THE well-polished academic image of Dartmouth College has been tarnished in recent years by the what its president calls ``the `Animal House' image'' of the school. Most recently, Benjamin Hart's book about Dartmouth, ``Poisoned Ivy,'' mixed sharp criticism of liberal academics with portraits of beer-soaked fraternity life.
But president David T. McLaughlin's dim view of the sleazy image doesn't mean that he would like to raze fraternity row.
Quite the contrary. He feels that ``fraternities and sororities have a valuable role to play in the college.'' Dartmouth's 12-month academic schedule of recent years put undue strain on the fraternity system, he observes, forcing houses to stay open year-round. For one thing, he continues, ``The leadership of houses, on which they depend heavily for strength, was leaving every 10 weeks, so you lost the continuity of leadership.'' Also, constant use was fraying the aged buildings.
That should change under a new academic calendar being planned for Dartmouth. It is designed to cut the number of attendance patterns from over 600 to around 6 and ensure that students spend at least seven terms on campus with the rest of their class.
But what Mr. McLaughlin sees as the serious deterioration of the fraternity system has required some fairly drastic action, especially in light of a faculty vote to do away with the houses altogether. ``The options were clear -- we could either move to abolish them or bring them back to a positive mode,'' says the president.
The school's trustees chose the second option, and thus began a process of drawing up standards for fraternities to live by -- everything from academic support to social behavior to the height of the grass. That last item brought quick, and unfavorable, comparisons to the president's dwelling, McLaughlin muses.
The standards were pieced together at endless meetings between administrators and students. ``It hasn't been an easy road,'' says McLaughlin, commenting that the first formal ``audit'' of the frat system has recently been completed. He sees ``remarkable progress,'' although 11 of the school's 27 fraternities and sororities remain on some degree of probation.
Author Hart, a Dartmouth graduate and former fraternity member who works at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he's ``all for fraternities behaving better'' and for ``more elegant'' physical surroundings. If students are leery of the school's push to upgrade the houses, he says, it probably stems from fears that the administration may try to take full control of the frats, depriving them of their traditional private ownership and self-government.
Dartmouth's dean of residential life, J. Kristia Lesher, says the school is indeed interested in acquiring fraternity and sorority buildings, if present owners are interested in selling. She emphasizes, however, that the purpose is not to control the social life of frats or to dictate who can be a member, but rather to assume ``the overwhelming burden of keeping up the physical plant.''
By McLaughlin's estimate, about half the eligible Dartmouth students -- which includes everyone but freshmen who haven't reached spring term -- belong to a fraternity or sorority.