Trustee Student Life Initiative marked by controversy

On February 9, 1999 students found a letter from the Board of Trustees and College President James Wright in their Hinman mail boxes. The letters, written subtly with no fanfare, were mostly ignored; few students, if any, at that point realized the far-reaching implications such a simple letter would have.

In almost coded language, the Trustees used the mass mailing to announce their historic Social and Residential Life Initiative. It was the Trustees’ vision that the College’s future should be guided by five overarching principles.

While four of these principles — calling for decentralized dining and more on-campus housing — would have sparked considerable campus debate by themselves, the fifth principle that stated that residential living should be “substantially coeducational” turned out to be the most controversial.

By the next day, the cryptic principles were dissected and their meanings were made clear — the Greek system was included as a prime target of reform.

“Trustees to end Greek system as we know it” screamed the headline in The Dartmouth the next morning. The newspaper’s interview with Wright clarified the Trustees’ Initiative, which he said would be the biggest change to the College since women were first admitted 28 years ago.

While in the coming days the term “substantially” continued to go undefined and some conflicting information was presented about the impact on the College’s fraternities and sororities, it was clear the Trustees desired serious changes to Greek life — increasing the interaction between men and women in the houses and de-emphasizing the role of alcohol within the system.

The announcement was made just days before the annual Winter Carnival weekend — a weekend traditionally consisting largely of Greek parties. That weekend became the first in a series of martyrdoms resulting from the Initiative. Greek leaders voted to cancel all Greek events that weekend in order to send a signal of Greek opposition to the plan and to prevent embarrassing incidents from being broadcast across the nation.

That fear was magnified by a press corps camped in Hanover to cover the event. The Trustees’ Initiative was covered by numerous media outlets including the Associated Press, Fox News, the BBC, the Boston Globe and The New York Times.

James Wright also became a martyr for the Initiative. The newly appointed College president was initially well-liked by the students. Wright became the visible and recognizable symbol of the unpopular Initiative. Unlike the Trustees, who are rarely seen on campus and largely unknown to students, Wright was verbally attacked around campus and in columns in The Dartmouth for the Five Principles.

The night after the announcement, approximately 1,000 students gathered in front of the president’s house and chanted protests before loudly singing the alma mater.

“Judas, Brutus, Arnold, Wright” read one sign hung from a Greek house window decrying the College president as a traitor.

Wright made his first public appearance after the Initiative announcement at the opening ceremony of Winter Carnival. The event, which turned into a protest rally, was a sign of things to come for the unusual weekend.

Instead of Psi Upsilon fraternity’s annual keg jumping event, the fraternity turned their frozen lawn into a protest ground. Numerous Greek leaders and supporters spoke from the fraternity’s porch as crowd-members wore ribbons to show their opposition to the plan.

The discussion

The ramifications of the Initiative for the Greek system became more clear after then-Trustee Chair Stephen Bosworth ’61 told The Dartmouth that the Board was ready to weather any and all opposition to their plan to potentially eliminate single-sex fraternities and sororities from the College.

Bosworth also said the 1999 Fall term rush process would be dramatically affected by the Initiative — though that turned out not to be the case.

Acting Dean of the College Dan Nelson formed a task force in mid-February with the responsibility of collecting proposals for possible changes from various students and campus organizations.

Five student working groups were also formed at the beginning of March with open membership, each charged with discussing a specific principle and formulating a proposal to be submitted to the Trustees. Their proposals were effectively gutted in a marathon Student Assembly meeting May 25 that resulted in the rejection of all but the tamest recommendations.

On April 19 the Board of Trustees announced the next step in the Initiative process — the creation of the steering committee, formally known as the Committee on the Student Life Initiative.

Committee members were selected by the board and included Trustees Susan Dentzer ’77 and Peter Fahey ’68 as well as three alumni, three faculty members, three administrators, one graduate student and four undergraduates.

One student was selected by a campus wide vote, another was chosen by the Assembly while the other two were chosen by an application process.

The steering committee maintained a controversial policy of secrecy in its interactions with students from its creation until the end of Fall term of 1999. During the summer it met with various student groups and administrators and toured almost all the CFS houses.

Awaiting the recommendations

The campus was given its first glimpse of what the steering committee recommendations may include at a town hall forum Oct. 12.

October’s meeting gave students an opportunity to ask questions of Fahey and Dentzer, the two Trustee chairs of the committee.

At the meeting, the two highlighted a portion of their vision of the future of Dartmouth’s social and residential life.

Talking points included freshmen-only housing options, expansion of dining options and improving or changing social systems.

“Close your eyes and imagine clusters with big common houses attached to them, where 300 people can get together and have a sushi night for the entire cluster,” said Dentzer, describing a common house system.

Student representatives on the steering committee — graduate student Jesse Fecker, Hillary Miller ’02, Matthew K. Nelson ’00, Kyle Roderick ’99 and Meg Smoot ’01 — also met with community members in a town hall meeting dominated by discussions of both the Greek system and Dartmouth’s image in the media.

Steering committee report

On Jan. 10, the steering committee chaired by Dentzer and Fahey released its much-awaited report calling for substantial changes to the Greek system.

The report recommended removing pledge period, renovating house basements into general purpose and study space areas, removing all taps systems and refrigeration units, moving rush to sophomore winter, hiring of non-students bartenders, developing stricter definition and penalties for hazing and elimination of the CFSC judicial system.

The report also recommended a complete review of the Greek system in 2005 and suggested giving the authority to the Dean of the College to recommend the elimination of the system at any point over the next five years if he considered it necessary.

The student reaction to the report was laregly subdued — in remarkable contrast to last Feb., when the first announcement was made.

Other steering recommendations by the steering committee included an expanded cluster system, experimental freshman-only housing and much more stringent alcohol regulations.

The College administration had set up numerous venues for discussion the night of the report’s release — approximately 600 students attended these. The report garnered mixed responses from the campus, with the Greek issue dominating the discussions. A poll conducted by The Dartmouth after the report’s release showed that most students felt the recommendations proposed for the Greek system and tightening alcohol use were too strict. A majority of 56 percent of students, who responded to the poll, also felt the recommendations would not improve Dartmouth’s social and residential life.

In the coming weeks, the administration invited responses from the entire Dartmouth community. A Student Response Task Force was chaired by Dean of the College James Larimore. The next couple of months were spent gathering student and alumni input. Senior College administrators hosted “Fireside Chats” for students to give their input. Many campus groups — including the CFSC, the Inter Franternity Council and the Student Assembly — submitted their own reports to the Board of Trustees.

Besides reports and discussions, the College administration also invited responses through e-mail and the Dartmouth website.

The Trustees reviewed the responses to the steering committee recommendations at their regularly scheduled Spring term meeting, reaching consensus on the first set of Initiative changes. The announcement, outlining the Board’s goals, was made soon after the weekend — a little more than 14 months after the initial Five Principles were announced.

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