Vandermause: Glorifying Guzzling

by Jon Vandermause | 9/22/14 6:48pm

College President Phil Hanlon is finally taking up arms against a sea of ugly press. Since the publication of the now infamous 2012 Rolling Stone exposé, Dartmouth has been rocked by unflattering media attention, including a 2013 New York Times article on Dartmouth’s handling of a “string of embarrassing episodes,” a slew of negative articles in the Huffington Post and a highly circulated media campaign by women’s rights group UltraViolet announcing that “Dartmouth has a rape problem.” The presidential steering committee, created nearly five months ago, has fielded ideas from students, faculty and alumni on the most effective ways to combat Dartmouth’s social maladies. This lengthy brainstorm is coming to a close; this past week, Hanlon met with Greek leaders. At the meeting, the group floated some solutions, which include a blanket ban on hard alcohol and the recent elimination of pledge term.

The IFC’s step is laudable because lasting and transformative reform will not trickle down by bureaucratic decree. The student body — not administrators — should be working toward a better Dartmouth. To accomplish that, we need to stop treating Dartmouth’s problems as public relations crises that Hanlon should solve. We are accountable for our worst practices, which are too often rationalized as artifacts of tradition or swept under the rug. To “move Dartmouth forward,” we need to have an honest discussion about the sources of harm on campus.

We must stop glorifying beer-guzzling.

Binge drinking, which has long plagued college campuses nationwide, is embedded in Dartmouth’s culture. Within the Greek system, which claims well over half of eligible undergraduate students, socializing is usually accompanied by massive amounts of alcohol. Tails events often feature gallons of hard liquor. Pong, Dartmouth’s venerated drinking game, involves consuming three beers in about a half hour — only two drinks shy of the National Institute of Health’s definition of binge drinking. We congratulate ourselves and ascribe these bizarre behaviors to a mythic “work hard, play hard” mentality, but we have no cause to celebrate. Excessive consumption of alcohol damages our bodies, brains, well-being and relationships. We must acknowledge the harm wrought by these habits.

We must treat each other with respect.

Our most pressing failure in this regard is the Greek system’s treatment of pledges. Fraternity members deliberately shroud their pledge terms in mystery, but details have emerged in recent years. The most famous revelation is Lohse’s 2012 column in The Dartmouth in which he offered a nightmarish account of his pledge term experiences as a “whale shit” wading through kiddie pools of human excrement. While Lohse’s motivations and credibility have been scrutinized, much of his account has been corroborated by another member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, according to a Dartblog.com post by Joe Asch ’79. These behaviors are not confined to fraternities. Sororities, too, have been shown to subject their new members to vicious hazing rituals.

Inflicting suffering on the vulnerable is not a healthy form of bonding. It is a violation of human dignity. The IFC’s ban suggests that Greek leaders are finally beginning to realize this, but it remains to be seen whether campus fraternities are prepared to match their words with their deeds. The absence of any new measures to enforce the new ban leaves reason for doubt.

The solution to this maladjusted mess is simple: Greek houses should find something better to do. Fraternities and sororities can be so much more than a faucet for Keystone. From summer 2012 to spring 2013, campus Greek houses on campus raised more than $310,000 for philanthropic causes. If philanthropy rather than binge drinking were at the core of Greek life, this money would seem like a drop in the bucket. Instead of forcing pledges to guzzle beer in dank basements, we could lead them on service trips and give back to an impoverished Upper Valley. We could bond through service rather than beer.

Such a radical reorientation toward philanthropy is not the task of Hanlon or administrators. It is ours. And we need to get started.

Vandermause is a contributing columnist.