Dartmouth infringing on rights

This is in response to The GW Hatchet’s Feb. 22 “Worth a try” editorial about the current situation regarding the Greek-letter system at Dartmouth College (p. 4).

Dartmouth College – model for the campus featured in the hit movie “Animal House” about wild college fraternities – has declared war on fraternities and sororities in a way so authoritarian that the university may soon bear a resemblance to the frightening “Animal Farm” described by George Orwell.

In doing so, Dartmouth invites both a fight against the U.S. Congress and a likely court battle. Dartmouth deserves to lose both wars – badly.

Dartmouth’s trustees and its president, James Wright, announced recently that all fraternities and sororities based at the college must become coed. Presumably, students who continued to belong to Greek-letter single-sex social organizations would be expelled from campus. “The fraternities and sororities as we have known them will be ended,” said Mr. Wright, adding that his aim was to encourage “respectful relations between women and men.”

The Dartmouth president didn’t explain how any kind of respect can be engendered by an act that tramples individual rights.

Make no mistake about it: By disciplining students merely for joining private organizations of their choice, the college is trampling upon their rights of free association (or assembly) just as surely as it would if the college banned membership in the Urban League or Rotary Club. It’s a chilling precedent.

Granted, Dartmouth is in effect following the leads of Colby and Middlebury colleges, which both have won court cases allowing them to ban fraternities. But those cases were fought in the state courts of Maine and Vermont, not federal court, so they set no national precedent. And if the unfairness of a position can be judged by the diversity of its opposition, then the colleges’ moral position was clearly wrong: The fraternities were supported by a coalition so broad-based that it united those decidedly unlikely bedfellows, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition.

Because of congressional action last fall, Middlebury, Colby and Dartmouth may all be in legal trouble if they insist on trying to enforce their discriminatory ban on traditional Greek-letter organizations.

On Oct. 7, President Clinton signed into law the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, which included a new provision expressing the “sense of Congress” that no college that receives federal funds should sanction (suspend, expel, etc.) any student merely for exercising the normal First Amendment right to join a private organization.

Several congressmen who supported last year’s bill said that if colleges don’t comply, Congress will be more than willing to pass a new bill specifically withholding all federal money from colleges that insist on denying their students’ rights.

It’s a fight that is likely to go on for some time, and before it’s over, the U.S. Supreme Court may have to rule. But what’s more than evident is that no college worthy of the name – no college that values freedom, which is the very lifeblood of higher education – would fetter its students in such a way.

Even for those who find single-sex Greek-letter organizations either inordinately silly or too elitist, the thought of any college stifling such private conduct, on private property, should send chills down the spine.

Dartmouth clearly isn’t a force for enlightenment, but instead, for conformity and repression.

-The writer is a graduate student in the department of public administration.

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