Dartmouth is rightly one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It is dynamic, intellectually rigorous and turns out global leaders in all industries from finance to public service and diplomacy. But now, my beloved Alma Mater is embroiled in a very public conversation about its campus culture -- and it's a conversation that needs to be had.
Last week, Rolling Stone published an exposé on Dartmouth College, detailing a Greek fraternity/sorority culture that broadly tolerates and covers up extreme hazing. Andrew Lohse, a member of the class of 2012, was widely quoted in the article, and he is paying the price. Many in the Dartmouth community have come out publicly to deny the truths in his story and to castigate Lohse. I presume this reflects the instinct of all of us alums to protect the university that is our intellectual home and the source of so many of our opportunities and memories. But denial is not the way to protect Dartmouth.
Instead, we need to confront our Dartmouth experience with honesty. There was much in the Rolling Stone article that I found to be true. In particular, I was struck by Lohse's musing that a student might die one day as a result of hazing. His sentiment gave me pause. Because I was very nearly that death.
In 2006, as a sophomore at Dartmouth, I still hadn't quite found my social footing. Like most Dartmouth students, I turned to the Greek system and ultimately decided to join Kappa Kappa Gamma, one of Dartmouth's nine sororities.
I was content with my decision until, one night during the rush process, I was blindfolded with two of my fellow pledges. We were guided into the back seat of a car and one of our future sisters commanded us to chug the alcoholic punch that had been pre-prepared for each of us in individual 64-ounce water bottles. Simultaneously, I was handed numerous vodka shots from the older sister sitting in the front seat. Things happened quickly.
After what couldn't have been more than a fifteen-minute drive, I was told to get out of the car. I did -- but then I lost all consciousness. To this day, I have no idea what happened that night.
I woke up the following morning in the Intensive Care Unit at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. I wasn't alone. I later learned that three other girls had also been admitted, each having overdosed on alcohol due to hazing rituals. Two were fellow pledges, and one was pledging another sorority, Sigma Delta.
I had bruises and cuts all over my body, two of my teeth were broken and I was intubated and restrained. The doctor informed me that I had entered the hospital with a .399 blood alcohol content. I soon learned that a .4 BAC is coma and death. I was literally one sip of alcohol away from dying.
I fell into an emotional tailspin. My mind kept racing back to how I would have left my life. When was the last time I spoke with my parents? When was the last time I told my brother how much I loved him? I could not identify with this person who had treated her life with so little care.
I didn't recognize myself. And I didn't recognize the environment around me. My acceptance to Dartmouth was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But in those days after joining a sorority, everything felt altered. Somehow, this wasn't quite what I'd dreamt.
A few nights after being released from the hospital, one of my fellow pledges knocked on my door. She had also overdosed. We sat on my bed, both still in shock. She appealed to me, "You're not going to call this 'hazing' are you?" "Of course not." I reassured her. I took full responsibility. Nobody had forced me to drink. I quickly listed all of the reasons why this was the farthest thing from hazing. In truth, our real fear went unstated: neither of us wanted to point fingers at our sorority and incur the social ostracism that would surely follow.
A few weeks later, Dartmouth held a hearing to investigate what had happened. I assured the administration that I had not been hazed. I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief. This was just the bad judgment of one sophomore. There would be no bad PR. My sorority went unpunished.
Here's the thing. I was absolutely hazed that night -- and I nearly died as a result. But those girls sitting in the front of the car who were hazing me into near death, they were victims too.
Classic social psychology research teaches us that in certain environments, good people are capable of terrible acts. In Stanley Milgram's now canonical 1963 study, participants were instructed to use a "shock generator" to deliver ever-increasing electrical shocks to another person, ranging from "slight shock," to "danger: severe shock," to a purposefully vague "XXX." Of course, the "shock generator" was actually a prop and electrical shocks were not truly being delivered. Yet without this knowledge, 65% of participants continued to deliver electrical shocks through to the bitter end. Participants displayed deep discomfort with their behavior (wringing their hands, chewing on their lips, sweating profusely), yet they continued to obey the commands of the head experimenter as they delivered (what they believed to be) lethal electrical shocks to another person. Milgram proved that in certain environments, most people will obey dangerous instructions, despite any personal misgivings.
Similarly, Philip Zimbardo revealed the power of deindividuation in his 1973 Stanford Prison Experiment. Deindividuation occurs when a person loses site of his own identity while operating as part of a larger group. During the experiment, Zimbardo randomly assigned students to the role of "guard" or "prisoner" and allowed them operate as though they were in a prison environment. The behavior of the guards quickly became so inhumane that Zimbardo was forced to end the study after only 6 days (even though it was slated to continue for two weeks.) As students took on the respective roles of prisoners and guards, they embraced those group identities, losing sight of personal beliefs and mores.
Taken together, the Milgram and Zimbardo studies show that otherwise thoughtful people can act in atrocious ways. Within the context of Dartmouth's social environment, two intelligent and compassionate women commanded me to drink a lethal amount of alcohol. And within that same environment, I listened. I almost lost my life that day and, infuriatingly, nobody -- and everybody -- was to blame.
We were all stuck in the Dartmouth web, where people who were once hazed grow up to haze others. I ultimately depledged the sorority. But had I not overdosed, who knows what would have happened. Maybe I would have been sitting in the front seat of that car pouring vodka shots a few years later.
This leaves the question -- so what? Dartmouth College is an exciting, important, and intellectually powerful institution with many of the best and the brightest. But it is not flawless. And one of its great flaws is the unchallenged power of its Greek system, which allows and deceptively conceals hazing and perpetuates attitudes that many Dartmouth alumni take with them to positions of power on Wall Street, government and beyond (sexist gender dynamics and blind entitlement among them).
Dartmouth graduates obtain high-profile positions in our work force, and often bequeath those same jobs to new generations of similarly-minded Dartmouth alumni -- often through their Greek affiliations. The same girl who overdosed with me, also confided to me months after the hazing event that she was unhappy in the sorority but didn't want to burn any bridges. She said having her sorority on her resume would help her land a high-profile finance job. (It worked.)
Dartmouth's current President, Jim Yong Kim, promised the Dartmouth community that he will not overhaul its Greek system. Certainly, Kim is in a tough position. When his predecessor President Wright (Dartmouth President 1998-2009) attempted to eradicate the Greek system, both alumni and students balked, forcing Wright to back down. While Wright was unsuccessful, his intentions were in the right place. The mental and physical health of Dartmouth students is at stake and the Greek system's hold on Dartmouth's social life needs to be loosened.
At best, President Kim's tepid response to Dartmouth's hazing pandemic can be traced to a fear of reduced alumni giving and campus tension. At worst, Kim's tepid response can be attributed to his personal ambitions and fear of bad publicity. This is particularly relevant given President Obama's recent nomination of Kim to The World Bank's top post.
What happened to me was undeniably hazing. And my story is important because it's a common -- and often concealed -- tale. The article in Rolling Stone is creating negative publicity for a place that I will always treasure. But it is also creating an opportunity.
The discussion is now wide open and it's time for President Kim to engage in this dialogue and initiate change. Kim needs to take control and stop the hazing. But he cannot do it alone. It's up to the alumni of this great institution to be truthful about their experiences and support reform for our college on the hill.
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