Alex Barnett, Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics

The following is the text of 6-minute opening statement delivered by Alex Barnett, Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics, on April 21, 2014, for a student-run “Great Debate” on the Greek system at Dartmouth.

Thank you to Asher and Gyorgi for organizing such a well-attended event. I am a mathematics professor and former member of the Committee on Student Life. I believe in data. Rather than make guesses about the Greek system, I want to share some facts with you supported by research in this area.

Fraternities emerged in the early 19th century as a means to bond, often intellectually, but also as exclusive organizations that preserved divisions of class and race. The point was to leave “boyhood” and become a real “man”. It wasn’t until the 20th century that their ideas of “bonding” and “manhood” became defined by hard-drinking, ritualized vomiting, womanizing, denigration of women, and homophobia – traditions which are passed on in fraternities from year to year at this college. Research shows fraternities are strongly associated with sexual assault [Tyler 1998, Armstrong 2006,Flack 2007, Sanday 1996], and that this is causative rather than merely correlative. Sanday found, however, that some fraternities do have rape- (also hazing-)free cultures [Sanday 1996].

Are sororities the answer to this potentially hostile environment for women? Perhaps they are a safe space for female students? Quite the opposite: a national study shows that students living in sororities are 3 times more likely to be raped while intoxicated than students living in standard off-campus housing [Mohler-Kuo 2004]. Membership in a sorority also brings a higher risk of being raped [Armstrong 2006]. Why is this true? Those in single-sex social groups tend to compete with each other to be “popular”, leading to more high-risk behaviors than those in more diverse housing situations. The point is, sex-segregated housing is bad for both women and men. Why do we still have it?

Anthropologist Peggy Sanday studied dozens of societies and found that some are largely rape-free while others are rape-prone. Rape-prone ones have in common all-male tribal groups which emphasize social status, initiation rites, and separation of genders. Does this sound familiar? Thus violence against women is largely cultural (rather than biological), and frats provide the ideal training ground.

I attended a competitive boys’ grammar school in a country where the drinking age is 16 (and hardly enforced). There was bullying, insecurity, occasional violence. However I am appalled by the pledge process at many of Dartmouth’s frats, which take this to a level I did not know existed: binge drinking, dehumanization (being given a new name), humiliating tasks, a bizarre focus on sexuality and porn (e.g., the Beta spreadsheet), subservience, devotion of hours of one’s time to the whims of other students that are “in the club”. It is not a surprise that this can result in hazing, abuse, and in retaliation for breaking the code of silence. These are the defining features of an abusive relationship. They are ideal training grounds for thugs.

New arrivals at Dartmouth are anxious to find friends and community, to be liked and admired. They are hard-working and anxious for success Rush season preys on this social status anxiety and competition in the most damaging way: by setting up a hierarchy (A-list, B-list, etc), a self-selecting membership, the most judgmental behavior is encouraged. The result is often homogeneous groups that reinforce stereotypes, and convey the message to the unaffiliated that they are a nobody.

Many New England colleges have eliminated Greek life: Williams, Amherst, Colby, Middlebury, Bowdoin, Hamilton. To quote the Williams 1962 report of the trustees, “Fraternities at Williams have come to exercise a disproportionate role in undergraduate life, and as a result the primary educational purposes of the College are not being fully realized.” At these colleges, many students (and especially Greek members) put up a huge fuss the year the Greek system was shut down, but those who’ve seen the positive change it brings about never want to go back. The lack of a Greek system is now used as a recruiting tool.

Having student-run organizations, parties, bands, drinking, fun, healthy sex, is all great and should be part of college life. That is not an argument to preserve exclusive, gender-segregated institutions; rather to use Dartmouth’s ample resources to set up a residential and social scene that brings out the best in students, whatever gender, race, sexuality, of financial resources they have. This College knows full well the negative consequences of the Greek system for student life and safety. We’ve had at least two faculty votes to remove the Greek system since 1988, we’ve had the SLI report of 2000, COSSA, SPCSA, endless committees, and yet we have not de-recognized the Greek system and invested in a healthier alternative. I find this unethical.

It’s clear we need an expanded residential cluster or house-based system with continuity year-to-year, and many more bars, music and party spaces run by women AND men together, with clean floors (yes – I have been to frat parties). Positive role models that I know first-hand: East Wheelock cluster. Thugz Institute of Science: student-run off-campus housing with regular science plus beer nights.

It’s telling that no faculty would speak on the pro-Greek side in this debate. Recently our own Pan-Hellenic council leaders wrote a letter denouncing rush season. And this is coming from *within* the system; to assess a system you don’t just ask who benefits, but who is excluded and denigrated. I know Dartmouth college can do better, and create a fun, inclusive, social and residential scene.

It’s up to us all to make it happen. Thank you.

What the research says about campus Greek life: a reading list

  • Syrett, N. L. (2009). The Company He Keeps. A History of White College Fraternities. (UNC Press)
  • Armstrong, E. A., et al (2006). “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape.” Social Problems, Vol. 53, Issue 4, pp. 483499
  • Sanday, P. (1996). “Rape-Prone Versus Rape-Free Campus Cultures,” Violence Against Women 2(2), 191-208
  • Sanday, P. (2007). Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus. 2nd edition (NYU Press)
  • Mohler-Kuo, M., G. Dowdall, M. Koss, and H. Wechsler. “Correlates of Rape While Intoxicated in a National Sample of College Women.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 65. (2004): 37-45.
  • Flack. W.F, et al (2007). J. Interpersonal Violence. 22(2), 139-157. “Risk factors and consequences of unwanted sex among university students.”
  • Recommendations Submitted to the Board of Trustees by the Committee on the Student Life Initiative (2000), Dartmouth College.

Recent press:

Personal accounts:

  • Knight, C. (2013). Three for Ship: A Swan Song to Dartmouth Beer Pong (Fuzzy Plum Press)