Alex Barnett, Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics

The following is an open letter from Alex Barnett, Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics, to President Hanlon written on September 29, 2013.


Dear President Phil Hanlon,

I wanted to share with you some facts and thoughts about student life issues, partly to extend our brief discussion at the COP breakfast, partly in advance of Tuesday’s COSL breakfast, and wholly as a colleague who cares about improving this (in many ways wonderful) institution. I attach some references that support much of what I say – as mathematicians, I am sure we both trust studies and data more than opinion and tradition.

Firstly, I was glad to hear you mention the issue of campus sexual assault in your inaugural speech. I firmly believe that this will be one of the main issues that many university presidents will have to tackle head on, in a public way, in the coming decade. The rather intense last 18 months of campus discussion, from the Rolling Stone article of 2012 to the Bored@Baked scandal to the Day of Reconciliation this spring, has raised local and national awareness of this issue (and related ones such as hazing and homophobia) at Dartmouth, and there is now a window of opportunity to use this, and your arrival at the helm, for positive effect. This is a big and complex problem, but all the evidence points to Dartmouth being at the worse end of the national variation, and in dire need of some structural change.

When I brought this up at the COP breakfast with you, a couple of days after the OCR initiated its own (unprecedented) Title IX investigation against Dartmouth, you brought up the reputation of recent consultant Jen Sayre (now Messina) ’93, and her assurances that we are “leaders” on this issue. The evidence, from talking to students and faculty and hearing their experiences, as well as from academic research presented below, tells a different story. Environmental and cultural factors here contribute to increased sexual assault in ways that Messina’s favored bystander intervention (DBI / Green Dot) misses, and cannot hope to fix alone. I encourage you also to seek advice from the many other faculty who have researched these issues – recently the voices of Hackett, Denton, Schweitzer, Luxon, Muirhead, and our WGST faculty, as well as student voices, have expressed what many colleagues and students feel: student life issues are a major down-side of Dartmouth existence, and need significant change (if nothing else, to remain nationally competitive).

As you know, the national statistics are that by the end of college, one in four female students will have been victims of rape or attempted rape [Fisher 2000]. Rape often has a devastating long-term effect on a young woman’s life and well-being, let alone education. College is not a “safe space” for women, the reason being in large part, rather shockingly, their fellow male students. I found the following facts even more eye-opening. They dispel some myths that are barriers to change:

  1. Rape is not a “he-said-she-said” situation; rather, only a few percent of rape claims are false [Lisak 2010]. Indeed, most victims don’t report, for a variety of reasons including fear and social pressures [Fisher 2000].
  2. Rape is not an “occasional bad decision by otherwise good-natured guys”. Most men (94%) don’t rape. But 90% of rapes are committed by repeat offenders, who are often charming, unsuspected, known by the victim, and who have many victims [Lisak & Miller 2002].
  3. Alcohol is not a cause of rape; rather, alcohol (as well as other additives) is a *tool* of rapists. (It seems clear that Jim Kim failed to understand this point that cause and effect are reversed.) Therefore alcohol abuse reduction is not such a useful lever to reduce rape; direct action is needed.
  4. A large contributory factor to rape is *social status anxiety between men*, rather than merely desire for sex – therefore, disturbingly, rape is more common at highly elite and competitive institutions [Armstrong 2006]. We surely count as one of those.

One positive point here (2) is that if a small number of male students could be removed from campus (which of course in our current system almost never happens), a large increase in safety would result.

On a different axis, the structural/environment choices an institution makes about student residential life strongly affect behavior, in particular student safety. I found the following related facts fascinating:

  1. Students living in sororities are 3 times more likely to be raped while intoxicated than students living in standard off-campus housing, in a national study [Mohler-Kuo 2004]. Membership in a sorority alone is also a factor [Armstrong 2006]. This discredits a myth I hear that sororities are somehow safer for women.
  2. Fraternities are strongly associated with sexual assault [Tyler 1998, Armstrong 2006, Flack 2007, Sanday 1996]. There is plenty more research to cite on this point. However, occasional frats have rape-(also hazing-)free cultures [Sanday 1996].
  3. Gender-segregated housing leads to more dangerous behaviors (via status anxiety and competition) than gender-diverse housing [Armstrong 2006, Sanday 1996].

The mechanisms for these cultural factors (4-7) are complex, but, whether causation or merely correlation is involved, the literature shows that gender-segregated or elitist (i.e., selective in a competitive fashion) residences and organizations – like many Greek houses – is a huge cause for concern if we indeed take sexual assault seriously. Discussion of the benefit of the continued dominance by Greek life must be on the table. Several New England colleges, realising that reform from within is not possible, have replaced Greek life with something more healthy in recent decades, and their reasons make for good reading. I quote the 1962 report from Williams College: “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” (my emphasis added). At least we have to reverse our current practice of building more sororities and replace this with something safer for students. Despite a 60-70% Greek membership at Dartmouth, I believe only 10% of our undergraduates live in Greek houses: rehousing them is hardly an insurmountable challenge. Finally, the Student Life Initiative (SLI) report of 2000 is very instructive reading [attached]; it has a good summary of residential issues here. To my knowledge none of the recommendations were carried out (this was before my time), yet seasoned faculty will tell you that the situation has only gotten worse.

The above facts 1-7 lead rather directly to some suggestions: (obviously colored by my personal observations, and in no particular order)

  1. Transition to co-ed housing and remove gender-segregated housing, since the latter is, despite heresay, in fact more dangerous than the former.
  2. Implement improvements to residential life proposed in the SLI 2000 report. This includes building East-Wheelock-style academic clusters (or, maybe, Oxbridge-style houses) rather than Greek houses, and creating a much stronger College-funded social and cultural student-run scene to provide viable alternatives to Greek life (Collis basement and the like is not enough for 5000 students). The latter could include party, dance, and music spaces, and Hopkins Center programming that is actually relevant to students (currently there is little). We need to learn from other institutions here about creating super student-run events that are as fun as a frat party but more accountable and less private.
  3. Invest in implementing an in-house investigative unit of crime professionals who identify student rapists, as Lisak & Miller 2002 suggests. This unit would piece together evidence from multiple students to identify repeat rapists and increase their chances of expulsion (currently I believe the COS process explicitly doesn’t take into account such evidence from other incidents).
  4. Re-fund and re-support a strong women’s center. The Center for Women and Gender has been disempowered over recent years, renamed into the Center for Gender & Student Engagement, and is now headed by a man, and gave its award to a man this year. It is not surprising that female undergraduates feel disempowered. Returning to something akin to the CWG is preferable to the current trend to the “health-centered” approach, which guides students to self-care and medication rather than organization and action.
  5. Follow the Clery law, which states that when crimes occur, an alert has to go out to the campus community. For example, in 2011 our Clery statistics list that 12 rapes occurred (of course this is only about 10% of the number which occurred). We did not get 12 emails to this effect: we got zero, as in every other year. In the last few months, with increased scrutiny and Title IX underway, we got two.
  6. Rape cases should to be handled by the Hanover police rather than internally. It is my understanding that rapists, especially those from powerful families, tend to be protected by the college (as well as “lawyered-up”) rather than held accountable. Victims get zero legal support, often have to face their rapists in class, and are generally encouraged by the Deans to “disappear” (take medical leave); rapists remain on campus.
  7. Support and grow the initiatives of our own staff and Deans (obviously the DBI is part of a solution), but also bring in an external commission with credentials (I would include Lisak, for instance) to make recommendations, and heed them even if there is local opposition. I have also heard about the idea of a national summit on this issue hosted here – I would recommend supporting and funding this.
  8. Help change the culture of Dartmouth students and administrators by keeping the issue of accountability for sexual predators forefront in your public appearances, and admitting we have a problem. When Charles Vest admitted that MIT had a sexism problem in its faculty, that was a brave step that was essential to moving forward. Although student groups can push for change, major change cannot come from below since students are here for such a short period: it has to come from the top.
  9. Not to treat this issue merely as an “image problem”: it is a real problem, and Dartmouth’s all-important image may have to take second place to the safety of our students for a transition period. In fact, we are to expect an *increase* in reports of rape initially when an institution changes for the better, because victims become more empowered to report. We have to weather that for the long-term good.

It seems that, as a wealthy private institution with student safety in mind, it is inconceivable that we don’t have the power to fix some of the injustice of rape (and the related hazing) on our campus. If we somehow do not have this power (certain forces are opposed to change), naming and discussing these obstructions is essential. We cannot put all our faith in bystander intervention. I hope the above helps give you some more tools to take strong leadership in this direction. You will certainly have the support of a large part of the faculty behind you.

Thanks for listening, and keep up the good work.

Yours sincerely,
Alex Barnett