Some (Polemical) Reflections on the Dartmouth Hazing Controversy

Rolling Stone recently published a long story about Andrew Lohse, a Dartmouth senior who blew the whistle—assuming there was a whistle to blow—about hazing practices at his school’s social fraternities.  In January of this year, Lohse published an op-ed in The Dartmouth, chronicling his experiences with a particular Dartmouth fraternity and reproaching the school’s network of Greek letter organizations—Dartmouth has long been a breeding ground for “Greek life”—of perpetuating a “pervasive hazing, substance abuse[,] and sexual assault culture.”  Here is the essence of Lohse’s exposé:

I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a . . . pool full of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen[,] and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beers poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks; and vomit on other pledges, among other abuses. . . .  As a pledge, I ceased to be a human being; instead, I became “whale shit.”  In the process, I, my fellow pledges[,] and all pledges since . . . have been implicitly encouraged to treat Dartmouth women with about the same respect with which we treated each other in our social spaces: none.  Fraternity life is at the core of [Dartmouth’s] human and cultural dysfunctions.

Lohse went on to censure Dartmouth administrators for failing to take action to reign in the school’s fraternities, reminding his readers that Dartmouth’s Greek system is in need of “extensive oversight and restructuring.”  He also named names and took aim at Dartmouth’s president, Jim Yong Kim.

After several students attacked Lohse on The Dartmouth’s website, his story attracted the attention of Rolling Stone, which gave him an opportunity to elaborate on his experiences as a fraternity brother turned social reformer.  In the course of telling Lohse’s story, Rolling Stone made three assertions: first, that irresponsible fraternity brothers exert significant influence over the tenor of social life at Dartmouth; second, that the aforementioned fraternity brothers are supported in their endeavors by a large network of equally irresponsible Dartmouth alums, many of whom work in the financial sector, where they perpetuate the modes of thought instilled in them by their fraternities; and third, that many of Dartmouth’s students and administrators are in denial about the ways in which Greek life degrades higher education at Dartmouth.

There is nothing surprising about Lohse’s claims; social fraternities have long been known to rely on cheap bear, and on the insecurities of young men (and women) desperate for social acceptance, to bring out the lowest instincts in American college students.  If there is anything interesting about Lohse’s story, it is the fact that it has elicited so much resentment from the young man’s classmates.  The simplest explanation for the backlash is that Dartmouth’s undergraduates are angry to see their laundry aired in public.  But there is also the fact that many Dartmouth students see Lohse as the physician who won’t heal himself, for he was at one point suspended from Dartmouth for cocaine possession, and he appears to have begun his reformist efforts only after the drug bust and his subsequent disillusionment with Dartmouth.  As Rolling Stone took pains to point out, moreover, Lohse studied Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise before coming to college and, upon arriving at Dartmouth, made it his business to establish himself on the campus social scene as quickly as possible, a goal that led him to curry favor with the fraternity he would eventually join and later expose.  If Rolling Stone painted a negative portrait of Dartmouth, it drew an equally unappealing picture of Lohse.

Rolling Stone’s willingness to highlight Lohse’s checkered past means that the young man has struck many readers as a hypocritical figure, a fact that might explain why several individuals have penned articles criticizing the Rolling Stone article.  The attacks leveled against the article are precisely the ones one would expect, namely, that it overstates the extent to which the Dartmouth social scene is shaped by fraternities, that it relies on the recollections of a former fraternity brother who is equal parts disgruntled and vengeful, and that it draws a tenuous link between fraternity life and American corporate culture in order to sell magazines to an audience upset with Wall Street.  The problem with these lines of attack is that they do nothing to undermine the veracity of the article’s claims.  Lohse is not an ideal whistleblower, but the fact that he might have an axe to grind does not mean that his account is fallacious.  Those who accuse Lohse of exaggerating or lying ought to be prepared to document his dishonesty.  Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many of the story’s detractors are unable to tolerate even a small amount of criticism of the institutions they hold dear.

By depicting the social fraternity as a kind of preparatory school for social climbers hoping to succeed in American corporate culture, Rolling Stone unabashedly politicized the conversation about Greek letter organizations.  It will be no surprise, then, if the debate over the article—and over the accuracy of Lohse’s account—comes to reflect a larger disagreement about the values that college-bound Americans ought to embrace, as well as about the character of the American corporate world.

At this early point in the Dartmouth hazing controversy, a number of questions have yet to be answered.  It is hard to tell what motivated Lohse to cooperate with Rolling Stone, and it is equally difficult to discern the motives of the Dartmouth fraternity brothers and officials who have tried to discredit him.  It is also hard to speculate about what exactly happened among the drunken blokes Lohse described in his op-ed; there are no photographs or video recordings to give the lie to anyone’s account.  Thus far, however, no one has refuted Lohse’s story, and no evidence has surfaced to discredit his account.  Moreover, Rolling Stone has provided college students with an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about how a university’s social life should be organized, and about the ways in which students ought to interact with one another.  There thus arises a simple question: why do some readers feel threatened by Lohse and the article about him?  And why do some students grow so nervous when a journalist highlights a few of the negative aspects of their school?

Though all of the facts have yet to surface, the Rolling Stone story is entirely plausible, at least in the sense that it is easy to imagine fraternity brothers force-feeding beer to one another, as well as engaging in all of the rituals that Lohse has depicted.  Whatever happened at Dartmouth’s fraternities, it is clear that, as an institution, the social fraternity is outmoded and embarrassing.  To say that fraternities are an embarrassment to American higher education is not to say that all fraternities are alike, or that they are all incapable of playing a constructive role on college campuses.  The claim is simply that, by their very design, social fraternities tend to degrade the environments in which they exist, as well as the people who associate with them.  There are at least three reasons why fraternities are more than likely to debase the colleges at which they are allowed to function (much of what follows can and should be applied to social sororities as well).

First, fraternities are powered by the insecurities of college students, many of whom are profoundly worried about the prospect of ending up without friends, of being left to navigate college without a social support network of some kind.  The fraternity promises young men that they won’t have to worry about being alone, and it draws them in by offering a half-baked sense of belonging, a steady supply of interchangeable acquaintances, and boilerplate rhetoric about the importance of concepts like virtue and character and unity.  What the fraternities peddle isn’t especially pretty, but in moments of fear, college students take whatever they can get.  The problem with social fraternities, then, is that they exploit and reify the self-doubt of those who aspire to join them.  Our university system should be encouraging young people to cultivate confidence, insight, and repose by learning about their own mental and emotional dispositions, and by forming distinctive friendships based on their unique interests.  The fraternities have nothing to offer in this regard.  Indeed, they tend to discourage development and maturation, for their fundamental message is that, as long as one is part of some large group, everything will be all right.

Second, because Greek life tends to attract certain types of individuals—often, those who value conformism and want to be part of a group with distinct and recognizable boundaries—fraternities are bound to develop a particular bias: they are bound to develop into institutions that discourage independence, imagination, and innovation.  In its present form, at least, the fraternity can function only if it embraces a series of lowest common denominators, a series of activities so basic that nearly everyone can engage in them without difficulty.  Hence the fraternity’s tendency to organize itself around endeavors like drinking alcohol, watching ESPN, and throwing multi-colored ping-pong balls into plastic cups.

Third, fraternities serve an unfortunate expressive function.  The fraternities brandish a crudeness and a vulgarity that credulous freshmen often mistake for strength and confidence.  What follows from this is familiar: young men flock to fraternities because they don’t see organized displays of what they take to be confidence anywhere else on campus.  The fraternities appear to young men to monopolize the concept of manhood, and anxious college kids—who long to be seen as strong and manly and self-assured—are led to believe that the fraternity is the only zone in which self-confidence can be found.  All of this points, of course, to a more fundamental problem.  Because American culture has been unable to offer anything resembling a meaningful picture of manhood, young men often mistake the hoggish conformism of the fraternities for masculinity.  The failure of our culture to provide a constructive vision of what young men ought to be has created a void that the fraternities have managed to fill.  The problem is that, if there is such a thing as a conception of masculinity worth striving for, it’s certainly not the one advertised by the fraternities.

Time might help to sift fact from fiction in the Lohse saga.  But there is no need for universities to wait before they do what needs to be done: push the social fraternities and sororities off of their campuses.

Latest comments
  • Phil, I have to agree that your reflections are no doubt polemical. In one breath you encourage those who discredit Lohse’s statement to be prepared to back those statements up, and in the next you make completely unsupported statements of your own opinion as if it were fact. As a fraternity member myself, I can say from my own experience that there is significant room for improvement within the Greek community, and I can even agree that it is often an unfortunate truth that it is often that case that many Greek organizations discredit their host academic institutions more than they serve as a point of pride. Your assertions, however, are much broader than that. You don’t provide any reference to your own personal experiences or observations by way of example, nor do you provide links or citations to other sources. I encourage you to consider that the more polemical the statement, the greater desire to make sure it is supported.

    First, you cast aspersions on Greek organizations as being driven by the insecurity of young college students. How is that any different from the force driving students to join any type of student organization? Student organizations exist on college campuses for a variety of reasons, but one primary reason is that students form themselves into groups organically because there is a natural desire for companionship and social interaction. I fail to see how this is a critique. The idea that Greek life is built on a “half-baked sense of belonging [and] a steady supply of interchangeable acquaintances” is completely antithetical to the actual functioning of Greek organizations. Greek organizations are attractive exactly because they provide a consistent bond to a consistent group of people, a group of people who recognize that connection as something stronger than simple friendship. As opposed to other student groups with members flowing in and out, meeting intermittently to perform the groups business, Greek organizations have steady membership (including strong alumni/ae networks) and the residential aspects makes the sense of belonging and the consistency of interaction much stronger. In response to your final point on the issue, that fraternities provide no opportunity for maturation and development, I encourage you to interface with the thousands of college graduates, myself included, who took on leadership roles within our Greek organizations, and developed our ability to manage, plan, innovate, and implement within our houses by taking advantage of opportunities that may have been harder to come by in the broader campus community.

    On your second point, that fraternities attract members who conform to some definition of the lowest common denominator and therefore discourage independence, I suggest that you familiarize yourself with the great diversity among Greek organizations. From university to university and from house to house, each fraternity and sorority has its own personality and attracts a different membership. Though some may fit the description you put forth, most do not, and your assertion that all fraternities can be described in your terms is simply ignorant of the factual reality. Some fraternities have emphasis on particular religious identities, racial or national heritages, community service obligations, or academic achievements. If student organizations were measured by the amount of beer pong played by their memberships, I’m sure you would discover that fraternities were not unique in enjoying what has become a national collegiate pasttime. I also marvel at the assertion that watching the nation’s most popular and profitable cable network places one in a class that is beneath your dignity.

    Your third point, though possibly the only one that I could support even in part, is expressed in the same overbroad and unsupported terms as your other editorial positions. Your point is, in my opinion, true of an unfortunate number of fraternity men. I think to even apply it to fraternities as organizations is incorrect in the vast majority of cases. Chivalry and respect for women are core principles of many Greek fraternities, and though they may not always be practiced by every member, is not uncommon for the organization to sanction members who fail to display those characteristics. It is also common for fraternities to exclude from their recruitment practices men who display negative attitudes toward women.

    There are broader lessons that can be learned from the failures of sex equality on college campuses. If those lessons are going to learned based on the broadest base of experiences and potential solutions carried out in the broadest range of venues, the discussion must begin from a point of mutual respect in which entire categories of student organizations, spanning thousands of universities and including hundreds of thousands of members, are not treated as a monolithic villain to be attacked without evidence or reason. If you are attempting to start a discussion about the important issues facing American colleges and universities, your post has essentially ensured that the people who most need to be a part of that discussion will not take seriously your stances on those issues.

  • Phil, I appreciate your thorough response. The reason my initial reaction to your post did address your conclusion was because I saw it as more of an assertion than a conclusion. Because the premises on which your conclusion was based were unsupported by anything other than your own perceptions, I thought it more appropriate to provide my contrary view of the premises, which necessarily would lead to a different conclusion.

    I agree that demeaning hazing rituals provide no value to either the abusers or the abused, and I would fully support strong enforcement actions against fraternities that engage in those types of practices. I think that is a separate argument from whether initiation ceremonies, communal living, and other unique aspects of fraternity life create a negative impact on fraternity members or university campuses more broadly. I would argue that such practices create strong bonds among fraternity members, which actually works to overcome the type of insecurities about which you are so concerned. Beginning college by finding a large group of people with whom you share a common bond (even if somewhat artificially created) and a place around which that community is built allows the members of Greek letter organizations to feel more connected to their campus community and to avoid the sense of being overwhelmed or lost as they approach new experiences.

    You misunderstood my second point. Your conclusion was that fraternities “degrade the culture” of universities. My point was that fraternities reflect the broader university culture far more than you admit. You refer to drinking alcohol and watching sports as if those are so obviously the lowest common denominators of university culture. If as you assert, and I agree, new college students are often afflicted with high levels of insecurity and a desire to belong, it is perfectly normal for them to seek out simple, easy going social interactions. Why do so many people in the working world get together with their co-workers to drink alcohol or to watch sports? Because activities that cannot be shared be a large group of people are unattractive when the goal is to create a sense of camaraderie and belonging. I challenge you to identify significant social groups at any university, regardless of the initial impetus for their formation, that don’t get together around alcohol, sports, television or other things that you seem to consider as “the lowest common denominator.”

    I don’t disagree with you that there are many fraternities that thrive on a culture of excessive drinking, disrespect for women, and general crudity. Again, I fully support strong action by universities, and when necessary local police, to deal with fraternities that are guilty of the kinds of actions to which you point. It’s also worth noting though that it is always fraternity misconduct that makes news, and never positive contributions. In addition to the importance of having a community and a support network that I discussed earlier, fraternities provide their members with academic supports, opportunities for leadership, and alumni networks eager to network with younger members. As organizations, Greek letter fraternities and sororities typically engage in large scale community service projects, either by hosting events to raise money for charitable causes or by contributing directly to their campus or local community. These types of events don’t make the local news, but they do contribute to the members of the organizations and the campus more broadly.

    We are in agreement that the definition of masculinity accepted by many young people is both incorrect and in many ways dangerous. We are in agreement that the closed door environment in which many fraternity activities are undertaken can contribute to their perpetuation of those norms. My answer would be to do more to integrate fraternity members into educational programs that reach all students dealing with serious issues like date rape. I have no respect for men who engage in that type of behavior, and I have no interest in them being associated with the Greek letter community of which I am a part. If you are correct that fraternity culture is driven by psychological mechanisms, the dissolution of fraternities would only cause similarly destructive behavior to arise somewhere else. Instead, universities should target the particular ills that are a concern, through education, oversight, and enforcement when necessary.