple, but that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the question of sexual assault,” Rothfeld, who is unaffiliated, said. “Similarly, I think that if it is the case that single-sex organizations that operate the way fraternities and sororities do promote sexual assault, then it doesn’t matter if they happen to be more open to people.”When it comes to gender, an issue Rothfeld emphasized, many at the College echo national concerns about the role of single-sex organizations.

“At single sex-spaces, there is definitely a certain power dynamic that is being pushed by certain people,” coed council president Evelyn Weinstein ’16 said. “Something really interesting happens when you have a room full of people of the same gender.”

But not all students agree with the idea that single-sex organizations inherently affect behavior. Al Johnson ’15 said membership in a single-sex organization has helped her feel safer on campus.

“When I go out, I start the night with 40 close friends, all of whom know how I act both within and outside of the classroom, and where my boundaries are,” Johnson said. “Having that network of girls who always have an eye on me makes me feel so much safer.”

Johnson added, however, that it would be “ignorant” to assume her experience is consistent with all other students’ experiences.

Power Dynamics

Those who point to gender segregation in the Greek system as exacerbating sexual assault often struggle to separate the issue from the role of alcohol in the Dartmouth social scene. Although 15 of the College’s Greek organizations are local, meaning that they are not beholden to national policies, the remaining 17 Greek organizations on campus must meet national membership guidelines, too.

While the three local sororities on campus may host events at which alcohol is served, national regulations often prohibit chapters from hosting similar events. And those sororities are far outnumbered by the fraternities on campus that are bound only by the College’s regulations in serving alcohol.

As a result, the majority of students who drink in Greek spaces will typically be served alcohol in a house controlled by men, even if they attend an event jointly hosted by a sorority.

“I do believe that it can lead to aproblematic balance of power whennational sororities have to rely on fraternities to hosttheirsocial events that involvealcohol,” Panhellenic Council president Rachel Funk ’15 said.

Funk noted that Panhell is working with national sororities and the College’s Greek Letter Organizations and Societies office to provide more social options, including more intersorority themed parties.

Alcohol plays a further role in the pledge terms of many Greek organizations. Some students, like former Greek Leadership Council moderator Elliot Sanborn ’14, argue that hazing and the use of alcohol during pledge terms help create dangerous spaces.

“Hazing can dramatically and permanently change the type of behavior you see as normal,” Sanborn said. “The flip side is that alcohol is very clearly the number one date-rape drug.”

Following that logic, he said, one could draw the conclusion that Greek organizations perpetuate sexual assault on campus.

“If you think that a culture of hazing and a culture of excessive drinking are intractable Greek problems at Dartmouth, and you think those two things exacerbate sexual assault, then you’d logically think that Greek life at Dartmouth is exacerbating sexual assault,” he said.

GLC moderator Alistair Glover ’15 and GLC public relations chair Katherine Fox ’15 agreed only to answer questions via email, citing a lack of time to meet in person. When The Dartmouth offered additional time, and then subsequently provided a list of written questions concerning the criticisms presented above as well as other aspects of Greek life at the College, Fox responded only to an inquiry about the steps the GLC has taken to eradicate sexual assault. They did not respond to additional requests for comment.

A Greek System By Any Other Name?

Many colleges and universities have moved in recent years to eliminate Greek life on campus or to implement changes intended to drastically alter the nature of Greek houses. In the 1960s, Williams College took steps to ban Greek organizations on campus, and Amherst and Colby Colleges both followed suit in 1984. For many institutions that have modified campus Greek life in the last few years, a desire to eliminate sexual assault has played a large role in the reexamination of Greek life.

Trinity College, which announced a change to its Greek system last fall, required that its Greek houses become coed by 2016. Although dean of students Frederick Alford explicitly said that a concern for bolstered sexual assault prevention did not drive the decision, he cited a desire for more equal gender dynamics as a significant contributing factor.

Students at schools not noted for Greek life still described many of the same social challenges that are often attributed to the Greek houses.

Bowdoin College labels its eight social houses, which were designed as replacements for its Greek system in the 1990s, the “living rooms” of campus, but they also serve as its bars and meeting halls. And alcohol still flows freely on campus, current students note.

“As a freshman, I saw [social houses] pretty much as party spaces,” Bowdoin senior Sam Shapiro said. “This is somewhere where there is free beer, and as someone who’s not 21, that’s awesome.”

Though Harvard does not recognize campus Greek chapters, its 13 final clubs are single-sex.

Amherst College, now 30 years out from eliminating Greek life on its campus, has made headlines for failing to respond to sexual assault reports and for the dangerous party scene found in its off-campus houses. Many fraternities at Amherst simply relocated to off-campus houses when banned by the College. Amhest’s Board of Trustees announced May 6 that, starting this summer, it will enforce its ban on Greek membership by charging affiliated students with honor code violations.

While formerly affiliated alumni sometimes express anger or disappointment when their respective alma maters divest themselves of Greek life, some current students on non-Greek campuses, including Bowdoin junior Schuyler Nardelli, said that they are pleased that Greek life does not dominate their social scene.

“There’s all sorts of stigmas and stereotypes around schools with Greek life, and I kind of like that Bowdoin isn’t associated with all of that,” Nardelli said in an email to The Dartmouth.

A Move Toward Change

Many at the College disagree on whether or not Greek life at large should be linked directly to sexual assault, but many students said that the Greek community at Dartmouth has turned toward change. This past year, a combination of leadership from within Greek houses, external pressure and administrators’ urging has promoted new policies.

On Feb. 12, 2013, the GLC unanimously approved a new sexual assault misconduct policy that requires Greek members to attend a minimum of two sexual assault education sessions and sets stricter guidelines for sanctioning offenders, including social bans, bans on leadership positions in their houses and removal from membership entirely. This summer, the GLC requested that the College provide more sexual assault training resources to its members, resulting in a decision to provide optional Dartmouth Bystander Initiative training to Greek organizations.

The Greek community and the administration have made efforts to expand sexual violence and assault education, awareness, prevention and response, Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson said.

While the 2013 policy aimed to enforce member accountability for sexual violence, fraternities on campus can do more to combat sexual assault, Sanborn wrote in an email.

“Since Greek life holds such a dominant position on campus — particularly in controlling the flow of alcohol — there is a special responsibility for members of the Greek system to be aware of community issues like sexual violence,” he said.

Sexual assault prevention and survivor support training are available to all members of campus. The recently rebranded Movement Against Violence, for instance, has made a particular effort this spring to reach out beyond the Greek system, director of college health promotions Aurora Matzkin ’97 said.

Ongoing conversations within Greek organizations and across campus seem to suggest that further changes may be on the horizon.

A few days after last month’s debate on the Greek system, four senior fraternity members convened a sexual assault awareness panel at Chi Heorot fraternity. Members from every fraternity attended the event, panel organizer and former Bones Gate social chair Campbell Haynes ’14 said.

“We didn’t think this was going to be the end. We knew this was going to be the beginning,” Austin Major ’14, another event organizer and former Heorot president, said. “This is something that’s going to be a long and difficult process.”

Greek life at the College dates back to 1841. Students in single-sex residential fraternities and sororities are regulated under the auspice of the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Council, the National Association of Latino/a Fraternal Organizations and the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Coed houses are overseen by the Coed Council.

Rothfeld is a former member of The Dartmouth opinion staff. Major is a member of The Dartmouth staff.

Miguel Pena, Sara McGahan, Sera Kwon and Michael Qian contributed reporting.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!