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Renewed Fight on Fraternities

April 29, 2011

Early this month, the Education Department was reminding colleges of their obligations to prevent sexual harassment or assault, and Yale University was facing criticism for not doing enough after a fraternity -- now famously -- chanted, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” at a pledge initiation last fall.

For fraternities far from New Haven, the incident there -- and countless others -- seem to have sparked a new barrage of criticism of fraternity culture more generally. The most high-profile bit appeared in a column in The Wall Street Journal, in which a former University of Virginia student called for colleges to “Shutter Fraternities for Young Women’s Good.”

“If you want to improve women's lives on campus, if you want to give them a fair shot at living and learning as freely as men, the first thing you could do is close down the fraternities,” Caitlin Flanagan wrote. “The Yale complaint may finally do what no amount of female outrage and violation has accomplished. It just might shut them down for good.”

The North-American Interfraternity Conference responded with a letter to the editor, describing Flanagan’s column as extreme. “We understand the means to an end for promotions and publicity. But to disparage an entire institution is unacceptable, particularly for those who carry forward the best behavior, honors and upstanding demeanor that are usually under reported and overlooked.” The letter had not been published as of Thursday evening.

NIC President Peter Smithhisler reinforced his skepticism in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “I think the goal was to be provocative and outrageous, but I don’t think that’s helpful in an issue that’s facing society and higher education as a whole,” he said, referring to sexual assault in Greek life. “I don’t want the impression that we support any of these negative activities, because we certainly don’t. The incongruence between values and actions is stressful to me. But I don’t think that it’s fair to create broad strokes against all fraternity activities.”

The Yale investigation isn't the only recent occurrence that's triggered public criticism toward fraternities. Late last month, an e-mail containing misogynistic language that had been passed along throughout fraternities at the University of Southern California went viral, and hundreds of students protested the ranking system that had apparently been used to tally sexual encounters. The message also said, "Non-consent and rape are two different things." Earlier this year, Arizona State University was denied its request to dismiss a former student's civil suit accusing two Sigma Chi fraternity members of raping her in 2008, and the institution of violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 with an inadequate response.

Hazing has been an issue as well; just last month, the University of Michigan shut down its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter for hazing activities including hitting pledges with broomsticks and making them pay for strippers. It's not just pledges, either; in February, the University of Kansas discovered its Interfraternity Council had condoned hazing, with its members hitting each other with paddles. And the month before that, Utah State University settled a lawsuit with the parents of a student who died from vodka consumption in a 2008 hazing incident. Earlier this month, a student sued Hartwick College, saying that the institution did not do enough to prevent a fraternity from hazing him by allegedly spanking him, locking him up for hours in a bathroom with blaring music and blinding lights and forcing him to dress up like a pimp.

The Journal isn't the only place running commentaries suggesting that it's time to crack down on fraternities. A similar column Friday in The Daily Beast, despite “not advocating the end of fraternities,” toed the same line. “While these fraternity brothers must be held accountable for their actions, the Greek system as a whole must also be held accountable for what it teaches college students about women – that women are weaker and less capable than men,” wrote Samantha Wishman, who recently obtained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “Greek life is fun and valuable if done correctly. But if we’re going to change the testosterone-dominated college culture, the Greek system must empower women to take part in campus life with full and equal rights.” Wishman said fraternities at Penn were repeatedly given advantages that her sorority lacked, such as earlier recruiting periods and access to extra funds -- in short, that Greek systems further empower men while demeaning women.

Greek life is, of course, no stranger to criticism. And while such criticism typically doesn't extend to calling for the abolishment of the entire system, Nicholas L. Syrett, an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado who wrote a book on the history of white college fraternities, is not surprised to see such calls following the Yale investigation, though neither he nor anyone else could say unequivocally that it’s a direct response. “For the last 50 years, people have said, ‘Yes, they should be abolished.’ Any time something big like this happens … people do come forward and say it,” Syrett said.

Asked whether this criticism represents a shift in the dialogue about fraternities, Smithhisler said, "It's very circular and has come up before."

While there is a correlation between fraternity culture and the mistreatment of women – “and that would be putting it most mildly,” Syrett said – clearly, some fraternities are exceptions to that rule. But most aren’t. “To deny that there’s a link between the two things is foolish,” he said. “It is an ongoing and persistent pattern over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that to me is undeniable…. These allegations have come up over and over again.”

To Dan Bureau, director of student affairs and learning at the University of Memphis, that's a sign that somebody needs to take action against the individuals and chapters who are perpetrating this behavior. "I don't like the term 'cyclical.' My counter to that is that if we see this coming, we need to do more to make it stop," said Bureau, who has also worked on a range of fraternity and sorority issues as an educational consultant. "The issues that fraternities and sororities have are felt throughout the campus.... It's our responsibility to counter it in that context if we work with these organizations."

Bureau said he is not surprised at Flanagan's column. "There are people that think these organizations are detrimental to people," Bureau said. "It's not about throwing everything out, it's about dealing with the ones that are really the problem. And that means student affairs professionals and those that work with these organizations have the guts to close down the ones that hurt us."

The Delta Kappa Epsilon chanting incident -- which came two years after other fraternity pledges held signs outside the Women's Center saying "We love Yale sluts" -- prompted a disciplinary board investigation of the individuals involved, but Yale does not make public the findings of such inquiries.

However, on Thursday, Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced the report of a committee she appointed in January, which was asked to assess the extent of hazing and initiation rituals and recommend prevention tactics for harmful practices, and to "re-evaluate Yale's current definition of hazing in the context of [its] findings." Among other things, the committee recommended that the college's policies be expanded to hold organizations and relevant individuals accountable for hazing and initiations, and -- notably -- to consider the effects of such activities on third parties.

A number of factors contribute to the recurrence of behavior like that of Delta Kappa Epsilon's, Syrett said: the selectivity of fraternities and the tendency of members to recruit like-minded students who are not only congregating on the basis of being men, but who also place a high premium on masculinity, as well as their increasing fears of being associated with homosexuality. Over the course of history, men have drunk heavily, participated in sports and exhibited a disdain for performing well academically in an effort to be more masculine, he said. But in the last 60 years or so, as society has shifted, so too have fraternities: “Another really big way to prove you are masculine in the 20th century is to be able to have sex with women.”

But if students want to eliminate sexually harmful environments, they may need to tighten their focus. That’s because the prevalence of alcohol, not the existence of a fraternity, is what predicts a high frequency of rape and assault, said Mary P. Koss, a professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health specializing in sexual violence. Studies comparing rates of rape involving fraternities versus general rates of rape usually don’t control for alcohol, she said, but when they do, the rates are no different. “The primary thing to think about in why fraternities play the role they do in the rape scene on campus is that they’re bars,” Koss said. “If we had a comparison group of a student bar in the town as opposed to the bar that’s the fraternity, you would probably find a higher rate of rape at the city bar than at the fraternity bar. But we don’t study the other side of the equation.”

Koss also – like Smithhisler – noted the importance of distinguishing between the individual and the institution. Fraternities are often sold as places that offer easy access to alcohol and sex, she said. “The people who already have values that attract them to that culture are more likely to join. People sometimes forget that.”

As of Thursday evening, Flanagan’s column had generated nearly 1,000 comments from readers falling all over the spectrum. But one party staying silent is Yale, one of the few institutions that could ultimately determine the fate of its fraternities.

 

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