Verbum Ultimum: All The Men We've Made
Elite campuses cannot continue to empower toxic and violent men.
As the controversy surrounding Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process to the Supreme Court reaches its climax, the nation’s attention has shifted to the elite spaces that nourished him. Recent exposés of Kavanaugh’s fraternity and secret society at Yale describe cultures of binge-drinking and law-breaking. Comments by friends and former classmates, as well as anecdotes given by professors and mentors describe a culture of excess opportunity, privilege and power foreign to most Americans.
To the inhabitants of elite campuses, however, these reports, though at times somewhat exaggerated, are all too familiar. Elite colleges and universities, a group which Dartmouth prides itself for being among, often tout the great benefits given under their tutelage. Rarely do they acknowledge their complicity in shaping so many arrogant and uncaring individuals, nor in arming them with pedigrees that enable their foul actions and then protect them from consequences.
The dilemma facing Dartmouth and its peer institutions is frustrating. These universities openly and proudly seek to leverage their wealth and power to offer students the best education, mentorship, resources and opportunities the world offers. This process can and has empowered some of the most exceptional and reputable people the world has ever seen. Power tends to corrupt, however, with proximity to it causing a second-hand effect.
The cultures, social networks and pipelines maintained by elite institutions also have a tendency of producing entitled, violent and powerful men. No student at the College, or any other Ivy League school, is immune from the effects of the cultures of exceptionalism often promoted by these schools. When combined with already problematic pretensions, however, the culture of elite campuses often proves a powerful and toxic catalyst.
The by-product of this combination is seen in the relatively high prevalence per capita of sexual violence on elite college campuses, in the impunity provided to students to engage in otherwise illicit behavior undisturbed and in the tight-knit yet toxic social circles that arise from these campuses. They go by many names –– Greek houses, societies, clubs — but their function is the same, and the effect their often-warped cultures have on the mentalities of the future elite can last lifetimes.
The College is by no means unique in this regard, but its reputation makes its case almost comically, if tragically, exemplary. On Sept. 24, Stephen Colbert said of accusations made against Judge Kavanaugh by his former classmate Deborah Ramirez, “Wow. Seriously, that’s not good. I mean, you expect that kind of thing at Dartmouth, but Yale?”
It was a pithy and pointed joke for his aristocratic audience, but one that unfortunately held true for a school that hasn’t fully shaken its “Animal House” reputation or disappointing history of sexism, racism, classism and homophobia. It should be noted that the men who slipped abusive pamphlets under the doors of Dartmouth’s first class of women are still alive today, as are any number of assaulters, misogynists and problematic men who have been caringly nurtured through the College.
More worryingly, though Dartmouth has made progress in these areas, Greek life and its patriarchal power structure remain the centerpiece of social life at Dartmouth. Drinking and cultures of entitlement remain dominant on campus, as do entrenched social systems that will only perpetuate this state.
The College wants to curtail this bad behavior, but there is a limit to what it can do; often, too much has been invested for justice to be properly served. In making powerful men, and recently some women, elite colleges have always risked abetting their corruption and subsequent wrongdoing. Given all that has been invested in them, however, in all the hope riding on the success of every student on elite campuses, can Dartmouth afford to see them fail or be punished?
Dartmouth, as with all elite college campuses, has a choice. The College can decide that, in this moment of national scrutiny, it will weather the storm, stay its present course and risk continuing to nurture the worst impulses and intentions of problematic men — a path it has forged for over a century now. Or, it can take seriously the privilege it bestows on all those who come through its doors.
The Dartmouth community can and must become better stewards of its members, deciding to not tolerate the behavior that this place too often engenders. It’s bewildering to think that students have nurtured a performance of humility by denouncing “self-calls,” but also maintains a culture that enables sexual violence. Demanding more from each other is imperative.
Elite college campuses are manicured, prestigious and consequential places. Such is the case for anywhere where wealth, power and influence converge. They need not, however, be violent places; they need not be abusive places; they need not be places lacking compassion or concern. This national scandal has been, among so many things, a wakeup call. Should students and alumni brush aside this incident and continue as usual, they will, to paraphrase Judge Kavanaugh, reap what they sow.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.