In 1978, “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” a comedy film that documents the ventures of several fictional fraternity brothers, was released. Chris Miller ’63, one of the movie’s writers, based parts of the movie on his personal experiences in Dartmouth’s former chapter of Alpha Delta. The film received critical praise, but its depiction of Greek life and party culture has entrenched a lasting negative reputation on the College.
Dartmouth has since attempted to overcome preconceptions about its social environment, especially after College President Phil Hanlon took office. Under Hanlon’s leadership, Dartmouth developed the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” plan in 2015, which aims to eliminate high-risk drinking and sexual assault on campus.
In 2012, prior to the unveiling of the MDF plan, Rolling Stone published an article which characterized Greek Life at the College as a modern-day “Animal House.” The article, entitled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses,” detailed the disturbing hazing practices, binge drinking and rampant sexual assault experienced by former Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother Andrew Lohse ’12. His accounts, previously published in a guest column in The Dartmouth, shocked many, particularly prospective students. In 2014, Dartmouth’s application numbers fell by 14 percent.
Sana Nadkarni ’22 said she hadn’t read the article before her freshman year began, but her friends warned her that Dartmouth is a “terrible place.”
“When I got in, one of my friends from high school who already goes [to Dartmouth] told me not to read the article,” Nadkarni said. “It was an eye-opening experience to [eventually] read it.”
But, she said, the Dartmouth she has experienced has differed dramatically from the popularized “Animal House” archetype.
“[The article] is not the Dartmouth I’ve seen throughout my freshman year,” she said. “But, I’m only in my freshman summer, so I’m not fully privy to what goes on behind the scenes.”
Greek life plays a significant role in the College’s social atmosphere to this day, as roughly half of Dartmouth students are members of Greek organizations. Greek participation among eligible students, however, is even higher — 67 percent as of 2014 — because students cannot rush until their sophomore year.
Inter-Sorority Council president Kenya Jacob ’20 said this unusual rule — every other Ivy League school permits first-year rush — serves to ease the transition for freshmen into college social life and diversify friend groups that may otherwise center around mutual affiliation. Consequently, freshmen must wait until their second year at the College to demystify the rush process.
Jacob added that although delayed rush introduces logistical complications with the D-Plan, she strongly supports the policy. According to her, sophomore-year rush allows students to find community outside the confines of their house.
“Dartmouth has a strong Greek culture, but people can still say some of their closest friends are in other houses,” she said. “Having a strong sense of community entrenched before becoming affiliated is invaluable.”
Students at the University of New Hampshire are allowed to rush their freshman or sophomore year, according to student Taylor Sheehan. She said she opted to rush sophomore year because the process felt “too intense,” especially with the added pressure of hurriedly assessing her compatibility with the houses.
“I feel very confident now going into my sophomore year,” she said. “Certain sororities and fraternities have certain reputations and, if you really want to be in them, you have to fit their stereotype, but, now that I’ve been here for a year, I know what those are.”
She added that some of her peers have indicated that they wish they had waited to rush because they struggled to balance the busy schedule with academics. Men’s rush, in particular, occurs around midterm season, she said.
However, some students at universities that allow first-year rush prefer that system. According to Eliza Thaler and Ben Heller, both rising sophomores at the University of Pennsylvania, first-year rush helped them find new friends in an unfamiliar environment.
“[First-year rush] allowed me to expand my group of friends before everyone’s group was really solidified … [and] form friendships with upperclassmen who served as role models and guides to navigating college,” Thaler said. “I personally really liked having rush freshman year.”
Heller is also glad he rushed freshman year, but he admitted the rush process compounded the stress of adjusting to college life. According to him, the University of Pennsylvania has on- and off-campus fraternities and, although formal rush for on-campus fraternities begins in January, “dirty rush” for off-campus fraternities starts in the fall.
“By December, a lot of [off-campus fraternities] will have decided the bids they plan to give out,” Heller said. “Formal rush happens over the first week of [second semester] classes when there’s not much work, but I definitely felt a bit stressed during dirty rush.”
Despite their inability to rush, Dartmouth freshmen may interact heavily with Greek houses, in large part due to fraternities’ open-door custom. Most nights, students may present their ID at the door of any fraternity and gain entry, although invite-only events still exist.
Greek houses at other universities, including the University of New Hampshire, tend to be more exclusive.
“At the beginning of the year, my friends and I would dress up and walk down ‘Frat Lane,’ which wouldn’t get us anywhere,” Sheehan said. “There aren’t that many open parties, but I can bring two or three friends to my boyfriend’s fraternity’s list parties. You just hope nobody is using you.”
At Dartmouth, the open-door custom ensures that students — especially unaffiliated freshmen with few connections — can feel included in the Greek social scene, but only once the fraternity ban is lifted. Implemented by the Greek Leadership Council, the frat ban prohibits freshmen from attending Greek parties until Homecoming or the sixth week of fall term, depending on which occurs latest, according to GLC chair James Park ’20. Freshmen have access to certain College-approved “dry” parties prior to the lift.
According to Jacob, the frat ban aims to address mounting concerns about the “red zone,” the period of time between freshmen’s arrival at college in August and Thanksgiving break. At Dartmouth, the “red zone” encapsulates all of fall term, but the frat ban typically ends in October. More than 50 percent of campus sexual assaults, primarily against women, occur during the “red zone,” as reported by Psychology Today.
Jacob added that the ISC hopes to ease women’s transition into the Greek scene following the frat ban. Starting with the Class of 2023, sororities will hold more open-door events during fall term. She said it’s rare for sororities to maintain an on-campus culture at other universities, but Dartmouth has the unique ability to help women navigate a potentially dangerous transitional phase.
Emily Pommier ’22 said her social life was similar before and after the lift. Even though some of her friends went out frequently, Pommier said she rarely participated in Greek life during fall term and never felt pressured to join them.
“I got really close to my floormates and didn’t really feel the need to go out,” Pommier said. “I never really felt like I was missing out on anything.”
She added that the Greek scene initially made her uncomfortable due to the prevalence of alcohol. Halfway through winter term, however, she began to attend Greek parties and realized that she did not feel pressured to drink.
Not all students feel comfortable in traditional fraternities. Gender-inclusive fraternities — Alpha Theta, the Tabard and Phi Tau — and Black Greek letter organizations — Alpha Phi Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha — are some organizations that serve the LGBTQIA+ and Black communities on campus.
Kai Frey ’22 said they never foresaw getting involved in a Greek house, but that they ended up spending more time in Phi Tau as an unaffiliated freshman than many of the house’s members.
“I used to be scared of Dartmouth’s Greek culture — it was actually one of the main turn-offs when I applied,” Frey said. “But going there and realizing not all fraternities and sororities are what you expect them to be changed my perception — I’m going to rush Phi Tau in the fall.”
Delta Sigma Theta reactivated its charter this past spring after 13 years of inactivity, according to Princilla Minkah ’21. Minkah said that several students banded together to reestablish Delta Sigma Theta because they felt there weren’t enough spaces on campus to cultivate their identities as Black women.
Minkah added that freshmen may get involved in Black Greek letter organizations by attending termly events — including political engagement, financial literacy and social programming — often held at Shabazz.
“Being in a school that only has about eight percent Black students, having an all-Black Greek space has been very important to [my] social growth and comfort on campus,” Minkah said. “It feels good knowing you have a safe space that you belong to and have ownership of whether that space is physical or not.”
Regardless of where students choose to attend or rush, Nadkarni stressed that any modern-day “animal house” tendencies do not detract from the College’s culture of learning.
“The reason I really like the Greek houses even though I really like academics is because coming to Dartmouth, I wanted to have a whole education,” Nadkarni said. “Learning socially, intellectually or even athletically — that’s what adds to the vibrancy of campus.”
This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.