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Boston - Dartmouth College, which reported in February that undergraduate applications slid 14 percent this year, is now battling online advertisements claiming that the school has a "rape problem."
The ads, aimed through Facebook and Web browsers at prospective and current students, along with alumni, have been seen about 60,000 times since they began running a little more than a week ago, said Karin Roland, organizing director for UltraViolet, a women's rights advocacy group that paid for the campaign. The school is responding with an advertising effort of its own, said Justin Anderson, a Dartmouth spokesman.
"There's been an uprising on campus and a lot of media attention to sexual assault at Dartmouth," Roland said in a telephone interview. "They have a culture and an administration that isn't stopping it, and this is an opportunity to hold their feet to the fire."
In March, President Philip Hanlon proposed stiffer penalties for students found responsible for sexual assaults in school investigations, which Dartmouth's board endorsed unanimously. Dartmouth's online ad began running earlier last week and highlights measures being taken on sexual assault, Anderson said. Since Thursday, the college ad has drawn 204,928 views on Facebook, and 31,597 people have had it come up in their Twitter feed, he said.
"It is unfortunate that UltraViolet has failed to acknowledge the actions Dartmouth is taking, most notably our comprehensive policy proposal to take effect in June that makes expulsion mandatory in the most egregious cases of sexual assault," Anderson said in an emailed statement.
The UltraViolet ads have appeared just as high school seniors are receiving acceptances and determining where they want to spend their undergraduate years, said Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant with Top Colleges in Washington. Such attacks may hurt most with students who have been accepted at multiple elite schools such as Dartmouth, Cornell University, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, and must make a choice, he said.
"These are excellent, excellent students who have achieved at the highest levels or they wouldn't have been admitted to multiple Ivies," Goodman said in a telephone interview. "It could have an impact with this subgroup."
Students at colleges across the country, including Harvard University and Yale University, have filed federal complaints against their schools for failing to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault. Last year, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights began its own investigation of sexual harassment and misconduct at Dartmouth, based in Hanover, N.H.
Viewers who click on Dartmouth's Internet ads are taken to a page describing efforts in process at the school. Under proposed rule changes, sexual assaults would be investigated by an outside examiner, and students found responsible for assaults involving bodily penetration would face mandatory expulsion.
The school is collecting comments on the new rules, which will need final approval before taking effect, Anderson said.
Since Hanlon took over in June, the college has begun developing the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, a voluntary program for sexual assault prevention. Last month, he pledged to open a campus center that will serve as a hub for educating students in prevention and response to sexual assault.
While the measures are positive, they still aren't enough, said Stephen Mandel, the chairman of Dartmouth's board, in a March 21 letter to the Dartmouth community.
"Quite simply, social norms need to change and harmful behaviors need to stop," said Mandel, who is also managing director of Lone Pine Capital in New York. "Sexual assault is completely unacceptable."
Some Dartmouth students have said the campus isn't welcoming to women and minorities.
Last year, a student group protested at an admissions event, and on April 1 another group of students began a 48-hour sit-in of Hanlon's office to call for greater inclusiveness.
The college came under further scrutiny in February when a student penned a "rape guide" that appeared on an anonymous campus website, giving instructions in how to make a specific female student intoxicated and vulnerable. Washington-based UltraViolet said they received more than 50,000 signatures on an online petition demanding that Dartmouth do more to avert such incidents.
One of the UltraViolet ads encourages students who have been accepted to Dartmouth to think carefully before enrolling.
"Find out more before you decide," it says.
The advocacy group's leaders have been in touch with Dartmouth officials, Roland said.
"Obviously they don't like being called out in this way," she said. "Their students who have experienced sexual assault and are at risk of sexual assault want them to focus their energy on addressing the problem instead of spending it on PR."
Bloomberg News published a series of stories in the past year showing growing student anger and activism regarding campus sexual assault. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the Education Department received 30 complaints claiming colleges failed to prevent or fully address campus assaults, compared with 17 a year earlier and 18 two years prior.