Dartmouth College president Philip J. Hanlon is declaring that the university must fundamentally change its student culture to combat a litany of harmful behaviors — including binge drinking, sexual assault, hazing, and anonymous online vitriol — that have kept the school in the headlines and limited its advancement.
“Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme and harmful behaviors, often masked by its perpetrators as fun,” Hanlon said in an interview Wednesday. “But in fact this is a barrier to Dartmouth achieving its potential and promise, and we cannot allow this to continue.”
Hanlon’s message — which he planned to deliver to a group of student leaders, faculty, and alumni Wednesday night — is an extraordinarily rare acknowledgment by a university president of a dysfunctional campus culture.
“Dangerous drinking has become the rule and not the exception,” he said in an advance copy of remarks prepared for the campus summit. He called hazing, “disgusting” threats and insults on the Internet, and parties with racist or sexist undertones symptoms of “a general disregard for human dignity.”
Hanlon, a Dartmouth alumnus who has been in office since June, tied these problems to a startling 14 percent drop in applications Dartmouth received this year, as well as an ongoing federal Title IX investigation into how the college handles sexual assaults.
In coming days, Hanlon said, he will establish a presidential steering committee focused on high-risk drinking, sexual assault, and inclusivity. The committee, to include students, faculty, administrators and alumni, will spend the summer researching solutions and talking to other universities before presenting recommendations to the board of trustees in the fall.
The Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H., has been known for generations for outrageous student antics. It inspired the movie “Animal House,” and its students are said to have invented beer pong, a drinking game now popular across the country. But the bad publicity may have reached historic heights in the past few years.
First, a former fraternity member published an exposé of fraternity hazing that included pledges being told to swim in a pool filled with human waste.
Last spring saw students protesting that the university was not properly handling sexual assaults, which inspired a backlash from other students, including online death threats. Over the summer, a fraternity sponsored a “Bloods and Crips” party decried as racist.
Several months ago, a post on a popular student website offered a chilling guide on how to sexually assault a specific young woman.
The university already has been working on many of the issues raised by these incidents, and Hanlon was careful to credit students with spearheading some of these efforts.
The school is leading a group of universities experimenting with new ways to reduce dangerous drinking, an effort that has borne fruit. The number of students taken to the hospital with blood alcohol levels above .25, more than three times the legal limit, has fallen from 36 in fall 2010 to seven in fall 2013, the school said. Greek organizations decided on their own to ban freshman from parties for the first six weeks of school.
Dartmouth is also about to implement one of the toughest university policies on sexual assault, which will mandate expulsion of students found responsible for rape.
The university is moving to create a “house system” in which students will live in the same part of campus for several years, an effort to build community outside the fraternity and sorority system.
‘Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme and harmful behaviors.’
“We’re making progress, but that’s not success,” Hanlon told the Globe. “We need to do better.”
Hanlon, a 1977 graduate who was a fraternity member, declined to compare the school’s culture during his student days with what he sees today. Asked whether banning fraternities would be considered, he said everything was on the table. But he emphasized that the new effort is aimed at every aspect of campus life.
He also dismissed the idea that the college’s alumni, including many defenders of the Greek system, would oppose meaningful change.
“We’re really focused on these extreme harmful behaviors, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t recognize the harm those cause,” he said. “I’m optimistic that we are going to find some solutions we haven’t before, and we’re going to get strong support for ending these kinds of behaviors.”Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@