Not since Dartmouth College admitted women in 1972 has this Ivy League school taken such a significant step. Now, in a move that may change the campus culture just as dramatically, administrators want to reinvent student social life, including making it "substantially coeducational" and ending alcohol abuse.
How this could affect fraternities and sororities has touched off heated debate and student protests at the campus in small-town Hanover, N.H. The uproar illustrates the challenges school officials face when they tackle head-on the beer-bash culture that sometimes pervades campus life.
"When you have a very visible drinking culture on a college campus ... it tends to drive the campus culture," says Alan Berkowitz, a consultant who has worked with more than 20 colleges to help prevent drug abuse and sexual assaults.
Dartmouth's proposal is the latest experiment by American colleges to change their social culture - and to stem the growing problem of binge drinking in particular. A major study conducted in 1993 and 1997 found that about 43 percent of college students said they had engaged in binge drinking (five or more drinks in an outing for men, four or more for women) in the previous two weeks.
That behavior is even more widespread for residents of fraternity and sorority houses - and is one of the reasons the Greek system has come under scrutiny at Dartmouth and elsewhere. For these students, 4 in 5 reported binge drinking, according to Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
"Fraternities and sororities do not seem to be able to cope with [problem drinking] on their own," says Mr. Wechsler, who supports efforts by college leaders to take bold action to address the problem.
Just days before the Dartmouth announcement, a student at Southwest Texas State University was killed in a fight after a fraternity party, and the suspect, a dropout of the school, later committed suicide. "We have to do something to end this culture of excess...," a university official told a local paper in the aftermath of the deaths. "We are going to start from scratch and reinvent the fraternity system at this campus."
As a result of such tragedies and in the face of mounting evidence about the scope of the problem, more colleges are zeroing in on fraternities. Some work in concert with the Greek organizations to restore traditional values of public service and academic excellence. Others require fraternities to go co-ed or simply phase them out.
The idea of admitting women to fraternities - opposed by the National Interfraternity Conference - could introduce "a moderating influence on men's behavior," says Mr. Berkowitz. A coeducational setting can help do that, he says, because "a lot of the way men drink in our culture is very gender-based." But there are trade-offs. Alcohol-related problems may go down overall, he says, but go up for women who previously lived in a single-sex setting.
While women may have what's often termed a "civilizing effect," that is not what's motivating the Dartmouth trustees to lobby for change.
"What we're really looking for is more of a socializing effect in terms of preparing young men and women for life in a world in which there is much more diversity in the workplace," says Stephen Bosworth, chairman of Dartmouth's board of trustees.
To that end, the college last week unveiled principles for altering the residential and social systems on campus. Officials say they intend to engage students, faculty, and alumni in designing Dartmouth's future - and are backing up their call for change with tens of millions of dollars over the next several years.
It's a lot of money "to dream with," says Giavanna Munafo, director of the Women's Resource Center at Dartmouth. She hopes students will use the opportunity to be creative. Maybe they'll want workout facilities in residences or a bowling alley on campus, she suggests.
But at the school that inspired the 1978 hit movie "National Lampoon's Animal House," fraternities and sororities led massive protests last weekend. Almost 40 percent of the 4,300 undergraduates belong to the 28 Greek groups on campus.
While not everyone would be sad to see the Greek system changed, a substantial number of students who are not part of it said in a campus newspaper poll they want to see it maintained, says junior Jacob Elberg, editor of The Dartmouth.
THE idea of co-ed fraternities is not unprecedented. Middlebury College in Vermont, for instance, made the transition relatively smoothly in 1990, says spokesman Phil Benoit. Five of six fraternities went co-ed (there were no sororities), and a portion of their members, split evenly by gender, live in college-owned fraternity houses. The sixth took the school to court but failed to get the policy overturned.
The groups have a positive presence on campus, Mr. Benoit says, and the college can promote itself as a place "where social life is less affected by the disruptive behavior."
Evidence of such disruptive behavior is mounting. Studies have highlighted "second-hand effects" linked to binge drinking, such as fights, assaults, interrupted study or sleep, and unwanted sexual advances.
With all the focus on binge drinkers, overlooked is the fact that the number of students who drink is at its lowest point in 17 years. Berkowitz says nondrinkers and students who drink responsibly are a silent majority that can be enlisted to help change the social atmosphere on campus. Several colleges have dramatically reduced alcohol-related problems by educating students about this, he says.