Taking on the (pink) elephant in the room

Bloomberg photo by Scott Eells.

Bloomberg photo by Scott Eells.

Perhaps the president of Dartmouth College has finally said what many other university administrators are feeling.

Philip Hanlon didn’t mince words when he spoke to a group of student leaders, faculty and alumni earlier this month. He offered a withering critique of his own school, saying that its future “is being hijacked by extreme and harmful behaviors.”

“Sexual assaults on campus” — alleged and otherwise — rampant “dangerous drinking,” and parties featuring “racist or sexist undertones,” are undermining the Ivy League school’s culture and image, he warned. “There is a grave disconnect between our culture in the classroom and the behaviors outside of it — behaviors which too often seek not to elevate the human spirit, but debase it,” he said, citing a “general disregard for human dignity. It is time for Dartmouth to change.”

Dartmouth’s image has taken a beating in the last few years with high-profile allegations of sexual assault. There are a couple of issues at play here.

We can’t ignore the role the hook-up culture, so widespread among Gen Y, could play. As one University of Pennsylvania undergrad described her go-to sex partner, “We don’t really like each other in person, sober,” adding that “we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.”

Greek life also dominates many campuses and has taken much of the blame for this behavior. Fingers are being pointed for more than sexual abuse: Assault and battery claims and injuries, particularly from falls resulting from binge-drinking revelries, are on the rise.

Adding to the combustible mix: Energy drink mixers that keep students awake so they have longer to drink. Escalating numbers of students taking legally prescribed antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs, many of which can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol. And perhaps a feeling of responsibility to keep and live up to their respective school’s hard drinking party reputation.

Surveys find that more than 40 percent of college students binge drink. Interestingly, drinking on campus increased as the drinking age increased. A theory advanced by Kenyon College president S. Georgia Nugent is that because students “cannot go out and have a beer every hour or two while dancing, they hide in their rooms, drink way too much and are at much greater risk.” Sadly, and for those who are concerned with gender equity, this is one area where women are on an equal footing with men.

And here’s a term hopefully not destined for The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year: “Shmacked,” which according to Urban Dictionary, means “to become intoxicated to the point of not even being able to stand up, know what’s going on, or correctly pronounce any word.” Two enterprising 20-somethings have launched a production company recording the most outrageous scenes it can find for its blockbuster “I’m Shmacked” video series (with this questionable disclaimer: “No alcohol or illegal substance is used during the filming, just prop”). More help in defining today’s college drinking culture.

Co-eds who think a party or weekend bender are discrete events had better think again. Cellphone cameras and social media allow every single destined-to-be-embarrassing moment to be shared quickly with the world at large. That can mean the glorification of reckless behavior but can also, because everything electronic never really goes away, lead to humiliating and painful reminders of college idiocy and spectacularly bad decision making well into post-college life.

Schools are taking steps to address this alcohol abuse, acknowledging that students aren’t going to suddenly swear abstinence and taking the tack that they might at least drink safely.

How do parents play into all this? First of all, “A prospective student or parent should be concerned if a campus is not talking about” these issues, Hanlon told The Washington Post. But they should also be aware that if their frat boy finds himself in a spot of legal trouble stemming from an event at his house, they — not their kid, not the fraternity, not the college — can be hung out to dry financially.

“I’ve recovered millions and millions of dollars from homeowners’ policies,” states a top fraternal plaintiff’s attorney. And that’s after the family has paid for legal defense expenses in a civil case (for which there are no public defenders).

Kudos to President Hanlon, who was brave to address the elephant in the room. Perhaps we can get high school principals to follow suit.

Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.