This June I tagged along on a tour of my alma mater, Dartmouth College, with my teenaged cousin. Like high-school students everywhere, he's looking at colleges, reading brochures and -- most importantly -- listening to what students tell him about their schools.
Our Dartmouth guide was fine, I suppose, but he made sure to include that he rushed a fraternity, and he pointed out some non-Greek areas as "alternative" social options. I quickly recognized the sly language that creates a mainstream culture and an "othered" culture, and I asked if he knew anyone who lived in affinity houses. (I loved Foley House, the College-owned non-exclusive, coeducational cooperative-living house.) "Sure," he said, but he failed to offer any information about those options. He also failed to acknowledge the press Dartmouth received this spring regarding protests from a group of students asking for "real talk" about sexual assaults, racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other community ills.
Still, I sold dear old Dartmouth as well as I could. I took my cousin out to lunch with a highly respected professor who's remained a good friend; I bought him a t-shirt hip enough to simply sport the word "green"; and I showed him my favorite spots on campus, in quaint Hanover, NH, and across the river in Vermont. We explored some of the amazing offerings available in the arts, and we saw Dartmouth's sustainability-advocating Big Green Bus. Later, I emailed him my favorite poem by Robert Frost (class of 1896); I asked him to listen to words from Mister Rogers (class of 1950), who spoke at my commencement in 2002; and I simply mentioned Mindy Kaling (class of 2001), Shonda Rhimes (class of 1991), Kirsten Gillibrand (class of 1988), Louise Erdrich (class of 1976) and Doctor Seuss (class of 1925).
But my cousin is not applying. This smart, funny, political, talented student will not even apply to Dartmouth, and frankly, I don't blame him. "I didn't really like Dartmouth," he told me, "because 60 percent of the students were in a fraternity or sorority and because of all the sexual assault."
He's right. Dartmouth is known for its Greek system and now its sexual assaults. It's a community built on exclusivity and privilege, traditions that breed the equally dangerous crimes and hatred that earn the College press.
It's hard to be a Dartmouth alumna, and I am truly ambivalent: filled with love and hate, loyalty and shame. I learned a ton while an undergraduate, thankfully without personal stories of hazing and hate crimes. Rather, I learned to read Audre Lorde, learned how it felt to be an "other" and learned I wanted to work to help other "others." In short, I spent four years living in a place where Lorde's idea of the "mythical norm" -- in whom the "trappings of power reside" that she defined in 1980 as "white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure" -- was not so much mythical as it was actual.
At Dartmouth, Greek houses and senior/secret societies created disparate communities, based--from what I could tell -- on many of Lorde's categories. We stood divided on a tiny campus. Friends rushed Greek houses, conforming to stereotypes and throwing "open" parties. Then "tapping" began; connected students were secretly invited to join senior and secret societies that wielded power on campus and through alumni.
This all felt anachronistic in the early 2000s, when I wrote opinion columns that cost me friendships, and it feels even more anachronistic today. In 2001, a group of students -- we called ourselves the Dartmouth Student Force and were open to all -- plastered the campus with provocative posters, wrote letters to the trustees and eventually produced a book of personal essays for incoming students that addressed essentially the same problems student protesters address today. We had very little effect, if any, on changing culture at Dartmouth. People still feared certain frats; rapes were still being reported (and not reported); and racist, homophobic, classist and anti-Semitic incidents still occurred. Evidently, these things still happen today.
So what will it take to change our College on the Hill, to make our Ivy League institution something to be proud rather than sheepish to include on a resume? I assumed money and media attention, but while those may help, they won't override the thrills of exclusivity. Students at Dartmouth, like people everywhere, will continue to join groups that offer privilege and prestige, cost money, and divide.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about Dartmouth today is that even the grassroots-minded progressives, the noble misfits who stage protests and speak for those with smaller voices, are connected to one of those exclusive, privileged groups. This spring, I wondered why I was late to hear about Real Talk Dartmouth and why hundreds of alumni had signed petitions before I had. It turns out the organizing has taken place largely within a senior society--granted, one known for valuing community and respect, but still exclusive and reliant on tapping--and its alumni association. Even this action toward change is not collective; it is divided.
A friend of mine, Christopher Schons compared our alma mater to other institutions that appeared impervious to change before ultimately collapsing. "I hope the status quo at Dartmouth will collapse also," he wrote, "and give way to the College we know it can be." And I can't think of a better, more ambivalently Dartmouth way to capture such hope.