HANOVER, N.H. — It is a new school year, and there is a new president, Philip J. Hanlon, who no doubt would prefer to begin his tenure as the 18th president of Dartmouth College dealing with issues more lofty than binge drinking, sexual harassment and fraternity hazing.
But a string of embarrassing episodes are defining the early days of his presidency, a problem compounded by an unusual amount of administrative turnover at the college he graduated from in 1977. The unflattering attention may not be over: The Department of Education is investigating a civil rights complaint, one of several against elite schools around the country, alleging that Dartmouth has not met its duty to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.
The turmoil is particularly unwelcome at a place whose enviable academic reputation and bucolic New England setting have long coexisted with issues revolving around drinking and fraternity life. The Princeton Review guide to colleges lists Dartmouth as one of the nation’s heaviest beer-drinking schools, based on student surveys, and games of “beer pong” and Friday night parties in the dank basements of fraternity houses are longstanding rituals.
There is drinking at all colleges and disagreement about the extent of problems at Dartmouth, but what no one disputes is that fraternities dominate the social scene here, putting them at the center of the debates. About two-thirds of undergraduates join a fraternity or sorority, nearly double the rate of any other Ivy League school. Besides fraternity and sorority houses, there are few indoor spaces where students can congregate, on or off campus, a fact the administration has long acknowledged, making a point of including such places in new buildings.
“There are too many people who see anyone who criticizes the Greek system as the enemy, and too many people who see anyone who’s in the Greek system as the enemy,” said Katie Wheeler, a junior who belongs to a sorority and has both criticized and defended Dartmouth in her column in The Dartmouth, a student newspaper.
All of this is happening at a time of unusual ferment at the top with Dr. Hanlon, who was inaugurated on Sept. 20, just settling in, and other senior administrative posts also turning over in a way that left many students and faculty members saying the campus felt rudderless before his arrival.
The drinking problems have flared into view just as the reality might be changing, due largely to former President Jim Yong Kim, who set out to curb alcohol abuse and sexual assault. Under him, Dartmouth started designating students to remain sober at parties and help people who are drunk and vulnerable and counseling students who go to the health center for alcohol-related reasons. He also founded the National College Health Improvement Program, an alliance of colleges trying to curb binge drinking.
Dr. Hanlon, who previously was at the University of Michigan, cited signs of improvement, like a drop in the number of times ambulances are called for students with very high blood alcohol levels, to 31 in 2012-13, from 80 in 2010-11.
Questions of alcohol abuse, hazing and the treatment of women moved to center stage last year, when a student, Andrew Lohse, wrote an essay for the newspaper detailing horrific things he had seen and done as a fraternity brother. The article drew muted assent from some students, charges of exaggeration from others, and national media attention sprinkled with references to “Animal House,” the 1978 film based very loosely on the writer Chris Miller’s memories of his Dartmouth daze.