As 2014 has repeatedly demonstrated, there are serious issues with collegiate Greek life, specifically with traditional social fraternities. Don’t expect them to be removed from college campuses anytime soon, though.
The year opened with an editorial from Bloomberg View calling for the end of student Greek life, claiming that “the fraternities that dominate so much of collegiate social life are of dubious value.” These arguments have only increased in the wake of various fraternity controversies this semester, leading to suspended Greek systems for at least four schools — Clemson University, West Virginia University, University of Virginia, and San Diego State University — and a high-profile move by Wesleyan University to co-educate their campus fraternities.
However, the recent — and seemingly increasing — backlash against fraternities is actually nothing new.
Business Insider spoke with University of Northern Colorado history professor Nicholas Syrett — author of “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities” — who said that the current conversation about banning fraternities has happened many times before.
“It does seem to me that the focus on campus sexual assault and rape is relatively new, but this discussion is hardly unprecedented,” Syrett said.
Earlier this year, Newsweek writer Zach Schoenfeld investigated a string of Greek system shutterings in the 1980s and 1990s, which stemmed from “most of the usual suspects: worrisome hazing rituals, out-of-control alcohol abuse, sexism.”
Notably, though, as Shoenfeld and Syrett both point out, these schools were all small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. Perhaps more importantly, none of the colleges that got rid of their Greek systems were particularly dependent on fraternities and sororities, either for students’ social lives or campus housing.
“When there have been discussions of doing this before, it hasn’t happened,” Syrett said. “The places that have gotten rid of fraternities were less dependent on them. The notion of repercussions hasn’t been as strong.”
The only school that dismantled a truly entrenched fraternity system was Princeton University, said Syrett, and it’s arguable how successful that change ultimately was. The “eating clubs” that were established in the wake of Greek life’s demise, Syrett said, are not dissimilar from the system they were supposed to replace.
One of Princeton’s eating clubs, Tiger Inn, has recently made headlines for a series of lewd and sexist emails sent out to the membership by two student officers, who have since been removed from their positions.
Even this semester’s system-wide suspensions, which made headlines when first announced, appear to have had a minimal impact on Greek life.
At Clemson, Greek life at least partially resumed within weeks of the original suspension. WVU’s, SDSU’s, and UVA’s fraternity systems remain suspended, although UVA is set to resume Greek activities on January 9 — the first day of fraternity and sorority recruitment.
Perhaps ironically, these large, often public universities are the very schools that could benefit most from a strong Greek system — with thousands of people on campus, fraternities offer smaller communities to students who might otherwise feel overwhelmed or lost in the shuffle.
It’s clear that there are serious problems within many fraternity chapters. Syrett told Inside Higher Ed in 2009, after his book first came out, that “ample evidence” exists that “demonstrates that fraternity members are involved in more binge drinking, hazing mishaps (some of which lead to serious injury and death), and sexual assault than most of their peers.”
Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan also detailed many terrible qualities attributed to fraternities — from hazing to alcohol abuse to how they treat women — in an investigative feature for the magazine earlier this year titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities.”
However, despite the many issues and repeated calls for the end of collegiate Greek life, it seems exceptionally unlikely that fraternities and sororities will disappear anytime soon — if ever. Here are a few reasons why:
Perhaps the biggest reason that collegiate Greek life will stay on campuses is the practical benefit that the system grants colleges. Greek housing, for example, is so ingrained into many campuses that removing it would leave the schools with potentially thousands of students in need of a place to live and a logistical nightmare.
When colleges began significantly growing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Flanagan, “the fraternities involved themselves very deeply in the business of student housing, which provided tremendous financial savings to their host institutions, and allowed them to expand the number of students they could admit.” Flanagan also explains how this has become a potentially inescapable problem for colleges:
Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $US3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).
Outside Social Outlets
Fraternities offer a social outlet to college campuses that operates outside of the school’s budget and removes much of the potential liability that could threaten an administration.
The Greek system’s social benefit to colleges is highlighted in a Trinity College report from 2010 on the future of the school’s fraternities and sororities. According to the report, “Between the College regulations and the law, [Trinity] had in fact allowed the popular, late-night social life to become the responsibility of the fraternities.”
The Trinity report cites “mutual benefits” for the school and its Greek system — “the College got a social outlet that did not come from the College budget and which existed at a small remove; and the fraternities got the attention and mystique accorded by peers.”
Flanagan also notes the social appeal of having fraternities for colleges, writing that “fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students.”
Schools may also be hesitant to get rid of fraternities because they fear a financial blow — Greeks tend to be more professionally succesful than unaffiliated students and will likely donate more to their alma mater.
“At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters,” according to Flanagan. This kind of pressure probably prevents colleges from removing Greek life, even if they want to.
“Schools are beholden to donating alumni,” Syrett said. “When they try and do something counter to the fraternities’ interests, they have to worry about money.”
There is also another, more intangible, reason that fraternities won’t disappear from college campuses anytime soon — it may be against the United States Constitution.
When a school administration threatens their campus’ fraternity system, students often respond that any ban would infringe on their right to freedom of association, protected by the Constitution. According to Flanagan, this argument may be “legally delicate,” but it has “withstood through the years.”
She writes, “The powerful and well-funded political-action committee that represents fraternities in Washington has fought successfully to ensure that freedom-of-association language is included in all higher-education reauthorization legislation, thus ‘disallowing public Universities the ability to ban fraternities.'”
National fraternity leadership recognises that individual houses need to be punished if they break school policy, or the law — but that shouldn’t impact a college’s entire system. In a statement to Business Insider, Pete Smithhisler, the head of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said:
When there are unsafe situations that arise for any student, colleges and universities must act according to their own policies and procedures to ensure the safety of the entire campus.
However, the NIC is opposed to unilaterally punishing all fraternities and fraternity members based on allegations limited to a handful of bad actors — especially when they are behaving within the school’s rules, regulations and codes of conduct. Punishing an entire community for isolated or individual actions undermines the spirit of collaboration and education that is supposed to occur on campus. The NIC encourages colleges and universities to work collaboratively with students and fraternal partners to address the root causes or issues leading to the high-risk behaviours.
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