Bad Apples or the Barrel?

Greek life has been defended for years with claims that most problems are caused by just a few members. Can that argument survive?

April 15, 2015
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The scene that greeted employees of the Treetop Resort in late January looked like a tornado had passed through. Doors hung off their hinges, holes pocked the walls, debris and pieces of ceiling covered the hallway. But this wasn’t the work of a freak winter storm.

Members of a University of Michigan fraternity who stayed in the hotel that week had caused the estimated $430,000 in damage. They allegedly broke furniture, urinated on the carpet and damaged 45 rooms in all. Soon word came that two other Michigan fraternities had caused $20,000 in damage to another resort nearby.

As the university and the fraternities’ national offices mulled possible punishments, alumni, members and other supporters of the fraternities were quick to offer up a now-familiar defense: don’t punish everyone for the actions of a “few bad apples.” It’s a common argument, but it’s also one that often ignores the entirety of the aphorism it is based on.

“A few bad apples spoil the bunch,” the full saying goes. Or, in its less generous form: one bad apple spoils the entire barrel. In the past academic year, at least 80 fraternity chapters were suspended or investigated over allegations of racism, sexism, hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual assault. More than 30 fraternities were suspended in just the last month, The Huffington Post found. Some student affairs experts are starting to wonder if the barrel has rotted through.

The issue of whether Greek misdeeds are perpetrated by a few bad apples or are more widespread is important. Relatively few colleges have actively tried to eliminate Greek systems. The norm -- suspension for serious infractions but welcoming back the house a few years later -- is based on the assumption that the system is a net positive and not more likely than other housing to cause problems.

“It would be helpful if fraternities at both the national and individual college campus level could define how many apples it takes to spoil the barrel,” said John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of the sexual assault prevention program One in Four. “I think there are probably some universities where you have fraternities and sororities not engaging in these egregious behaviors, but there’s enough that are that you have to ask, ‘When is this going to reach a tipping point?’ At some organizations, it sounds like it already has.”

In November, Johns Hopkins University suspended all fraternity activity after a 16-year-old girl reported being raped at a fraternity party. A month earlier, Emory University's Interfraternity Council also suspended IFC activities after a sexual assault at a fraternity there. That same month, San Diego State University suspended all fraternity activity after several fraternity members interrupted a Take Back the Night march -- in which survivors and advocates raise awareness about sexual violence -- by yelling obscenities, waving sex toys and throwing eggs at marchers.

In March, the Pennsylvania State University chapter of Kappa Delta Rho was suspended over allegations that the fraternity's members posted nude photographs of sleeping or passed-out women on a private Facebook page. The page, originally called “Covert Business Transactions,” had 144 active members, including both current students and alumni of the fraternity. Only one of them reported the page to police.

While the majority of fraternity members do not commit sexual assault, they are three times as likely as nonmembers, according to a 2007 study authored by Foubert, which was later backed up by two subsequent studies. Other research on the issue, however, is mixed.

A recent review by United Educators, a risk management and insurance firm, of 305 sexual assault reports on college campuses from 2011 to 2014 found that about 13 percent of the gang rapes reported in the study were committed by fraternity members, and 24 percent of repeat offenders of sexual assault were reported as fraternity members. Overall, about 10 percent of perpetrators are fraternity members, according to the United Educators study. Fraternity members account for about 9 percent of the total student population.

Another study published in the NASPA Journal in 2009 found that 86 percent of fraternity house residents engaged in binge drinking, compared to 45 percent of nonfraternity men. Fraternity members were twice as likely as nonfraternity men to fall behind in academic work, engage in unplanned sex or be injured due to drinking. Fraternity members were more likely to have unprotected sex, damage property and drive while under the influence of alcohol.

Since 2005, at least 70 students have died in fraternity-related incidents, most of them connected to hazing and alcohol.  

“It's not just a stereotype,” said George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “There’s pretty good evidence that fraternity individuals are drinking more, particularly in the heavy range of binge drinking. They have more problems associated with drinking.”

It’s difficult to say how much negative behavior at fraternities goes unpunished or unreported, meaning it’s also difficult to say if the 80 or so incidents culled from media reports in the last year are representative of fraternities on the whole. Pete Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, argues that it is not. Some of the issues prevalent among some fraternities, like hazing, are also common in other campus groups, such as sports teams. And in the last few months, there has been an apparent crackdown by both campuses and national offices on a number of chapters who misbehave.

“One of the important aspects of the fraternity experience is accountability with living with our values, and so when there is inconsistency with that, there needs to be swift action,” Smithhisler said. “That's what we’ve been seeing lately with these incidents. We have 6,000 chapters on 800 campuses nationwide, so for the majority of students, the experience is really a positive one. It’s an experience that has long-lasting benefits to their careers, their emotional well-being, their sense of self.”

According to the NIC, fraternities raised $20 million for philanthropic efforts last year and members worked 3.8 million hours of community service. According to a survey conducted by Gallup and Purdue University, fraternity and sorority members are more likely than peers who were not in a Greek organization to thrive in their career and personal well-being after college. About 44 percent of fraternity and sorority members who work full time are engaged in the workplace, compared with 38 percent of all other college graduates.

And networking opportunities and high-profile alumni abound. Nearly 40 percent of the current U.S. senators were in a fraternity or sorority, as was about a quarter of Congress. Half of the top 10 Fortune 500 CEOs were in fraternities, and nearly half of all U.S. presidents have been fraternity alumni.

But Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who studies the role of race in fraternities, said that because of a lack of diversity within fraternities, the system only affords these opportunities to a select few, helping perpetuate inequality. He said the fraternity system is less a few bad apples and more of an rotten orchard founded specifically on principles of exclusion. Little research has been completed on the subject, but based on his own study, Hughey estimated that about 4 percent of members of majority-white fraternities are minorities.

In March, the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was caught on video singing a racist song. What was originally described as an isolated incident was later revealed to have been taught to the chapter by other members during a leadership cruise sponsored by the SAE national office.

The song -- with its call to not allow black men to join the fraternity, its use of racial slurs and its references to lynching -- may have been fraternity racism at its most potent, but racist and racially themed fraternity parties make the news every Halloween and Christmas.

“These organizations are not only exclusionary, but unequal, and they’re quite happy with that,” Hughey said. “White fraternities get marked as the elite ones. They’re known for their parties, the great networking opportunities. Fraternities that have a great deal of status, like SAE or Kappa Alpha, often project a certain image, and a lot of the time that imagery is the old South and the Confederacy. It’s a legacy of white suppression, seclusion and racialized violence.”


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