October 1, 2009

The keystone of responsibility

The GLC wanted to make the '13s feel extra welcome this fall. On September 20, wide-eyed freshmen attended barbecues all along Frat Row, listened to panels on Greek brotherhood and service, tie-dyed at Sigma Delt and laughed uproariously at skits at SAE. They left the party educated about the frats and more likely to feel included and safe at Greek events.

Or at least, that was the plan.

The formal convocation in Dartmouth Hall was woefully underattended, and the barbecue at Tabard swarmed with blue-shirted volunteers -- about five for every freshman present. As each new freshman arrived, the horror blossomed on their faces as a horde of eager GLC reps bore down upon them.

We decided to nix the brotherhood panel due to insufficient attendance -- it hardly seemed fair to make the poor things listen to us pontificate about frats before we gave them their burgers.

And it was probably a good thing, too. At the planning meeting for the panel, we discussed possible Q-and-A topics that might come up and how to handle them.

"What if they ask if we card them at the door for parties?"

Sticky question. And a great opportunity to be honest and up-front with the incoming freshmen. Right?

Nope. We were instructed to deflect, either by outright refusing to answer -- "I'll personally discuss this with you later" -- or to sneak around it: "Official college policy is..."

A golden opportunity to give the '13s a heads-up to what they'll be experiencing -- but the truth wasn't P.C. enough.

A lack of knowledge about the realities of alcohol on campus is a huge issue facing freshmen in their budding social lives. Nebulous rumors circulate; stereotypes abound. Most of the class comes to orientation with the notion that Dartmouth has a ubiquitous drinking culture -- to some degree, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drinking -- 'tails, pre-gaming, playing pong every night -- seems like the magical key to finding a place in the social structure of Dartmouth.

Freshmen also seldom get a straight answer about Good Sam, S&S and the Hanover Police. In theory, the Good Samaritan policy is hugely beneficial: it not only encourages those who need it to get adequate medical care, it acknowledges that college students -- even if they are under 21 -- are capable of acting like responsible adults.

In practice, it's a different story. How many people will really call S&S to take care of their drunken friend if they know that calling an ambulance automatically brings H-Po to the scene? It's dishonest, and frankly, it's disrespectful. It fosters distrust between the police and S&S on one side and the students on the other. Rather than take full responsibility and act like adults, the underaged see drinking as even more of a game -- avoiding punishment, like some half-grown-up game of hide and seek. They aren't concerned about health and safety as much as they are about "getting away with" something.

Most freshmen are in a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, where their elders treat them like neither. This dichotomy is hard to live with. It's difficult enough to establish an identity and grow up in a new environment -- add to that misinformation and the fact that the administration treats First Years with kid gloves, and it starts to sound like a recipe for developmental stagnation. How can you act responsibly when all the world is already convinced you won't?

The GLC and administration are reluctant to give students accurate information on the drinking climate at Dartmouth. Meanwhile, Dartmouth has the most arrests for alcohol violations of any Ivy League school -- and I'm sure it's not because Princetonians abstain, or because Yalies are all Mormons. It's because Hanover Police (assisted at times by the best intentions of S&S) are quite aggressive in apprehending students.

Perhaps the way to reduce the antagonism between the authorities and the students is to practice a bit more mutual respect. Freshmen might not be 21 yet, but they're not exactly toddlers, either.

Maybe we should have leveled with the freshman at the barbecue. "No, your ID probably won't get checked at the door. But you're currently attending the Ivy with the most arrests for underage drinking, so you'd better think twice about getting plastered."

Treating people like adults -- for example, by telling them the unfettered truth -- often has the consequence of making them act like adults. Maybe we should try it out.

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