de Wolff: It Can’t Happen Here
The Stanford administration’s war on Greek Life and other social communities should be a cautionary tale for Dartmouth students.
In the past year, Stanford University has come under fire for its poor treatment of Stanford students. A November lawsuit alleges that Stanford’s accusations against Stanford women’s soccer goalkeeper Katie Meyer directly contributed to her suicide a year ago. Subsequently, several articles appeared describing the stifling atmosphere the bureaucratic administration has created on Stanford’s campus in the last decade. A piece from Palladium Magazine explained how Stanford administrators have “eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and student groups” in their efforts to sanitize campus of any tradition or institution that could lead to bad publicity. Another article from The Stanford Daily described how the cancellation of the fraternity event Eurotrash last fall led to students making posters with the words “Stanford is Anti-Fun.” The recent coverage attributed the growth of Stanford’s unaccountable, overreaching administrative bureaucracy to the loss of student freedoms on Stanford’s campus.
Dartmouth students and alumni alike should recognize that Stanford is a prime example of what happens when administrators enact unpopular policies and students fail to stand up and take action against them.
At Stanford, administrators targeted student social spaces such as Greek houses and other alternative living communities. They suspended organizations for minor conduct violations and placed debilitating restrictions on parties, living spaces and personal conduct, crushing these long-standing and important student communities.
After suppressing social life, Stanford administrators turned to the occasionally salacious traditions that made Stanford stand out from other elite universities as a place for creativity and adventure. The administration put Stanford’s marching band, known for pushing the envelope with their viral pranks, on “super-probation,” meaning their raucous traditions must get university approval. In addition, many of Stanford’s other top traditions became anathema to its administration. Anything that could damage the university’s growing global brand is out. Now, Stanford student life is reportedly sanitized, quiet and miserable.
It would be a shame if such a seismic shift in social culture were to occur at Dartmouth.
However, Dartmouth has come dangerously close to mimicking Stanford’s homegrown cultural revolution on two separate occasions. The first was the abortive implementation of former President James Wright’s Student Life Initiative; the culmination of several decades of past faculty and presidents demanding the stifling of Greek Life. At the onset of the 1999 Winter Carnival, President Wright launched the infamous Student Life Initiative, which he said would lead to the end of the Greek system “as we know it.”
The student backlash to this announcement was immediate, impressive and effective. Students and alumni took to the streets of Hanover and the pages of this newspaper to express their disapproval. One memorable sign on a Greek house denounced the president for his apparent betrayal of a pillar of the Dartmouth community, reading “Judas, Brutus, Arnold, Wright!” Faced with this strident opposition, many objectives of the Student Life Initiative – such as requiring Greek houses to become co-ed – never materialized. If a similarly ruthless edict surfaces in the future, this is the level of vigor that students and alumni should bring to stand up for Greek Life.
In the fall of 2020, Dartmouth displayed a similar level of institutional overreach. Any Dartmouth student who was on campus during that term would likely tell you that it was a difficult time. For a while, students lived in fear about getting sent home for breaking the Community Expectations Agreement – a contract students were made to sign to come to campus in the fall. The Agreement prevented students from engaging in social interactions indoors without wearing masks and standing six-feet apart from one another. Former Dean of the College Kathryn Lively drove this point home with an infamous quote from a campus wide email in fall 2020: “If you’re not breaking the community expectations agreements, then you should not be worried at all about the likelihood of you disappearing.” To this day, it’s difficult to know exactly how many students “disappeared” from campus or got sent home for breaking COVID-19 protocols that fall, though the official number was 86. While the administration’s grip on our campus has abated since the state of the COVID-19 pandemic has improved, the lessons it imparted will linger.
The administrative infrastructure that enabled this stifling environment at Dartmouth is still around. In 2021, the last year with complete data, there were 3,029 administrative staff at the College. With 6,761 students across all undergraduate and graduate schools, this is almost enough to provide every other student with a personal butler.
Most students at Dartmouth graduate in four years. The constant turnover of students requires vigilance on our part to ensure that our traditions place student safety first, and do not fall prey to the ever-watchful administration. Hopefully the Dartmouth community will learn from Stanford’s example: it is easy to tear down, but it is far harder to preserve what makes a place special to those who love it. “Lest the old traditions fail” is not only a catchphrase, but also a watchword.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.