The Fraternity Problem
In March, Caitlin Flanagan explored the bizarre accidents and violent crimes that plague Greek houses: kids falling off roofs, severe hazing, even sexual assault, including one case at Wesleyan University that the author detailed. Flanagan argued that in many incidents, the fraternity and the school attempt to shift blame, and liability, onto the victims. The New Yorker’s Andrea DenHoed advised, “If you know anyone in a fraternity, you should probably tell them to read this article, and to stay off the roof.”
In my five short years since graduating from Trinity College, the lens through which I saw—and accepted—the binge drinking and seemingly harmless behaviors at fraternities has shifted away from rose-colored.
There is no denying the fun of dressing up for frat parties; the delight of recognition as we called a brother to grant us preferential entrance on a Saturday night; the camaraderie of grinding, intoxicated, with our fellow classmates, shoes slipping in the slime of a frat basement.
I chose to see the experience through said rose-colored lens for my own benefit. But the realistic portrait that Caitlin Flanagan paints in her article is undeniable. Those accounts are truths. Is the importance of my college recreation favored over the physically and mentally injurious escapades cited (never mind the sexist and demeaning elements of these activities)? For that matter, were we as a student body collectively so insular that we were unable to imagine weekend entertainment sans Greek life?
I don’t know if eradicating fraternities altogether is the answer. (Am I still a few years of maturity away from this conclusion?) But I applaud Flanagan for crafting an essay so profound that I have been forced to make these admissions.
I am a proud member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, and like countless others, my life was immeasurably enriched by my fraternity experience. However, the reality of the incidents that Caitlin Flanagan mentions hits close to home. I was attending the University of Idaho when two Greek students drunkenly fell from fraternity houses. Many close to me were victims of sexual assault. I’ve taken friends to the hospital fearing they would die from alcohol poisoning. Instead of wasting energy trying to gloss over the dark stains of the current system, let us sincerely redouble our efforts to reaffirm why our organizations exist in the first place: to cultivate our intellect; to be of service to our community; to make us trustworthy, gentlemen, leaders. John Wooden, the famous basketball coach and a member of Beta Theta Pi, said this best: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation.”
I think most of this could be solved by kicking campus police and college administrations out of sexual-assault investigations entirely. Colleges simply stand to gain too much from keeping their sexual-assault statistics down to carry out a truly impartial investigation. Leave things like parking tickets and loud-music citations to the campus police, and if sexual assault is alleged, report it to the city police—who don’t have the same vested interest in the outcome. The increased impartiality gives the alleged victim a fairer shake if the accusation is true, and gives the alleged attacker a chance to clear his name (without the stigma of “Oh, the school just covered it up”) if the accusation is false. Better for everyone involved.
Caitlin Flanagan opts for the simplistic view when trying to account for the terrible deeds and occurrences she discovered on college campuses—she seeks to succinctly place the blame on a single entity and avoids the larger issues at play. Fraternities are made up of individuals, and as she points out, their parties include friends and guests. If the universities had abolished the fraternities in her story, the individuals involved would not have vanished; a simple tour of any off-campus housing would find that much alternative housing owned by slumlords does not meet the most-basic building codes.
Eliminating a fraternity also eliminates the structure it provides—members are responsible for themselves, but also to one another and to the organization as a whole. The potential rape, suicide, or drug overdose in a fraternity is the responsibility of all its members. I do not believe these issues disappear with the closing of a fraternity’s doors; rather, they persist with fewer barriers and safety nets.
When I was a student at the University of Oregon, where the percentage of the student population in the Greek system was in the single digits, non-Greek house parties prevailed. There was drinking, sexual assaults, fights, collapsing decks, and seemingly each year police in riot gear shooting tear gas to stop parties that had grown out of control. It made me wonder about the opportunity cost of eliminating the Greek system. How many men and women might have learned from the mistakes of older fraternity brothers or sorority sisters? Could an accident have been avoided if a student had been surrounded by friends who treated him or her as a sibling? How many fights would have been broken up by peer-elected leaders who otherwise would have had to answer to school administrators and a national headquarters?
Removing the Greek system would not alleviate the perils of young men and women being set free to learn on their own. It would only remove an easy target to blame for their inevitable fallibility, and the structure that arose to help guide them through college and life. Perhaps this is the source of the resistance to closing fraternity doors, as opposed to some blind need to survive at any cost, as suggested by the article.
Here’s my perspective as a fraternity member and a former president of a 120-man chapter at a public university in the Midwest: fraternity houses are inherently dangerous, and they are a hell of a lot of fun.
The exhaustive litany of falling-induced injuries outlined in the article doesn’t surprise me. We had a tradition—an incredibly stupid tradition—of putting the chapter-room sofas up on the roof of our house and playing a drinking game that involved driving golf balls off the roof, toward campus. It was moronic, dangerous, and really, really fun. It was also just dumb luck that no one ever took a three-story header onto the driveway.
But here’s the thing. Now that I’m an adult and a father, I have a lot of ambivalence about the fraternity experience, because of the rampant, accepted, institutional abuse of alcohol. I was in college in the 1990s, right after fraternities banned kegs and started the BYOB ticketing system described in the article. My fraternity’s national organization paid for me and my fellow executive-board members to attend leadership training in Chicago, where we were taught how to run a fraternity: recruitment, alumni relations, university relations, finances, and risk management. Lots of risk management.
Contrary to what is described in the article, our national made it clear that we (the 20-year-olds elected by the membership) were responsible and liable for any wrongdoing. In a session reminiscent of Scared Straight!, we were told point-blank about our parents’ being sued if we violated the national risk-management policy. Story after story about people falling down stairs, falling into bonfires, falling out of windows, fights, sexual assaults, etc., terrified us. I think there were eight exec-board positions; three of us were always stone-cold sober at every party, trying our damnedest to keep a lid on the organic chaos that is a fraternity mixer. Every problem—and thankfully all of ours were minor (property damage and scuffles)—was caused by drunkenness.
I understand that the article is directed mainly at parents of college kids, and focused on the administrative and institutional aspects of fraternities rather than fraternity life itself. However, I don’t understand how Flanagan could have reported this story for a year without interviewing several fraternity members, or how the 14,000-word story could have been published without a single quote from any college student, frat brother or otherwise. (There is a quote from Jane Doe, the sexual-assault victim at Wesleyan, but it is from her comments to police, not an interview with Flanagan.) College kids are at the crux of this story—they are the ones being injured, assaulted, and killed on a regular basis. Why were they denied a voice in this story?
Wesleyan University supports efforts to draw attention to the problem of sexual violence on college campuses. Brutal assaults like the one described in The Atlantic’s article can be traumatic for those directly involved and painful for any community. Our priority is to care for survivors, vigorously adjudicate offenses, and create a campus climate that affirms the right of everyone to learn free from the threat of sexual violence. To make it clear: we believe it’s always wrong to blame survivors for their assaults, and we reject the implications to the contrary in the article.
With input from students, faculty, and outside experts, Wesleyan has been working to prevent sexual violence, while enhancing the capacity to respond to the needs of survivors and to apprehend and punish the guilty. As Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth put it: “Violence of any kind has no place on our campus, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it plays on social stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. We applaud groups active across the country, like Know Your IX, which are calling on students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment, and violence.”
We are not at liberty to comment on the specific case described in the article. We do consider productive conversations about the problem of sexual violence and how to eliminate it critical, and we appreciate the opportunity to participate in those discussions.
Vice President, Equity and Inclusion, and Title IX Officer, Wesleyan UniversityMiddletown, Conn.
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