Dartmouth Students Say Hard Alcohol Ban Just A Small Piece Of A Bigger Reform Puzzle

May 20, 2015

At the end of January, Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon presented a sweeping plan to reverse troubling trends at the Ivy League school.

The Moving Dartmouth Forward Plan targets excessive drinking and sexual assault. New policies also aims to raise academic standards and transform residential housing. Roll-out will be gradual, but first steps are underway as committees are being formed to accomplish three broad goals: update the college code of conduct, reform rules for on campus social events and ramp up sexual assault prevention programs.  

Last winter, the national media pounced on just one piece of that complex reform puzzle. Undergraduates are now not allowed to possess or consume hard alcohol on college property, and it may not be served at college recognized events — including alumni gatherings. That’s an unusual policy in the Ivy League. But sophomore Katherine McAvoy thinks that media fixation on the booze rule missed the mark.

“The hard alcohol ban is the least interesting part of MDF,” she says.

MDF — you hear that a lot on campus these days — is shorthand for President Hanlon’s plan, Moving Dartmouth Forward. McAvoy is education director of Movement Against Violence, a student group trying to prevent sexual assault. And Dartmouth will do that most effectively, she says, by requiring sexual assault prevention classes and creating a new residential system that offers attractive alternatives to fraternity houses.

“All of those have the potential to affect far more change than the hard alcohol ban. Plus they are just more interesting ... things to talk about and they are things that the majority of students get behind,” says McAvoy.

It’s hard to know, though, what the average Dartmouth student is willing to get behind. In a noisy lunchroom, few are willing to be interviewed on tape about the MDF plan. Some say sweeping new policies should have more student input. And one student who does not want to give her name says hard alcohol has just been replaced by larger quantities of wine and beer.

“And people are going off campus more,” she adds.

"What a lot of people are trying to say [is that] it's definitely possible to transition the Greek system, while retaining some of its old character, into something that provides alternative social space in a better way." - Taylor Watson, member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity

Off campus, where they escape surveillance. But the student co-chair of a working group to better manage on-campus social events points to encouraging signs of progress. Taylor Watson, a junior and member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, says there has been a decrease in alcohol-related hospitalizations since new restrictions went into effect. But Watson says parties, especially at fraternities, still need to be better managed if the houses want to avoid being closed down when they are evaluated in three years.

“So what a lot of people are trying to say [is that] it’s definitely possible to transition the Greek system, while retaining some of its old character, into something that provides alternative social space in a better way,” Watson says.

There are some who don’t share his optimism. An editorial in the campus newspaper, for example, calls for the end of the Greek system. But Associate Dean Liz Agosto believes that this 200-year-old institution can change its ways without changing its identity. She graduated from Dartmouth in 2001, when she says binge drinking and rape were not as openly discussed as they are now. But she says the Moving Dartmouth Forward plan does not promise a quick fix to those problems, or any others.

"I think it's often touted as a response to media and I don't think that's what it is ... We are saying no student should feel unsafe, no student should experience violence, every student should be included, and there's a lot of work to do in there." - Associate Dean Liz Agosto

“I think it’s often touted as a response to media and I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s a response to students saying, ‘This is my Dartmouth, and I want it to be better, and this is how I’m feeling.’ So we are saying no student should feel unsafe, no student should experience violence, every student should be included, and there’s a lot of work to do in there,” Agosto says.

And that work, students and college administrators agree, could take a decade to finish, and assess.