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Pro: Old traditions? The time has come to let them go

By Mark S. Sternman / March 9, 1999



Along with a group of male friends, I cut school for the first time to see the Mets battle the St. Louis Cardinals on opening day, 1986. After arriving home from the extra-inning game, I found in the mail my acceptance letter from Dartmouth College (along with terse rejections from Harvard and Yale).

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That day set me on the path that my life has taken to this point, just as Dartmouth President Jim Wright's recent decision to revolutionize the Greek system at Dartmouth will also impact the future experiences of Dartmouth students and non-Dartmouth students alike.

The current media coverage testifies to why I had hoped to attend Harvard or Yale 13 years ago. One cannot scan a Dartmouth story without the inevitable reference to "Animal House" (a wonderful movie, incidentally) since one of its writers based the script on his own tenure as a fraternity brother.

After years of trying to burnish its academic reputation, Dartmouth today still suffers from its association with a movie that portrayed its Greek system (and, by extension, the college) as a bastion of rampant alcoholism.

Like most compelling movies based however loosely on actual situations, "Animal House" succeeds as a work of art because it captures the essence of a reality that many shared. Although not in a fraternity myself, I had to confront aspects of this reality during my own four years in Hanover. I could cite any number of incidents from my Dartmouth days to demonstrate this point.

Take the guy who lived next door to me freshman year who spent seemingly half of his weekends drying out in the infirmary due to alcohol poisoning.

Or the fellow European sojourner from my term studying in Edinburgh, Scotland, whom I fortuitously found passed out when I went to visit a friend graduation morning. I borrowed a car to drive him back to his fraternity on the opposite edge of campus so he could clean himself up prior to graduation. Prodded by his roommate, he came up to me in the graduation procession. Smiling, he said, "I guess that I should thank you, not that I remember anything that happened."

Although listeners laughed at the alcoholic hall mate and inebriated graduate, I recall these stories as sad ones. I applaud President Wright for deeming the environment that fostered these incidents as unacceptable for the future.

A little more than two years after my memorable opening day, my friends and I laughed when one of our classmates sank through a defective chair and crashed to the floor. The professor of 20th Century American Political History looked up to inquire as to whether I wished to continue rudely interrupting his remarks. I meekly replied in the negative.

Professor Wright that day reinforced for me the imperative of a professor always remaining in control of his class. President Wright today tells an audience far greater than a single classroom - or even a single campus - that a college whose main mission is education must no longer condone traditions that condone alcoholism.

The old traditions have failed Dartmouth. Like its sister institutions, Dartmouth under Wright's young but firm leadership will struggle to develop new traditions. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, which I live near, faces this same struggle as a result of a pledge who died from drinking too much at an "Animal House" party. Better that Dartmouth and other schools seek new traditions before my beloved college, like MIT, sees another teen die needlessly due to alcoholism smiled upon by an apparently benevolent Greek system.

*Mark S. Sternman, a 1990 graduate, is assistant director of economic development for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.