HANOVER, N.H. — Less than a year into his presidency at the Ivy League college from which he graduated, Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon didn't need to go into detail when he stood before an audience of students, faculty, trustees, staff and alumni this spring and declared, "Enough is enough."
By then, news that a male undergraduate had posted a vulgar "rape guide" in January on a popular student chat site had spread across campus and beyond. A federal investigation of the school's handling of sexual assault complaints had made national headlines. There's probably more to come: A book due this month will elaborate on "many of the factors driving the rape culture at Dartmouth," says author Andrew Lohse, a former student who has written about stomach-turning hazing rituals at his fraternity.
Hanlon, who graduated in 1977, a year before Animal House immortalized his alma mater's hard-partying image on screen, vowed in his speech in April to rid the campus of "extreme and harmful behaviors," including sexual assault.
Whether he succeeds remains to be seen, and some members of the Dartmouth community have their doubts.
It's no coincidence that administrators on campuses nationwide are making similar promises. Over the past three years, a network of advocates for victims of sexual assault has made the case that campus rape is far more prevalent than most colleges like to admit.
The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is investigating dozens of colleges over their handling of sexual assault claims, including Harvard, Florida State and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Schools found out of compliance could lose access to federal student aid.
A new federal law requires colleges to educate students and new employees about the prevention of dating violence, sexual assault and stalking and to ensure "prompt, fair and impartial" disciplinary proceedings.
Concerns about sexual violence on campus have grabbed the attention of America's most powerful bully pulpit, the White House.
"This is sort of the moment in time we've all been waiting for," Lynn Rosenthal, co-chair of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, told participants at a Dartmouth-sponsored summit on the issue in July.
Many victims have gone public with stories that focus less on the crime than on how poorly campus administrators often handle the follow-up. "The institutional betrayal that these students face is sometimes worse than the assault itself," says Annie Clark, co-founder of the non-profit End Rape on Campus, which advises students on how to lodge complaints against their institutions.
A 2000 Justice Department report estimated that less than 5% of victims of rape attending college report their attack. Yet college campuses reported nearly 5,000 forcible sex offenses in 2012, higher than the rate among peers who don't go to college, according to U.S. Education Department data cited by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Last month, McCaskill co-sponsored legislation that would impose stiff penalties for schools that try to cover up the problem.
Accused men are fighting back, arguing that their rights were violated during disciplinary proceedings at their schools. At least 16 lawsuits are pending against universities, including the University of Michigan and Duke, according to a website called A Voice for Male Students. A group called Families Advocating for Campus Equality was founded this summer to raise awareness of the impact on victims of false accusations.
"I'm telling you, these young men are not able to finish their college education, and if their names are public, they are not employable," says President Sherry Warner Seefeld, whose son was accused and later cleared of a sexual assault charge while a student at the University of North Dakota. Regardless of the outcome, "the headlines of the media are incredible."
The growing backlash reflects the challenges and complexities faced by colleges, which are required by law to respond to sexual assault complaints — a felony in the U.S. legal system.
Colleges "aren't very good at investigating and adjudicating felonies," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based lobbying group for colleges and universities. Confusing and sometimes contradictory federal regulations — including proposals under review — don't make it any easier, he says.
"Colleges desperately want to do the right thing, but it's not always clear what the right thing to do is," he says.
Dartmouth's Summit on Sexual Assault this summer was designed to help universities figure that out. Administrators from more than 60 colleges gathered to hear from federal officials, consult with national experts and share strategies on how to improve their handling of cases on their campuses and to comply with a new federal law that requires colleges to educate students and employees about dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
It gave Dartmouth a chance to highlight its most recent efforts, including procedures for investigating complaints and a sexual assault prevention center, which is scheduled to open this fall. Also this fall, a steering committee will release a list of recommendations on next steps.
Through campus spokeswoman Amy Olson, Hanlon and other Dartmouth administrators declined comment for this story.
Skepticism remains about Dartmouth's administration making good on its promises. "Dartmouth seems always to be weighing every step, every proposal against what's in the best interest of the college rather than what's in the best interest of the victim," says theater professor and 1975 alumnus Peter Hackett.
Hackett, a member of the last all-male class admitted to the college, is a founding member of Dartmouth Change, a group of students, alumni, faculty and friends pressing the administration to examine how it has "allowed this culture to thrive on this campus," he says.
For example, he says, Dartmouth publishes campus sexual assault statistics in an annual report, as required by law, but does not post reports of sexual assaults online as they occur. Dartmouth Change keeps a more up-to-date tally on its website.
"We're attempting to keep pressure on the administration to make changes that don't constitute simply checking off compliance boxes," says member Alexandra Arnold, a 2010 graduate. "Unfortunately, although unsurprisingly, the smoke-and-mirrors department is operating in full force, so much of our energy is aimed at pushing back against the college's public relations machine."