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:
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.
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.’”
Some small liberal arts schools, like Colby, Bowdoin, and Williams, have successfully removed Greek life from campus without taking huge financial hits. Colby even saw a boost in alumni support: Their senior associate dean of students said alumni applauding their decision to remove fraternities “more than made up” for the loss in annual giving from supporters of Greek life. However, small liberal arts schools can make decisions that big state universities cannot. Armstrong was quick to point out that these schools are “sufficiently desirable” that they could remove Greek life without seeing a hit to their applicant pool or their alumni giving. Larger, less competitive schools might not have the same luxury.
Parents might be the most vulnerable link in fraternity story. In her recent Atlantic article, Flanagan highlights how parents accept a huge financial and legal risk when their sons join fraternities.
“If parents understood more, they would potentially insist that their kids don’t do this,” Armstrong said. Since parents often pay for tuition and for dues, they could collectively reduce Greek life membership by simply refusing to pay. “Parents can just say, ‘No, we are paying for some kind of college experience but we are not paying for that one.’ And if the parents don’t pay, and don’t support their kids to participate in this, it stops,” Armstrong said. Robbins was more skeptical, allowing that a parent backlash could “put a damper” on Greek life, but pointing out that too many parents are alumni to make such a backlash realistic.
Fraternities depend on non-fraternity students: Female students attend their parties and prospective students will someday fill their ranks. Either group loses interest in fraternities? Game over.
“What makes the fraternities go is being able to hold successful parties,” Armstrong said. “And every fraternity party starts with a problem, and that is having 100 guys who live there and no girls.” If female students were to stop going to their parties, fraternities would lose their raison d’etre.
The likelihood of a fraternity boycott, Armstrong argued, is dependent on disseminating information to female students. “Why don’t the girls opt out? One reason is that they don’t have the information,” Armstrong said. “They are 18 years old. They do not know the 200-plus-year-old history of these organizations. They do not know these men have accumulated generations of wisdom about how to have these kinds of parties and how to get what they want from interacting with them.”
The other group wielding enough power to derail fraternities? Sixteen-year-old boys. Juniors in high school are at the very bottom of the fraternity feeding chain, and their desire to create an Animal House remake in college fuels Greek life. Prospective students seek out colleges with a vibrant Greek life, pressuring schools to keep fraternities on campus out of fear their applicant pool could shrink. “If University of Iowa gets rid of its Greek system but the University of Illinois doesn’t, all the students go to University of Illinois instead,” Armstrong said.
The reward for fostering Greek life on campus isn’t just booming applicant numbers: The type of student who seeks out fraternity life is particularly attractive to universities. “The set of students who end up joining fraternities and sororities are the most desirable set of students for middle tier public research universities,” Armstrong said. “They are the ones who can pay full tuition. And also because they are there to party, not to spend a lot of time on their academic work, they are sort of cheap. They pay a lot and they don’t ask for very much. They are not wanting independent studies from professors. They are not coming to office hours. They don’t complain about their grades. They’re really low-problem students.”
For any of these tactics to succeed, a group of parent, student, administrator, or alumni activists would have to pick a fight with a well-funded, well-heeled, and potentially constitutionally protected adversary. Over the last few decades, fraternities have built an impressive legal and financial framework that has left universities intertwined, maybe inescapably, with fraternities. It might not be realistic to expect any group to take the controversial and expensive stance that could bring an end to fraternities on American college campuses.