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The Plague Of America's Fraternities - A Visiting German Professor Speaks Up

Students at Dartmouth College
Students at Dartmouth College
Tanja Duckers*

HANOVER - Students here at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League university in New Hampshire have been protesting against the rising numbers of sexual assaults on campus, as well as discrimination against homosexuals. The rallying cry of protesters is: "Dartmouth has a problem!"

There have also been protests in recent weeks at other elite academic institutions, including Harvard University, against the high rates of sexual assaults and rapes on the often-secluded campuses of American colleges and universities.

At Dartmouth, which only has 6,000 students, 25 rapes were reported in 2011. The actual number is likely even higher. Other colleges have similarly high numbers of rapes.

The protests largely mirror the political atmosphere in the country right now – where heated debates are on about the relationship between the state and individual rights are ongoing, including arguments over same-sex marriage, sexual abuse in the military and reflections on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that said the right to privacy extends to a woman’s right to have an abortion.

But why in particular are there so many rapes at educational institutions? Some of the conversations at Dartmouth have focused on the exploitative character of capitalism per se. Cheered on by nearly a thousand students, African-American philosopher Cornel West sounded off against capitalism, militarism, and imperialism – authoritarian structures that he said has “colonized” the country and contributed to an American culture of individualism.

Other discussions seek causes for the rape statistics on more pragmatic levels, and point out that most of the rapes take place at or after fraternity parties. There are of course "frats" at many American universities, but at a college like Dartmouth, which was founded in 1769 and is located in an isolated stretch of New England, they play a particularly important role.

If you want some kind of social life here you will attend the parties on campus because the alternative is listening to country music over a glass of juice at the local pub. The parties constitute the kernel of social life. And even though alcohol consumption is legally allowed only from the age of 21, beer, spirits and wine flow at frat parties in huge quantities.

Many of the rape victims, whether male or female, do not dare to report their attackers because they are afraid of being bullied on campus, or because they are afraid of getting in trouble with the police for drinking. The result is that nearly all the cases are only reported to campus security. Perpetrators don’t have a lot to fear – the worse that can happen to them is being expelled.

Banning fraternities

Bruce Duncan, who has been a German studies professor at Dartmouth for more than 40 years, points out that that there are very different types of student groups including sororities – women’s groups – and mixed gender groups. Sororities don’t allow alcohol to be served at their parties, so they are sometimes discreet co-organizers of fraternity parties.

Annabel Martin, a professor of Spanish and head of Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth, says the system – that allows men to drink alcohol but not women – is like “something out of the 1950s.” Many believe that the fraternities propagate a regressive image of men and women that is conducive to violent behavior – and over half of the college’s male students belong to one.

But rapes aren’t the only problem: so are the sometimes extremely brutal initiation rituals at which, for example, "vomlets" (omelets made out of vomit) must be eaten or candidates are made to swim in the Connecticut River at night. One student drowned attempting this.

The faculty at Dartmouth has several times voted to ban fraternities at the college, but they have never been able to prevail against the alumni – who account in large part for financial donations the college receives.

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Dartmouth College - Photo: Sarunas Burdulis

Many alumni are wealthy – they pay for the new gym, the new lab, and so on. With the help of large donations the college is able to offer scholarships to students from less wealthy families who cannot afford the $60,000 a year it costs to attend college here. While the generosity of alumni is admirable, it also creates some less desirable dependencies.

But the alumni are not the only ones who are against banning fraternities. Many of the students are against it as well. Being part of a fraternity means being part of a group that later guarantees members a life-long professional network. In some cases, membership amounts to a kind of insurance policy against unemployment. So people take the fear and the initiation rites in stride and join a fraternity. Loyalty to their fraternity is formative for many. The corporate identity that is practiced there could determine their professional and personal success in life.

The protests at Dartmouth unleashed violent reactions against demonstrators. A Dartmouth message site featured anonymous comments like "Wish I had a shotgun. Would have blown those hippies away" and “It’s women like these who deserve to get raped.” College administrators cancelled classes for a day – something that hasn’t been done in 30 years – to speak with students about the incidents.

Did the demonstrations serve a useful purpose? Bruce Duncan isn’t so sure – he believes that fraternities and sororities have for a long time now been losing clout and that increasingly such groups are more about teenage antics than they are about politics. Annabel Martin is also optimistic: she believes that something is changing all over America.

But even in the microcosm that is Dartmouth there was a surprise shortly after the protests: a female student was raped in her dorm – and filed charges against her attacker.

*Tanja Duckers is a Berlin-based writer currently teaching German studies at Dartmouth College.

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