Opinion

Opinion | Diana Whitney

The ‘Animal House’ culture at Dartmouth — then and now

FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, from left back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evansin, and from left front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano, pose in New York. The women filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College for allegedly allowing three professors to create a culture in their department that encouraged drunken parties and subjected female graduate students to harassment, groping and sexual assault. A growing number of former students are demanding answers from the administration and questioning how such an atmosphere apparently flourished for at least 15 years at the Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
Mary Altaffer/AP Photo
Six women filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College for allegedly allowing three professors to create a culture in their department that encouraged drunken parties and subjected female graduate students to harassment, groping, and sexual assault. From left, back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evansin, and from left, front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano.

‘Would you send your daughters to Dartmouth?”

The young woman met my eyes across the classroom, curious and expectant. I was back on campus visiting the #MeToo class in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies department — a middle-aged “alumni mentor” come to speak with students about my own experience at Dartmouth in the’90s. After enduring drunken sexual assault and harassment my freshman year, I considered transferring, but instead became a part-time feminist activist who pushed back against the dominant “Animal House” culture.

In the #MeToo class, I paused and looked around the semicircle of 18 students, most of whom were women of color. Bright and outspoken, they’d been wrestling all semester with questions of intersectionality and social justice, exploring the #MeToo movement’s connection to their own lives, and looking at Dartmouth’s history of exclusion.

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“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. My girls are 11 and 13, and while I hope they’ll have the stellar academic opportunities I’d been given, I want to spare them the pain of sexual violence inflicted by entitled young men. And, it turns out, allegedly by professors.

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One week after my visit, seven current and former Dartmouth students filed a $70 million class-action lawsuit against the college, alleging that Dartmouth had ignored years of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by three professors in the prestigious Psychological and Brain Sciences department. From hard-drinking hot-tub parties to groping and rape, these men had transformed their department into “a 21st-century Animal House,” while the college turned a blind eye, even rewarding and promoting the predators, according to the lawsuit. The suit also claims that the students who filed the Title IX complaints and took legal action faced academic and professional retaliation for speaking out — including expulsion, probation, removal of their funding, and academic failure.

I got news of the lawsuit, like other alumni, in an evasive e-mail from the president of Dartmouth, Philip Hanlon. He stated that the college “respectfully, but strongly, disagreed” with the complaint and would “respond through our own court filings.” In other words, the administration would defend themselves and Dartmouth’s reputation at all costs. As I read through the 72-page legal document, which details the alleged violations inflicted on each plaintiff, I felt ill. The worst part was not the professors’ egregious behavior but Dartmouth’s alleged complicity in it. These men weren’t three bad apples to be culled from an otherwise healthy tree, as the president wants us to believe. The tree itself is rotten with the blight of sexual violence, and the college must open its eyes, look clearly at this crisis, and take immediate steps to find a remedy.

I’m inspired by the courage of the seven women speaking out against the abuse that has derailed their lives. In wielding the legal system to seek justice and accountability, they are true warriors. By refusing to be silenced or intimidated by those in power, they’re empowering other survivors to come forward. Since the lawsuit was filed, alumni have mobilized on social media, sharing their own Dartmouth stories of sexual assault and harassment. I’ve helped organize a group of 60 former and current students to send a letter to the college president and the board of trustees, expressing our outrage and standing in solidarity with the plaintiffs. Nearly 800 members of the Dartmouth community have signed this statement, which calls on college leadership to “acknowledge their glaring breach of responsibility, issue a public apology, and begin a transparent overhaul of regressive practices.” Our group has vowed not to stop making noise until we see real change. As part of our further actions, we’ll create a sustainable, living repository of survivor stories. My own will be among them.

Four years at Dartmouth turned me into a lifelong feminist. Now I’m collaborating with Dartmouth women spanning several generations, who are diverse and passionate and fierce in the face of injustice. I’m reminded of the bold friends who urged me to take risks in college — to leap into the frigid Connecticut River at ice-out, to race up a White Mountain peak in October. Working on the collective letter to the president, I’ve found myself energized and even a bit hopeful. I think of the bright faces in that classroom, the young women reckoning with sexual violence past and present, and the social impact of the #MeToo movement.

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So is this a place I’d want to send my daughters? The answer is unclear. Not the college of the past — regressive and entrenched in a patriarchal culture that enables predators and silences victims. But a changed Dartmouth, a more humble Dartmouth, a self-reflective Dartmouth willing to listen to survivors’ stories, to be accountable for the damage done, to say “We’re so sorry, this is not who we want to be. We’re working to make sure this never happens again”? Yes, I’d send my girls there — if they wanted to go.

Diana Whitney of Brattleboro, Vt., is the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first book, “Wanting It,” won the Rubery Book Award in poetry.