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Devil in the Night: Frat Culture at Dartmouth

04/11/2013 02:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

While a student at Dartmouth, I became afraid of the dark. My days consisted of challenging classes, lively conversation over meals, excursions into the New Hampshire wilderness, and extracurricular activities that developed valuable teamwork skills. But then the night arrived, and the devil began to laugh.

It began with pre-gaming in the dorms, followed by the walk down to a Webster Avenue dance party. During the admitted students weekend, my tour guide said frat row was just like the dance club scene in any big city. I'm from Miami, so the thought of South Beach in New Hampshire excited me. But after dancing to Cyndi Lauper at the '80s party, Dartmouth's sons and daughters descended into their dimly lit frat basements and passed through the gates of hell.

Wild intoxication. Vomiting. Urinating in troughs. Pledges fetching beer for their upper-class tormentors. Students curled up in a fetal position, bawling. Young women pinned up against the wall with gigantic men sucking their faces out. And that putrid, putrid stench. In the midst of all that depravity, the "good-old-boys" continued to play Beirut.

This is what I saw in my twice-a-term visits to these frat basements. The larger story of abusive fraternity hazing has already been told.

When morning rose, dawn hushed the anguish of many: men arbitrarily rejected from the fraternity system; friends who accompanied their alcohol-poisoned classmates to the hospital; and all those young women barely out of high school who woke up wondering what had happened to them the night before. If you ask them, many women will say it's hard to decide whether not knowing is a blessing in disguise.

As a scholar of Ethics, I know that there is no such thing as a bad person. There are only people who make wrong choices. Over time, too many of these wrong ethical choices lead to the formation of immoral values. Liberal arts colleges such as Dartmouth were never meant to merely impart knowledge. Dartmouth's founders intended that the college's moral mission be part of our everyday life in Hanover. The majority of Dartmouth's students are not bad people. They are merely uneducated.

I implore the faculty of Dartmouth to take back their institution. Your responsibility to educate your students does not end the moment you leave campus every evening to go back home.

I came to Dartmouth because I read former President James O. Freedman's book, Idealism and Liberal Education. He clearly had a moral compass. I can only imagine how he would have felt learning of ex-President Kim's absentee response to the latest fraternity tell-all scandal last spring, when the directorship of the World Bank beckoned. Freedman's authoritarian style was very controversial, but at least under his watch, the faculty felt empowered.

I came to Dartmouth because of the upper-level humanities courses that operated on the level of doctoral seminars. I came for foreign policy discussions over Chinese food at the international center, political sparring over fine wine with the conservative Dartmouth Review editorial board in my freshman dorm, and the rope swing over the Connecticut River during Sophomore Summer.

"Well, if you don't like it here, why did you come to Dartmouth in the first place?" a student once barked at me during a religious event, his breath stinking of bourbon.

I came because I took Freedman's successor Jim Wright at his word when he said that he was determined to "end the fraternity system as we know it." Sometimes I wish he had fulfilled his promise. Some of my best and smartest friends would not have transferred to other schools.

On the other hand, the fraternities provide real communities for their members. They authentically anchor students' identities in an otherwise diffusely organized campus-life system. For many alumni, they are the most meaningful connection to the college post-graduation.

But perhaps most consequentially, at least for me, I got to witness true evil first-hand. The experience has been useful while out in "the real world."

Dartmouth students, administrators, faculty, incoming President Hanlon, and perhaps most important of all, my fellow alumni, I implore you to begin taking back the Hanover night. Learn the lessons of our sister institutions such as Williams and Middlebury, who have gone through similar experiences in eliminating their own deeply rooted fraternities.

At the very least, the college should follow Princeton's lead in suspending freshmen caught stepping foot in an off-campus fraternity. Consider the immediate step of bolting the door to those fraternity basements under the college's direct control. Don't fall prey to the seductive illusion of a tradition's invulnerability to constructive moral and institutional change. Hiding behind the argument of Dartmouth's uniqueness is the easy way out.

Shut Dartmouth's fraternity system down now -- if only to turn the devil's arrogant nighttime laugh into a soft chuckle.

This piece was originally published on dartblog.com.