HANOVER, N.H. – Things have only gotten messier at Dartmouth College in the weeks since a former fraternity brother went public with hazing allegations involving swimming in and swallowing vomit.
Senior Andrew Lohse brought the issue to the forefront in January, when he wrote a column in the school newspaper describing "dehumanizing" experiences he witnessed at Sigma Alpha Epsilon. According to Lohse, the fraternity pressured pledges to swim in a kiddie pool of rotten food, vomit and other bodily fluids; eat omelets made of vomit and chug cups of vinegar. He called those activities the norm rather than the exception on the Ivy League campus, and he criticized the administration for not doing enough when he made anonymous complaints last year.
The week after the column was published, more than 100 faculty members wrote to the administration, describing hazing as an "open secret" and calling on the administration to set up an independent commission to address it. The college has since formed a task force and brought hazing charges through its judicial affairs office against the fraternity and more than a quarter of its members, including Lohse.
Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson declined to comment on those charges, but the fraternity's president, Brendan Mahoney, said all 27 accused students face identical charges relating to new member recruitment in the fall of 2011. But by that time, the fraternity had gotten rid of any traditions that would be "deemed problematic" by the administration, Mahoney said, and no current members of SAE were members in 2009 when Lohse was a pledge.
As for Lohse's graphic allegations, "None of these practices, and nothing remotely close to hazing, occurred at our pledge events in 2011," he said in an email to The Associated Press.
Lohse did not specify in his column whether all alleged abuses occurred in 2009 or later, and he declined to comment Monday, citing an agreement with another publication.
Dartblog.com, a blog written by former students about the college, obtained a copy of the letter notifying Lohse of the charges against him. According to the letter, Lohse is accused of threatening physical harm to new fraternity members, putting other students in fear for their safety and/or engaging in hazing during the fall 2011 term. He also is accused providing alcohol to underage students, providing drugs and/or providing alcohol to obviously intoxicated individuals during the same time period.
The charges filed were identical for the other individuals, "even though Lohse's tale does not describe them as engaged in the same activities," said Mahoney, who said students have been charged "without a shred of real evidence." Administrators, he suggested, are panicking in the face of bad press.
"We do know that Dartmouth has come in for a lot of bad publicity because of Lohse's allegations. We hope Dartmouth's administration will focus on the evidence rather than on a public relations strategy," he said.
Johnson, the college administrator, strongly denied both Lohse's allegation that the college failed to act on his initial complaints and Mahoney's suggestion that the recent charges were brought to quell criticism.
"When we get detailed, specific information regarding hazing or any other violation of our code, we act," she said. "This isn't a witch hunt, nor are we sitting on our hands."
She said the administration already had been working hard to tackle the issue of hazing and was not simply responding to the recent allegations and faculty pressure.
For example, the college hired a new director of Greek organizations who had been credited with turning around the fraternity and sorority system at another college, has hired two sexual assault coordinators and is in the process of hiring another alcohol and drug abuse counselor. The college sees hazing as part of a larger problem, tied together with binge drinking and sexual assault, and has taken steps to address all three through the National College Health Improvement Project it launched last year.
"Clearly we put our resources where our mouth is," she said. "This idea that we have somehow thrown up our hands, said there's nothing we can do about hazing or other high risk behavior going on on college campuses is a complete mischaracterization."
Johnson also said college officials did everything they could when Lohse made his anonymous complaints, but the tips he provided didn't pan out.
Hanover Police Chief Nicholas Giaccone, who also investigated at the time, agreed. Based on information Lohse provided, police set up a stakeout in a wooded area in December 2010 but nothing they witnessed among pledges and SAE members amounted to hazing, he said. Police began investigating again after Lohse's column was published, but criminal charges are unlikely, Giaccone said, in large part because Lohse is not cooperating with police.
"We also realized that based on his past history with us, that he may be a witness that would have credibility issues, and it may hard to rehabilitate him in the eyes of judge or jury if we ended up going that route," Giaccone said.
Those credibility issues include Lohse's 2010 arrest and conviction for cocaine possession and witness tampering and a 2011 disorderly conduct conviction, following a confrontation with a security officer during Homecoming Weekend festivities.
"The opinion of most students is that he has a bone to pick with both the college and SAE," said Stephanie Pignatiello, a senior who said that while she believes hazing happens, she thinks Lohse's claims are greatly exaggerated. But she also agrees with him that the college hasn't done much to solve the problem.
"They seem to be largely absent," she said. "I don't think much will change at the administrative level."
Sophomore Stuart Ghafoor said reading Lohse's condensed description of hazing was "gross," but not a surprise. He thinks SAE is being scapegoated so the college can appear to be doing something to address hazing.
"But if the administration goes after it, it could make it even more underground, which would be more dangerous," he said.