An extraordinary self-reexamination has been going on here at the isolated snow-covered campus of Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school long known for its tradition of ''working hard and playing hard.''
The 200-year-old institution, located just across the Connecticut River from Vermont, has become a case study of how to tackle the sometimes interrelated problems of fraternity misbehavior and alcohol abuse.
Dartmouth's public airing of its own dirty linen - through a variety of well-publicized campus programs - has reemphasized the popular stereotype of the college as a ''drinking'' and ''partying'' school. But the willingness of Dartmouth administrators to face the problem head on has also won praise.
The Dartmouth campaign began with the formation of an Alcohol Concerns Committee in 1978, about the time alcohol staged a comeback on college campuses.
Since then, public forums involving administrators, faculty, and students have aimed to build consciousness about alcohol abuse. And beginning in March, under an agreement with the state of New Hampshire, Dartmouth's Medical School will offer special weekend education and assessment programs to people convicted of drunken driving.
The program will be one of 11 state-approved programs which drunken drivers may attend to get their drivers' licenses back. Although the weekend program does not directly pertain to student alcohol abuse, it is hoped it will provide broader insights useful for combating alcohol abuse.
Teachers, administrators, and students in the fishbowl that is Dartmouth give differing opinions on the seriousness of the alcohol-abuse problem. They also disagree over whether Dartmouth's problem is any different from that encountered at other schools, and over why Dartmouth's name is so often associated with alcohol abuse. Two themes frequently emerge.
Studying in a comfortable lounge chair in Collis Center (the student center), Debbie Schupack, a student of English literature and religion, puts it this way:
''There is here a kind of uneasy coexistence between the two strong campus traditions of intellectual excellence and fraternity life style. The tension between these two traditions makes alcohol abuse get attention here.''
The other theme was stated by Associate Dean Marilyn Baldwin at an alcohol-abuse forum, also at Collis Center, on Jan. 24:
''The vast majority of discipline cases we see are alcohol-related,'' she stated, adding that alcohol abuse is often related to fraternities. ''Some hoped that admission of women (in fall 1972) would be a civilizing influence. But the impact of women is questionable,'' she maintained.
Perhaps the most popular explanation of the Dartmouth problem - put forth by students, teachers, and counselors both within and without Dartmouth - goes something like this:
Dartmouth's geographical isolation means students have few alternatives for social life. This tends to strengthen the importance of fraternities as a social center where alcohol plays a dominant role. As fraternities become an entrenched tradition, the students and the alumni support a fraternity-oriented social life that tends to promote continuing alcohol abuse.
A corollary is that abuses are noticed more at Dartmouth than at other schools because in tiny Hanover (pop. 5,520 not including students) misdeeds by any of the college's 3,600 students stand out more than they would in a larger city.
Still another view is that the media focus on abuses here precisely because the college and the alumni have loudly proclaimed Ivy-League standards of intellect and conduct.
''Abuses stand out here because of our pretensions. It makes it look as though we have feet of clay,'' notes one former dean, who says such abuses draw scant attention many state universities.
Deans, students, and alcohol-abuse counselors emphasize they are not pushing for alcohol prohibition. And a number of students express skepticism that a ban on fraternities and sororities will come about.
''From what I hear, the college is out to clean up the fraternities, not to destroy them. Things are no longer swept under the rug. The fraternities that used to whine are now complying,'' says co-ed Schupack, who hasn't joined a sorority.
Still, in August 1983 the college trustees used a veiled threat to call for improvements in fraternity and sorority conduct in relation to alcohol abuse. Barring substantial improvement within 12 months, there would be ''a serious question about the future role of fraterities and sororities at Dartmouth College,'' the trustees declared.
''President David McLaughlin is a man who means business. He will do what he says he will,'' notes one former associate.
The administration means business, insists Associate Dean Baldwin and Assistant Dean Lee Levision. This crackdown will mean stricter enforcement of existing rules, rather than a proliferation of new ones, the deans and a number of Dartmouth students agree.
The target is the kind of alcohol abuse that leads to vandalism, hangover and debilitation, tardiness or absence from class, poor grades, chronic alcohol dependence, or alcohol-encouraged abusive behavior toward women. According to administrators, this means stepped up vigilance against offenses such as public intoxication and drinking during athletic meets.
More visible to the outside visitor are anti-alcohol-abuse signs posted up on student centers and dormitories. One goes like this:
Question: What can you do with $3 a day besides buying a six pack of beer?
Answer: Play 12 games of pinball, or rent cross-country skis for three days, or buy six big chocolate-chip cookies, or have washed and dried three loads of laundry, or buy 10 cups of hot chocolate, or call home collect and talk as long as you want!
These notices are just one example of the activity of about 275 student ''peer counselors'' who are trained to detect and respond to cases of student alcohol abuse. The program began about five years ago in cooperation with the Alcohol Concerns Committee.
''Alcohol resource peers are trained in a special 12-hour program to be a listening ear, a referral link to other resources available on campus and in the community,'' according to the group's brochure.
Jeffrey Fennelly is one such link. A sophomore from Madison, N.J., who studies English literature, he says his own interest in combating alcohol abuse goes back to the alcohol problems he saw in several of his own friends.
Mr. Fennelly emphasizes he and other counselors are not prohibitionists; rather, they favor ''responsible drinking.''
''There is a lack of alternatives here, so students tend to play hard. They use the Dartmouth tradition as an excuse.''
Fennelly says he steps in to help when other students refer someone to him - or when he notices someone he knows repeatedly missing classes. He may take the student aside and supportively try to help the student understand the problems the drinking is causing. In extreme cases, he may encourage the student to check in with the college health service for treatment and counseling.
Fennelly cautions, ''We're not going to change Dartmouth.'' But he hopes ''our outreach will help plant a seed of awareness, and that it's OK not to drink.''
This is a theme repeated by a number of others on campus: the need for incoming freshmen to realize there are alternative campus life styles other than the hard-drinking approach often associated with fraternities.