Last week, Frank Bruni shocked me with his weekly New York Times column because, in it, he issued an open call to American universities asking that they shut down their fraternity organizations before more pledges die from hazing. I assumed the responses to the column would be mixed, if not upset, since asking for the abolition of fraternities is a lofty demand. But the hundreds of comments below the piece — comments written by various university presidents, fraternity brothers and alumni, current college students, among others — shared the same sentiment: people want fraternities shut down.
If someone had asked me a year ago if I thought fraternities should be abolished, I would’ve replied with a firm yes. Having grown up in the same city as the University of Arkansas — which is a massive, southern, public university — I’ve witnessed the toxicity of frat culture for my entire life. It catered to a very specific demographic (rich, white, straight, male) and abetted egregious behavior, like sexual violence and excessive drinking. I always sensed that Arkansas was as unimpressed with its fraternities as I was.
But after being at Stevens for a few months, my opinion of fraternities has changed. Fraternities at Stevens — from what I’ve seen — promote leadership, encourage friendship, and engage in commendable acts of service. When fraternities fulfill their mission to positively embolden and empower men, like they seem to do at Stevens, they are a great addition — if not integral — to the campus community.
However, while Stevens may have a successful Greek Life program, other fraternities across the country have been largely responsible for hazing and killing its new members, supporting a culture of excessive drinking and cultivating an environment of sexual violence against women.
I attribute the success of Stevens’ Greek Life to the Office of Student Life’s involvement with the fraternities, for they embrace, celebrate, and encourage the events and accomplishments of these organizations. However, fraternities that are permitted to operate as they please, independent of the university, are prone to bad behavior. The university’s relationship and involvement with its Greek organizations correlate highly with the inclusiveness of the fraternities.
Take Penn State, for example.
In 1997, five members of a Penn State fraternity showed up to University Health Services with severe bruises and lacerations, and the physicians strongly suspected that the five fraternity members had been victims of hazing. The injuries, according to the director of University Health Services, had been caused by “something that someone else was doing to them.”
In 2007, freshman Joseph Dado had gotten so drunk at a Penn State fraternity party that he fell down a set of stairs and died.
Earlier this year, Penn State sophomore Tim Piazza suffered several brain injuries, an abdomen full of blood, and a lacerated spleen after he fell down a flight of stairs during a fraternity hazing event. His fraternity, scrambling to hide evidence and protect themselves, left his body at the bottom of the stairs for 12 hours before calling the police.
For each of these atrocities, Penn State shut down the respective fraternity chapters and condemned the rebellious, murderous, Greek organizations. Yet also for each atrocity, besides the most recent one, each of the fraternity chapters was revived after about two years. “At Penn State, the fraternities,” according to Atlantic reporter Caitlin Flanagan, “operate as they please.” Penn State’s nearly nonexistent relationship with the fraternities, in the eyes of the fraternity, allow the Greek organizations to function without punishment; they can expect to do what they want and get what they want because the university only cares in public settings.
While I believe that the health of a fraternity relies on its relationship with its governing university, fraternities at a national level have been slightly responsible for the negative reputation they sometimes earn.
Just two years ago, for example, the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, umbrella organizations representing fraternities and sororities, heavily lobbied for the “Safe Campus Act” in the House of Representatives, a bill which would have complicated how universities investigate sexual assault and rape on campus — a bill which ultimately failed.
The Safe Campus Act would’ve required victims to report sexual violence allegations to law enforcement before the university could initiate an investigation. Under the Safe Campus Act, if a victim chose not to report it to law enforcement, the university would be unable to “initiate or … carry out any institutional disciplinary proceeding with respect to the allegation.” Victims would lose a preferred channel to receive support, ensure safety, and, ultimately, find justice.
The fraternity organizations insisted that the Safe Campus Act would address concerns regarding reporting sexual assault allegations. However, these fraternity organizations exploited victims’ current preference not to report to the police, as “[s]ixty-three percent of completed rapes, 65% of attempted rapes, and 74% of completed and attempted sexual assaults against females were not reported to the police” for reasons of privacy, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice report on Rape and Sexual Assault. Considering that men in fraternities are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other college men — according to John D. Foubert, a professor at Oklahoma University who studies sexual assault — by pushing for legislation that would require sexual violence victims to report to the police before any university investigation could ensue, fraternity organizations appeared more interested in protecting alleged sexual assaulters than creating a ‘safe campus’ for victims.
Of course, individual chapters may not believe in every part of their national organization’s agendas. But if universities want to ensure that their chapters aren’t perpetuating the heinous ideas of the Safe Campus Act or anything else, universities must actively involve themselves with their Greek organizations.
To eliminate fraternity-related issues, student leaders and administrators must examine attitudes, values, and behaviors within Greek life. They must restructure these organizations to make them more inclusive and safe. Change may not require abolishing these fraternities, but it will require universities to be more involved than they are now.