Thursday, November 30, 2017

Can fraternities really be reformed?

In my last blog, Why college fraternities are bad for boys too, I suggested that prohibiting hazing and Greek life is certainly something that all universities should consider doing.  Prohibition is not a new or radical idea. Some American colleges have already taken that step.  Major American news outlets, like Time magazine and the New York Times, still publish reviews calling on all colleges to get rid of fraternities for good. Indeed, there were even attempts by some university presidents to close fraternities as far back as the mid-19th century.  Although frats have managed, by in large, to ride out these storms, serious questions continue to dog them.  This must mean that something, somewhere is still rotten at the heart of the system. So would reform, rather than abolition – which I suggested – really be the more practical answer?

I suspect that Greek Life institutions would probably resist reform as much as abolition. But if reform was their only choice, supporters would, no doubt, still endeavour to retain what they regard as the system’s most worthy features.  No doubt they would point to the sense of “brotherhood” fraternities aim to engender or, as noted in my previous blog, Greek Life’s supposed “Christian” ethos.  They would certainly highlight the amount fraternities donate to charity - presently estimated at $7 million annually.

Yet scratch below the surface and one finds something fundamentally unsavoury in fraternities’ interpretation of these ostensibly laudable values. Remember, college fraternities were originally invented by rich young white men to isolate themselves from their middle-class peers and to gain some autonomy from college regulation. Nowadays the national study body is more diverse than when the system first started. What hasn’t changed, though, is the pride fraternities take in remaining both independent of campus authority and exclusively male. The fact that higher income and white students are still more likely to join fraternities also means that membership remains overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class. If you are poor or a woman you need not apply. Self-evidently, college fraternities’ concept of “brotherhood” and “Christianity” is deeply at odds with that espoused by the namesake of this law school!

Of course, we have fraternities’ charitable giving. Many good causes undoubtedly benefit from this. My question, though, is whether fraternities’ philanthropic work could be just as easily done on a greater scale by other corporate, religious and student organisations that are not exclusionary, sex-segregated clubs built around binge drinking and hazing. I doubt, for example, that the Salvation Army has ever beaten any of their volunteers to death or left them to die of alcohol poisoning with their hands zip-tied after an initiation! 

Equally fraternities charitable giving must also be viewed in the context of their overall wealth and how they utilize it.  It is estimated that fraternities and sororities own over $3 billion in real estate and take in $150 million of tax-free revenue each year.  Much of this fortune is used, for instance, to help members gain positions of authority on campuses. This, in turn, aids them in continuously securing scholarships and awards. Post-college, frat alumni maintain close ties to the frat.  Many provide donations back to their organisation and help newly graduated “brothers” find employment – thus perpetuating a cycle of social exclusion through the passing of assistance from one wealthy alumni generation to the next. 

Frats further look after themselves through sophisticated trade organisations and a political action committee, FratPAC, which, in 2013, succeeded in killing a piece of desperately needed (but bad-for-business) anti-hazing legislation in Congress.  That alone would make anyone wonder why an institution - that purports to be charitable - would deploy its resources in such a self-serving way rather than on, say, more meritorious pursuits such as combating homelessness, hunger, poverty or disease? 

In considering the feasibility of reform we should also never forget that the frat organisation responsible for the death of Tim Piazza (see my previous blog) was supposed to be a “reformed” fraternity.  In fact, it was considered a “model” one “reflect[ing] a national perspective on best practices”.  It had strict behavioural guidelines, a no-alcohol policy, live-in adult supervision and video surveillance.  Despite the university’s zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing and Pennsylvania state’s outlawing of such behaviour, the investigation found that fraternity members engaged in sexually humiliating practices and regularly threw parties fuelled with over $1,200 worth of alcohol. This stubborn disregard for campus or state regulation displayed by Beta Theta Pi takes us back to one of frats’ founding traditions and essential purposes - to offer privileged young men a space where they can be free from any form of external regulation or civilised code of conduct.  All Greek life activities are ultimately directed towards that goal.

It seems to me, therefore, that any sensible reform of Greek life institutions would need to be so root and branch that it would actually destroy the essence of what it means to be a fraternity.  This leaves only two realistic choices.  Either fraternities and sororities close voluntarily, or colleges (or even state authorities) abolish them.

I appreciate that many colleges may be reluctant to move in that direction given, for example, that 75% of donations to private universities come from fraternity alumni. But then again, isn’t decency more important than money? Isn’t protecting women from sexual violence more important than money? Isn’t the life of Tim Piazza more important than money? Indeed, isn’t all that what “brotherhood” is truly supposed to mean? 

1 comment:

Omar de la Cruz said...


Having read and commented on your prior blog post as well, I think I agree with you. If the powers that be aren't willing to deeply reconsider everything about greek life, I think a flat ban would be appropriate. I know that some universities have gone as far as to ban greek life in response to scandals. While I can't name the schools off the top of my head, I know that typically this kind of punishment follows sexual assault/rape scandals that get plenty of publicity. I'd be interested in seeing information from students about what college life was like after these kinds of steps were taken. Are recorded incidents of sexual assault/rape lower than before? While I agree that something needs to be done about fraternities, the underlying cultural problem would probably persist. It's clear that there is enough good that fraternities and sororities do that would make it unlikely that something as drastic as outlawing them is unlikely but it's certainly something interesting to think about.