Colleges pushed to moment of reckoning
Concord, N.H. — On college campuses nationwide, the intertwined problems of sexual assault and alcohol are under intense scrutiny as students increasingly speak up and the federal government cracks down. Pushed to a collective moment of reckoning, colleges and universities are trying a slew of solutions focused on education, environment and enforcement.
At the University of Virginia, a social network will connect female freshmen with older mentors. Brown University hopes to make it easier for women to report sexual assault. In New Hampshire, Dartmouth College has banned hard liquor plans to take the unusual step of completely overhaul its housing system.
At Dartmouth, where a committee spent nine months researching high-risk drinking, sexual assault and a general lack of community on campus, no one solution stood out.
"I was hopeful that they would find some campus that had really unlocked the secret, but what they found is that every campus is suffering from these issues and struggling with these issues," Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon said.
Even as administrators implement changes, new incidents have cropped up. A Penn State fraternity is accused of posting photos of nude women, some apparently unconscious, on a private Facebook page. The University of Wisconsin-Madison terminated a fraternity chapter last week after an investigation found it engaged in hazing that included excessive underage drinking and sexualized conduct.
At the University of Virginia, social activities at fraternities were suspended after the November publication of a Rolling Stone article describing a gang-rape at a fraternity. Though much of the article was later discredited, the school lifted the suspension only after Greek organizations agreed to new rules banning kegs, requiring security workers and ensuring at least three fraternity members are sober.
The university also is considering new courses on safety and a research institute on violence, and a group of administrators, faculty members, students and others will make recommendations next month on changing the university's culture with regard to alcohol and sexual assault.
In Rhode Island, where Brown University students recently protested the handling of a female student's drugging and sexual assault allegations, a task force on sexual assault is expected to release its final report this month. The university has begun implementing some recommendations made in December, including handling complaints more quickly and reducing the "traumatic nature" of the process.
Dartmouth last year overhauled its policies to include harsher sanctions for sexual assault and it is developing a four-year, mandatory sexual violence prevention program. On the fraternity front, it plans to require all student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, to undergo annual reviews to ensure they are being inclusive and diversifying their membership.
But going further, Dartmouth is literally changing how students live. Starting with the class of 2019, each incoming student will be assigned to one of six "house communities" — a cluster of residence halls that will serve as a home base for social and academic programs. Each community will have a professor in residence and dedicated space for academic and social interaction.
In recommending the house system, Hanlon's committee faulted the school for failing to invest in residential life over the years and creating a void that was largely filled by the Greek system.
Dartmouth joins a small but growing number of U.S. colleges and universities that have embraced the "residential college" model, which typically involves small, faculty-led communities that include students from various years and backgrounds. The concept goes back centuries in England, but only about 30 U.S. schools have at least one residential college, the vast majority of them created for reasons unrelated to the challenges that led to Dartmouth's decision.
Rice University in Texas, which started its residential college system in 1957, randomly assigns every student to one of 11 colleges. Mixing freshmen in with upperclassmen helps transfer traditions and standards of behavior, and having separate governing systems for each college makes them "incubators of problem-solving," said John Hutchinson, dean of undergraduates.
For example, when the university wanted to tackle alcohol abuse several years ago, he said, it gathered together residential college leaders, who then strongly recommended a ban on hard alcohol.
Dartmouth's plans are largely an experiment. No one has specifically studied whether residential colleges make for safer campuses, and like Dartmouth, a handful of schools with residential college systems are under investigation by the Department of Education for how they handle sexual assault and harassment.
But administrators and students say that such systems can help schools deal with problems better.
Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, where two former football players were recently convicted of raping an unconscious student in June 2013, opened 10 residential colleges for freshmen in 2008 and two more for older students last fall.
Cynthia Cyrus, provost for learning and residential affairs, said that there have been fewer reports of "extreme behaviors" from the two new colleges compared with traditional housing, and that students living in the freshmen houses and the new colleges more often have what she calls "the difficult conversations" about rape, religion and other issues.
Sophomore Vivek Shah is a resident adviser in Vanderbilt's Moore College, where two dormitories are connected by a central area that includes classrooms, conference rooms, and space for eating and studying. Thanks to his fellow residents, he has enjoyed women's soccer games, theater performances and concerts he otherwise would have skipped.
"Living with students not only of both genders but different grade levels and different experiences has really shown me that there is more to campus than just what I do," he said.
At Dartmouth, nearly 90 percent of students live on campus, but many switch rooms multiple times a year and treat their residence halls like hotels, returning only to sleep and do laundry.
In contrast, Rice senior Ravi Sheth says he felt at home before he even enrolled when he visited one of the residential colleges as a high school student. That sense of community was a main factor in his decision to attend the university, he said.
"It gives students a lot of control," he said, "over the environment in which they live."