Institutional Ethics: Who Doesn’t Love a Good Story?

If, eight years ago, you’d have told me about the events of Nov. 6th—and the progress that we’d make in the intervening years—I wouldn’t have believed you; it was the triumph of a long narrative that began with the coming-of-age of the Civil Rights movement in America. Nov. 6 marked the beginning of the end of this Bildungsroman for our protagonist, Mr. Obama. More importantly, though, it cemented his legacy in the firmament of Black America.

These types of narrative are compelling—who doesn’t love a good story?—and one of our strengths as a country, I think, lies in our collective ability to mythologize just about anything1 (even our own transformation from colony to country).

Our other great strength, of course, is our unprecedented ability (and compulsive need) to jarringly reify our heroes: for every Barack Obama, there’s a David Petraeus; for every Dakota Fanning, there’s a Lindsay Lohan; for every Cam Newton, there’s a corresponding Patrick Witt.

Sport tends to lend itself to especially well to lore, which is the reason I bring up the latter pair of public figures. On the one hand, Cam Newton rose to national prominence with the Auburn Tigers for his quarterbacking ability, and has managed to stay in the good graces of the American public as a professional player for the Carolina Panthers. Pat Witt, on the other hand, has acted a slightly different role: his star winked into existence when he transferred from the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the Yale Bulldogs’ starting roster—the spotlight turned on him, though, as allegations of sexual assault surfaced. He hasn’t been heard from since. So where does that leave his legacy? It’s in question, at the very least.

College athletes in the Ivy League face a peculiar dilemma: they’re athletes, yes, but they’re also part of institutions that are mostly concerned with less physical pursuits. Thus the question: should the Ivies invest in those narratives?  Read the rest of this entry »

Institutional Ethics: Dartmouth’s (Not-So-Secret) Hazing Problem

A few nights ago, as I was waiting out the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s temper in the relative safety of my dorm room, I thought about my family—specifically my younger brother, who’s currently living and working in the Big Apple.

As I ruminated on the chances of his survival in his Midtown apartment (my fears weren’t allayed at all by Twitter’s grim prognostications), I had two important realizations: First, that he had—thankfully—made a pilgrimage to Dartmouth (where he’s a student) for Homecoming weekend; second, that he had probably weathered storms much worse than Sandy when he was hazed as a fraternity pledge.

Dartmouth is notorious among the Ivies for its pervasive Greek-letter culture. According to U.S. News & World Report, approximately 60% of the undergraduate population is affiliated with one of 26 fraternities or sororities. (Not-so-surprisingly, the fratty majority of the student body has a specific term for the unaffiliated that reflects the contempt they feel: GDI.)

As one might expect from a school with such a pervasive fraternity system, hazing is part of life at Dartmouth to an insane degree—it’s institutional, it’s expected, and absolutely everybody does it. It’s also been in the news: Andrew Lohse is currently America’s most famous frat brother for the dramatic reveal of his fraternity’s hazing and his own role in perpetuating it.

Hazing, as defined by the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention, is

“any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”

I’ve asked my brother on occasion what he thinks of frat life in general—I, for my own part, chose to remain unaffiliated and curious—and the answers I get from him are uniformly positive. It seems to me that the fraternity life suits him (it has certainly increased his already-impressive ability to chug), and that he’s done well for himself in the organization.

That said: he’s never spoken to me about his experience of being hazed, even when I’ve pressed him for details.

And therein, I think, lies the real ethical issue. There’s not much doubt that fraternity life can enrich its members, but the process involved in gaining admission is particularly despicable. (Not to mention the contempt that its exclusivity engenders.) Should the fraternity system be maintained if it necessarily involves—and even congratulates—harming undergraduates?

To put it simply: it’s complicated.  Read the rest of this entry »

Institutional Ethics: Scorpions X, the Not-Quite-Caped Crusaders

Cornell’s got a new crop of superheroes this year—except they’re more Watchmen than Superman, and less Batman than these guys. They call themselves Scorpions X (which is, in all honesty, a pretty sweet name), and they fight injustice via subversive and inflammatory social commentary: flyers, videos, a fake newspaper, etc. They’ve also got the Daily Sun’s panties in a twist. Who are they?

Well, nobody knows.

And apparently that’s a problem for some people—mostly the Cornell administration. They’ve even threatened to prosecute the good Scorpions for allegedly impersonating President David Skorton in a sarcastic school-wide email sent on Sept. 22nd. “We would like members of the Cornell community to be aware that we will continue to take strong measures against sexual and racist and homophobic assaults,” it read. “But we wish to make it very clear that blaming anyone in general for the actions of specific individuals is not the best way to alter the atmosphere of tolerance which fosters such assaults.”

Ouch. Would you like some ice for that burn, Dr. Skorton?

Judging by his spokesperson’s response—who said the email was “outrageous” and apparently “criminal behavior”—he probably needs it.

I find it incredibly ironic that the administration wants the students behind Scorpions X to step forward, but is simultaneously trying to prosecute them for exercising their First Amendment rights. (Aside: if you can’t take a little defamation, you probably don’t deserve to be president of anything.) It’s clear that these students are reacting to what they see as a pervasive climate of discrimination and hostility—problems that they feel that the university hasn’t adequately addressed. Read the rest of this entry »

Institutional Ethics: That Mostly Irrelevant U.S. News Thing

Summer’s slow death is a bittersweet time: we’re getting older, and the bellwethers of fall are here yet again—temperatures are dropping, slowly but ever so surely; the leaves haven’t yet changed, but there’s an acute sense of autumn’s potentiality in every branch; and U.S. News & World Report has published its tragically flawed list of “best colleges” once more.

Since 1983, the mostly-defunct print magazine has been forcing schools to comply with its idiotic ranking system ranking what it sees as the best colleges in the United States. Though I’m reasonably sure that its rankings were initially envisioned as a way to help harried students and parents navigate the murky waters of higher ed, the whole endeavor has slowly degenerated—nowadays, it’s almost as if U.S. News dictates the priorities of our nation’s educational complex as a whole. (They’ve got lists for everything: Best high schools, best graduate schools, best hospitals, best children’s hospitals, best health plans, best mutual funds, best places to retire, etcad infinitum. Everyone loves a list!)

The bottom line? If your school doesn’t make it onto the list or drops too many places, be prepared to lose applicants, donations, and interest—a price that many schools can’t afford to pay. It’s a terrifyingly Procrustean bargain.

…Which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that even elite institutions are feeling the pinch. This January, the New York Times reported that Claremont McKenna—one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation—had been cheating the USN&WR rankings by inflating SAT scores since 2005. How has this affected their ranking this year, you ask? They’re 10th—a single spot lower than before.

I think that it’s insane that senior officials at one of the best institutions in the nation feel as though they’ve got to cheat to get ahead; it’s even crazier that their deception didn’t really affect their ranking at all. Even college admissions counselors—that is, those saints  people whose job it is to know more about universities than anyone else—are skeptical of the usefulness of USN&WR’s ratings.

So why do we have an annual bout of hysteria over The List? Read the rest of this entry »