Jim Yong Kim and Dartmouth’s culture of sexual assault

By Felix Salmon
March 29, 2012

What is it about the heads of the World Bank and IMF and their relation with sexual politics? Both Paul Wolfowitz and Dominique Strauss-Kahn lost their jobs because of the way that they treated women, while Strauss-Kahn’s predecessor, Rodrigo de Rato, resigned unexpectedly in the midst of what was described as an “acrimonious divorce”. No woman has ever headed the Bank, and Christine Lagarde is the first woman to head the IMF; they’ve historically been men’s clubs, and none the better for it.

For that reason alone, given the choice between Jim Kim and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the next head of the World Bank, the latter would have something of a natural advantage. But it turns out that Kim’s weakness on the sexual-politics front is much greater than simply being a man.

Janet Reitman has a must-read article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, detailing the hazing culture at Dartmouth College, where Kim has been the president since 2009. The piece went to press on the day that Barack Obama announced Kim’s nomination, so the news came too late for the story to be recast around Kim. But even as it stands, it’s damning enough.

I’d highly recommend that you read the whole thing, especially the gruesome details of fraternity hazing at Dartmouth, which seems to come very close to qualifying as torture under many definitions of the term. A propos the UN Convention Against Torture, for instance, there’s a case to be made that the severity of the hazing at Dartmouth — forcing youths to recite the frat’s creed while lying in a kiddie pool of ice, for instance, or forcing them to eat “vomlets” made of vomit and eggs — imposes severe suffering on people for the purpose of intimidating or coercing them.

Reitman’s article is centered on Andrew Lohse, who went public with what goes on in secret at Dartmouth fraternities, including forcing youths to chug cups of vinegar until at least one ended up vomiting blood. Here’s how his now-famous op-ed started:

We attend a strange school where a systemic culture of abuse exists under a college president who has the power and experience to change what can only be described as a public health crisis of the utmost importance: the endemic culture of physical and psychological abuse that occupies the heart of Dartmouth’s Greek community. President Jim Yong Kim’s sterling credentials in public health are fundamentally at odds with the pervasive hazing, substance abuse and sexual assault culture that dominates campus social life.

I understand these problems because I myself have endured them. If I were to fully enumerate all of the dehumanizing experiences my friends and I have survived here — experiences that were ironically advertised to us as indispensable elements of the “Dartmouth Experience” — I would have too few words left in this column to adequately explain how the Kim administration has not done enough to address these crises. They have yet to take decisive action to diagnose and cure the abuse that plagues Dartmouth.

Reitman fills out this picture, in the most alarming of ways. What we’re seeing here is not just brutal hazing; it’s also a culture of sexual assault which seems to have reached epidemic proportions.

Brothers aren’t the only ones injured by this unspoken pact around fraternity life. Sexual assault is rampant at Dartmouth; some female students say they circulate the names of men considered “dangerous” and fraternity houses viewed as “unsafe.” Between 2008 and 2010, according to the college’s official statistics, Dartmouth averaged about 15 reports of sexual assault each year among its 6,000 students. Brown, a school with 8,500 students, averaged eight assaults; Harvard, with 21,000 students, had 21. And those numbers are likely just a fraction of the actual count: One study showed that 95 percent of all sexual assaults among college students are never reported. In 2006, Dartmouth’s Sexual Abuse Awareness Program estimated that there were actually 109 incidents on campus…

Nearly every woman I speak to on campus complains of the predatory nature of the fraternities and the dangers that go beyond drinking. “There are always a few guys in every house who are known to use date-rape drugs,” says Stewart Towle…

One senior, who I’ll call Lisa, was “curbed” the second night of her freshman year. She’d been invited to a fraternity by one of its members. Thinking it an honor, Lisa enthusiastically accepted, and once she got there, she had two drinks. The next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital with an IV in her arm. “Apparently, security found me in front of the house. That was my introduction to the frats: passing out from drinking, waking up in the hospital and not having any idea what happened.” What she did notice were bruises that looked like bites on her chest that hadn’t been there before. “To be very honest,” she says, “I didn’t really want to know what actually happened.”

How did Kim react to the fact that there were literally hundreds of sexual assaults taking place on and by his students while he was president? He “established an intercollegiate collaborative known as the National College Health Improvement Project to study high-risk drinking”, which even Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson admits is not designed to actually generate any solutions to the problem.

And as for the whole fraternity culture which spawns these abuses, Kim’s a big fan.

Kim, whose three-story mansion sits on Fraternity Row, is a strong supporter of the Greek system; he has suggested on several occasions that fraternity membership may have health benefits, citing studies that show that people with long-standing friendships suffer fewer heart attacks. In a strange abdication of authority, Kim even professes to have little influence over the fraternities. “I barely have any power,” he told The Dartmouth in a recent interview. “I’m a convener.”

In reality, Kim is one of the only officials in a position to regulate the fraternities. More than half of Dartmouth’s frats are “local” – houses that split off from their national organizations years ago, and are thus unaccountable to any standards other than those set by the college.

In this respect, Kim is much softer on the frats than his predecessor, James Wright, who tried to end the Greek system “as we know it” by requiring fraternities to substantially go coed. Obviously, he failed. But Kim seems to have no problems with fraternities at all: in the same interview, he went so far as to say that it’s “not just the Greek system” which does hazing, and that “you have to look at everybody”. What was he going to do about it? Well, he said, “we’re trying to understand what more we can do.”

Kim even went so far as to meet with Dartmouth’s fraternities to tell them they weren’t in his crosshairs, saying that “one of the things you learn as an anthropologist is that you don’t come in and change the culture.”

And when Lohse presented Dartmouth with copious evidence of just how bad hazing was at his fraternity, SAE, the result was astonishing:

On February 22nd, his 22nd birthday, Lohse received a call from Dartmouth’s office of judicial affairs, informing him that, based on information he’d provided the college, they were pursuing charges against him for hazing. The college has also charged 27 other members of SAE, stemming from events in the 2011 pledge term. While the other students all categorically deny doing anything illegal, the information that Lohse provided to Dartmouth officials may directly implicate him in hazing. As a result, Lohse – the only student to come forward voluntarily – may be the only student who is ultimately punished.

What does all this mean for Kim’s candidacy for president of the World Bank? That’s hard to say. On the one hand, the US basically has the nomination sewn up, since the European countries will always vote for the US candidate in return for the US always voting for the European candidate for head of the IMF. And Europe and the US together constitute an unbeatable voting bloc.

At least, that’s how it has worked until now. The convention that the next head of the IMF will have to be a European is eroding fast, and there are even many European politicians who don’t believe in it any more. And for the first time we’re having a contested race for head of the World Bank, with an incredibly highly-qualified candidate in Okonjo-Iweala; the FT, for one, says she’s “the right leader for the World Bank”. I agree.

So the key constituency here is the European countries, and what they think about Kim’s actions, or lack thereof, at Dartmouth. The college’s culture of hazing and sexual assault is tolerated in the US, but is likely to look unspeakably brutal to European eyes, and I can certainly see many European politicians being extremely uncomfortable voting for a man who did nothing to stop it. The question is: will they read the Rolling Stone article? And if they do, will they be shocked enough that they would be willing to get into a huge diplomatic fight with the US as a result?

The machinations of international politics are rarely particularly edifying, and I suspect that Europe will ultimately fall into line and vote for Kim, just as it has always voted for the US candidate in the past. But if by some miracle Kim loses, and Okonjo-Iweala ends up getting the job, there’s a very good chance that a feature article in Rolling Stone might turn out to be the reason why.

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