Cathcart: Setting the Record Straight

by Taylor Cathcart | 10/16/14 10:12pm

The current outlook on Dartmouth’s Greek system has led to a vicious cycle of negative media coverage, and Greek organizations are increasingly portrayed as corrupting influences, bastions of classism and hotbeds of sexual assault. Fueled by horror stories and a lack of understanding, critics are putting fraternities and sororities on the whipping post for a host of higher education’s ills. These are dangerously uninformed assessments.

Discussions of Dartmouth’s Greek system have become heavily intertwined with issues of inclusivity and socioeconomic class, when such links are tenuous at best. Contrary to popular belief, membership in a fraternity is not exorbitantly expensive. House dues typically cost members a few hundred dollars per term; however, according to Interfraternity Council estimates, Dartmouth fraternities provide over $30,000 of termly financial aid for these costs. In addition to the availability of financial aid for dues, most fraternity houses also charge rent at the minimum rate allowed by the College — 15 percent less than what the school itself charges. Those student savings can amount to more than $420 per resident per term.

Notwithstanding all this, it’s easy to forget why houses charge dues in the first place. They must do so because Dartmouth fraternities maintain some of the most inclusive social spaces in American higher education, and the College provides few other options. The Greek system has been willing to shoulder this burden, as well as the risk involved in dealing with Safety and Security and the Hanover Police, in order to engender a sense of community among all students.

Other metrics tell a similar story. Affiliated students at Dartmouth have higher GPAs and are held to more stringent standards of conduct than their unaffiliated peers. Members of Dartmouth’s Greek organizations raised over $300,000 for charity last year alone. More broadly, a national Gallup survey in May 2014 concluded that members of Greek organizations are “more likely to report being emotionally supported and having experiential and deep learning activities while in college,” and are “more likely than all other college graduates to be thriving in each of the five elements of well-being (purpose, physical, social, financial and community)” after graduation.

Of course, even as the College fails to create social spaces for students and forces the Greek system to continue to pick up the slack, fraternity and sorority members have been faced with a strong current of prejudice and assumption. With only a little personal experience and plenty of dubious journalism to guide their intuition, some adults see our basements as training grounds for future alcoholics and imagine our brother and sisterhoods as tragic echoes of “Lord of the Flies.” At a recent meeting between Greek officers and senior administrators, an administrator agreed that the Greek system had been one of the most powerful factors in College President Phil Hanlon’s college experience.

“But back then I don’t think it was too common for students to be drinking 20 or 25 beers in a single night,” she was quick to add. The takeaway here – that faculty and staff believe fraternity basements allow students to bypass physiological limits of liquid consumption – is disappointing. The official’s perception of alcohol consumption was that no fraternity brother acts in moderation.

The result of all this misinformation has been the gradual isolation of the Greek community from broader campus. Tour guides have been given specific instructions not to visit Webster Avenue and to deemphasize the Greek system on their tours. Safety and Security staff conduct walkthroughs with increasing animosity, often screaming at house officers and berating guests. Many students no longer feel comfortable admitting their Greek affiliation in class, for fear of prejudice on the part of their professors.

All this, for what? Without a doubt, Dartmouth has problems. Binge drinking is dangerous and addictive, and sexual assault is a despicable offense. Both are unacceptable. We are all committed to stamping out these behaviors, and to equate them with the Greek system is inherently misguided. The first weekend of term this fall, when not a single freshman was allowed into a Greek house, 12 ’18s were sent to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for alcohol poisoning. Such a number would have been unthinkable during my own first weekend here in 2011.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth’s Greek system has continued to perform tens of thousands of hours of community service and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity each year. Organizations regularly host alumni events, facilitate career networking and set up resumé workshops to help position their members for success. Houses organize open mics, poetry slams, a cappella performances and improv comedy shows, all open to the student body. Fraternities and sororities host and participate in sexual assault symposiums and discussion groups; members march in Take Back the Night and support the White Ribbon Campaign. We are part of the Dartmouth community first and foremost, and we find it our duty to contribute — even if no one ever seems to notice.

The Gallup report on Greek alumni concludes in its final paragraph: “Individual Greek members and chapters have unfortunately been associated with issues involving hazing, binge drinking, and sexual assaults, and Greek organizations should certainly continue their efforts to prevent these negative events from happening. But it appears that on the whole, the Greek experience has notable long-term benefits.”

Here’s to hoping that future Dartmouth students of all backgrounds will have the choice to experience those benefits, too.

Taylor Cathcart '15 is a guest columnist.

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