Friday, January 18, 2008

Sexism Alive and Well at Dartmouth College

I have come, over the past six or so months, to a very saddening realization: my college is sexist.

I am not referring to any specific individuals, though some certainly raise eyebrows. No, the problem is not with any administrator or student, but with the system. Dartmouth students will know I am referring to the current controversy regarding the sorority Alpha Xi Delta (AZD) and the fraternity Beta Theta Pi (Beta). Beta was permanently derecognized by the College ten years ago for a pattern of sexist, racist, and homophobic behavior. The frat owned its own mansion rather than using a college-owned house (despite its central campus location), and AZD has rented that building since the derecognition. Last Wednesday, Beta informed AZD that it will be repossessing the house in July. The College has offered to relocate AZD to a much smaller house a mile away.

Beta’s dark history aside, no one can blame them for wanting their property back, and there is no guarantee that future brothers will repeat the same behavior as their alumni (some of whom turned out quite respectable). Indeed, AZD’s president has made it clear that the girls are not angry with Beta. The problem is that if Beta is rerecognized, which appears likely, Dartmouth will have 16 fraternities to only 7 sororities. This discrepancy is exacerbated by the fact that the locations of the fraternities is infinitely more desirable to those of the sororities. If AZD leaves its central location, only one sorority will be left with a convenient spot on Webster Avenue, aka “Frat Row” (case in point, it’s not even called “Greek Row”). Worst of all, the College has a blatantly discriminatory policy that only men can establish local Greek organizations; all new sororities must be national. This all means that it is much easier for men to host open parties or serve alcohol. Given that 2/3 of eligible Dartmouth students are members of a Greek organization, the Dartmouth social scene largely revolves around Greek life. (I am part of the leftover 1/3.) This means that, in essence, the official policy of Dartmouth College is that if women want to have evening fun, it must be on men’s terms, in places where men control entrance and alcohol access. This, of course, increases the risk of sexual harassment and even assault, and the College does nothing.

(For clarification purposes, the reason Dartmouth is considering rerecognizing a "permanently" derecognized frat is threefold: one, Beta owns its own house and Dartmouth is terrified of an unregulated, unrecognized frat running amok in the middle of campus; two, Beta promises to align itself with a national organization; and three, Beta alums donate a lot of money.)

(UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that the local ban is on any new single sex house, not just sororities. Nevertheless, I still believe this to be a discriminatory rule, given that when it was implemented, there were many more pre-existing local frats than sororities, and women are now banned from narrowing that gap if they so choose. Because this is a correction and I should be honest about my mistake, I'm not editing the original text of this post, but please keep this update in mind as you read forward: the what (discrimination) is the same, but the why (existing effects rather than coded rule) is slightly altered.)(That's another clarification I should make - three of the current sororities are local, but only three.)

The AZD/Beta flap follows on the heels of another incident this summer, when Theta Delta Chi frat (TDX) agreed to let Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority (KKG) use the TDX house for the night. When the KKG sisters approached the building, an unspecified number of drunken TDX brothers came pouring out of windows and trees, screaming slurs like “bitch” and “whore.” The brothers in question (it was not the whole house) then proceeded to trash their own house so the women could not use it. Students were outraged, and the College planned to investigate – an investigation that might include sanctioning KKG for underage drinking, never mind the sexual harassment. Worst of all was the TDX president’s excuse: "Ben [B.] said that many men arrive at college unsure of how to act or speak to women, and are thus susceptible to conforming to the reigning culture of what he termed 'The Dartmouth Man.'" Unsure of how to act towards women? How about *respecting* them??? Did your parents really fail you that much? I swear, one of the main reasons I want a son is so I can teach him to respect women; I don’t want to make the same mistake certain TDX parents seem to have made.

(Update, 02-15-09: Over a year after this original post, I had the chance to talk to Ben B.'s mother after church this morning. She said the campus paper took his quotes out of context - in the case of the "Dartmouth man" quote above, she says Ben was not excusing the actions, but was discussing why what happened had happened and how it could be changed. This is not surprising: The D is a bit of a rag, known for misquoting people. Ben's mom further said that the reason Ben ran for president of TDX was to try and change its decrepit internal culture. One of the girls attacked was one of his best friends, and what followed was perhaps the hardest term he's ever faced. He has since put together several programs for exploring these gender issues, and the house did take internal action. I don't know if any of that's done any good, but I will say this: TDX has had a sketchy, scary reputation since before I arrived at Dartmouth, and it's good to know there are forces within the house pushing back. In deference to Ben and his mother, I have deleted his last name from this post. I would also note that, if I were to write this post today, I would not have questioned the parents of the students in question - Lord only knows my brother and I have done things our folks would find unappealing, but there's nothing they could have done better in terms of teaching us values. Where we depart from those lessons is our own fault, not theirs, and if that's true of my parents than surely it's true of many - even most - others. End update.)

The inherent sexism found in Dartmouth’s social scene has led many students to say they would not send their daughters to Dartmouth. I do not blame them; this pattern of disrespect and sexism must be stopped. I wrote a letter to the school paper last night reflecting on the AZD incident and proposing a few solutions. You can read it at the paper’s website, but they made some edits I’m not entirely happy with, so it’s best to read my original text here:

To the editor,

In light of the many letters from AZD and Beta members, I would like to add an unaffiliated perspective to the mix. The current controversy, like this summer’s TDX scandal, reveals the widespread discrimination against Dartmouth women. Julia Schwartz ’08 was correct when she said, "It’s not an AZD issue; it’s a campus issue." Even alumni politics mean nothing in the face of life-long lessons regarding sexual respect.

I do not understand how Richard Denton '08 can claim moving AZD a full mile away "will cause no change in gender social-dynamics." His further charge that AZD is using “uncontrollable sensationalism” is highly slanderous [as the AZD president link above should show]. AZD's members are among the classiest women I have ever met, and as D readers know, Beta’s history is only a side issue. The real issue is that, thanks in part to the discriminatory policy of allowing only men to create local houses, fraternities outnumber sororities 2-1 and control the best real estate. The College has basically said that if women want social lives, they must be on men’s terms.

If handled correctly, this crisis can become a turning point in the College’s relationship with women. The idea of replacing the Choates with sororities is intriguing, and the formation of a study committee is crucial. The College should increase its offer for the Beta property to match the price of the South Park house. If that fails, let Beta remain unrecognized. Place signs around the property declaring it a dangerous area, and have the Sexual Assault Peer Advisor program (SAPAs) warn freshmen during orientation.

Nathan S. Empsall ‘09

In addition to the solutions listed above, the ban on creating local sororities should be lifted. I recommend David Nachman's post at Super Dartmouth, and if you have the time Joe Malchow's at Dartblog, for a little more info there. The call for a study committee refers to a petition circulated on campus and delivered to the administration building by several hundred students yesterday afternoon. As for the line about AZD girls being the classiest folks I've met, well, they have the highest GPA and most community service hours of any Greek house on campus, so let that speak for itself. It is also worth mentioning that Mr. Denton may no longer be a Dartmouth student – it would appear he transferred to Arizona State last year.

I want to make it clear that this article is not an attack on Beta, nor is it intended to point a finger at any specific individuals (with the possible exception of the TDX brothers involved in this summer’s incident). Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman is working hard to find a solution, President Wright is traveling, and Dean of the College Thomas Crady has only been her for two weeks. As far as Beta is concerned, to re-emphasize the AZD president’s point, the general treatment of Dartmouth women and the return of Beta to campus are two separate issues. When I say Beta should remain unrecognized, I mean right now - we don't need a 15th frat if we're not simultaneously offering women the chance to start an 8th, 9th, and 10th sorority, but certainly Beta can enter the picture further down the road. This is a critique only of a broken system, and a demand that it be changed. If the administration refuses to recognize the pattern of disrespect and act on it, then, and only then, will it be time to point fingers – but point them we will.


aj said...

As a Dartmouth female, here's my two cents (though really, does this whole mess even merit another person's two cents?).

Frankly, in the whole scheme gender-relations on campus, the movement of AZD from Frat Row to somewhere else isn't that big an issue in the scheme of things. It was a douchebaggy thing to do by Beta (giving them not even quite a year to evacuate), but they are TOTALLY within their right to do so. It's not like AZD could throw open parties on Frat Row, as a national sorority, anyway; the only ones it will really affect are the sorority sisters.

That said, the prohibition of new local houses from being founded is boneheaded. After all, the true centers of campus are the houses where liquor can be served--it's just a fact of life living at Dartmouth.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point: you mention that there is a ban on local fraternities and sororities, however BETA is not affiliated with a national organization as pointed out by a national spokesperson in The Dartmouth recently. So it seems that while this ban was upheld when Alpha Phi wanted to come to campus originally as a local, there can be exceptions made for fraternities.

So, perhaps your original "mistake" of saying there is only a local ban on sororities, wasn't a mistake after all.

Nathan Empsall said...

To anonymous - The ban does apply to Beta. Beta will not be recognized by the College until it affiliates with a national fraternity, but since it owns its own house, the College can't stop it from existing in an unrecognized form in the heart of campus.

To aj - I'm with you re: Beta, they are certainly within their rights here. But, I do think it is a big deal, because it can be used as a springboard to discuss the larger issues of the local ban and gender parity.

Jamie Hahn Photography said...

As an outsider, reading your blog about sexism in general, I am in substantially surprised at the reality of it all. While I am a woman who feels progress has been made, reading about real life brings me right back to the realization of how bad things still are. I wonder too, how many college females realize what is going on. I can't believe we are still at this stage; it isn't the 1920's or the 1960's: YOU would think we've grown more than this! Respect seems so easy really, so why is it such a problem? Why aren't we (women) demanding more? Why aren't more men like you, Nathan? Thank you for this post. You have a blessed ability to go far in your service to others.

Anonymous said...

whoa! yall are wack. im a hs girl lookin for documents to support my debate that sexism does still exist on college campuses and yall bickerin bout there isnt and there isnt makes it crazy hard to fool my teacher and make this look like a full out valid source. anyways aside from that yall are pretty funny.

Nathan Empsall said...

Hi, Anon. If you're still working on your paper, good luck. If you're done, I hope it went well.

Given your tone, it may surprise you to learn that neither the goal of this post or of its comment section is to help you fool your teacher. In fact, I would advise you against using blogs as "documents" in your papers, because indeed, they are NOT valid sources, and I say that as the blogger here. What you can use them for is finding other sources, like the links I included in this post to the campus newspaper - those are valid sources.

You chose an important topic for your paper. Good for you. I hope you treated it seriously. Best of luck!