Reinventing the Social Scene on Campus Dartmouth College Is Latest to Experiment with Ways to Curtail Problemof Binge Drinking among Students

Article excerpt

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. …