How Colleges Could Get Rid of Fraternities

It's not that easy to banish the Greeks.
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According to the fraternity Alpha Delta Phi’s website, its “Brothers unite to participate in an atmosphere of energetic and concerted interaction where the moral, social, and intellectual aspects of each man’s character may grow and flourish.”

Its brothers were also the inspiration for Animal House.

Fraternities offer their members opportunities for community service, friendship, and leadership. They also create environments that seem to breed hazing, binge drinking, and sexual assault. Universities have struggled to harness fraternities’ power for good and diminish their capability for evil, but so far little has worked. So what can universities do to stem the flow of fatalities, injuries, and sexual assaults at fraternities? Instead of threatening fraternities with everything from limited rush week activities to double secret probation, some think the solution is to end the reign of fraternities on American campuses altogether. Last month, Bloomberg’s editors called for college administrations to abolish fraternities. Caitlin Flanagan called for the “shuttering” of fraternities in a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece. Other writers have penned similar pieces.

These articles take for granted that Greek life can be dethroned, but the reality is more complicated. It would take more than angsty editorials to push fraternities off of the American college campus. Fraternities and universities share a centuries-long history, a student body eager to find the collegiate promise land of keg-fueled parties, and a relationship that is, in many ways, mutually beneficial. If deaths, binge drinking, and sexual assault haven’t been enough to bring them down, what would have to happen to dismantle fraternities? Here are some possible scenarios:

Universities could put their foot down

Perhaps the most obvious way to end fraternities is for universities to simply remove Greek life from their campuses. “It’s not even really a turf war anymore between universities and Greek groups because it’s as as if universities have given up,” Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, said in an interview. “If higher education really wanted to get rid of Greek groups, they could. All universities would have to do is put their foot down, but they don’t.” Universities could say no Greek groups or events on campus and prohibit advertising for Greek life on campus. Elizabeth A. Armstrong, a sociologist at University of Michigan and co-author of Paying for the Party, suggested universities could quell the power of Greek life just by treating fraternities like other clubs: “[One method] would be to say okay you are not so special. You do not get the special attention of the dean. We are going to actually allow other student groups on campus equal power,” she said. “We are going to supervise you just as much as everybody else.”

This might be the most straightforward way to get rid of fraternities, but the legality of banning Greek life is questionable. “A wholesale removal of recognition for all fraternities violates students' right to the freedom of association–enrolled students should be able to join any recognized organization at the time of their choosing,” North-American Interfraternity Conference President & CEO Pete Smithhisler wrote to me in an email last week. Smithhisler also asserts that universities do treat fraternities like any other student organization: “We believe that student organization policies should be equitable for all groups, including fraternities...Fraternity chapters are subject to the same disciplinary proceedings as other student organizations,” he wrote.

Fight money with money

Fraternity men give more money to their alma maters than their non-fraternity peers. In a time when many universities face fragile financial futures, angering alumni, especially active alumni, is a nonstarter. “I think it’s probably fair to say that colleges are tacitly accepting what amounts to bribes to let Greek life continue,” Robbins said.

Armstrong suggested one way to end Greek life would be to find big-time donors who were passionate about the school’s culture. “If you started to get donors—like billion-dollar donors—saying ‘I am not going to give this money until you get rid of the Greek system,’ you better believe that people would start thinking a lot harder about whether or not to support these organizations,” Armstrong said. “You can imagine a donor saying, ‘I will give my check for a quarter million dollars every year that you do not have a student fall out of a fraternity. Every year that that occurs, this check is not coming. If there are any drinking reports or students injuries that reach the lawsuit or coma level, this money isn’t coming.’”

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Julia Ryan is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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