By Zak Witus, Columnist
Published July 23, 2014
This past March Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Supreme Council decided to eliminate the fraternity’s pledge programs entirely.
“As an organization, we have been plagued with too much bad behavior, which resulted in loss of lives, negative press and lawsuits,” Bradley M. Cohen, the Eminent Supreme Archon, President of SAE’s national organization, said in a YouTube video. “In order to survive, we must change not only some of our practices, but our culture.”
SAE isn’t the only fraternity organization that might want to listen to Cohen’s advice. Though SAE is a particularly deadly fraternity (nine people have died in events connected with SAE since 2006), overall “there have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths in the U.S. since 2005,” according to Bloomberg News. In today’s Greek Life, the “bad behavior” no longer seems to be rare or anomalous, but instead disturbingly normal and common. What’s more, as anyone even remotely involved on college campuses probably knows, the troubling examples and results of “bad behavior” don’t just include death, negative press or lawsuits, but also violence, hazing, sexual assault (including rape), among other forms of misconduct.
Eventually we might ask whether today’s fraternity system produces this “bad behavior” because it’s somehow intrinsically flawed, or whether the “bad behavior” is just the fault of a few bad individuals.
Most fraternities and universities answer that it’s the latter case. In a statement, SAE’s national fraternity organization said that members who violate its rules “are in no way representative of the fraternity.” Though, according to the New York Times, “Numerous studies show that members of Greek organizations drink more heavily than other students, and alcohol abuse is strongly tied to other forms of misconduct. But (once again) in interviews at multiple campuses, fraternity members said that their reputations had been tainted by the bad acts of others.”
Patricia Telles-Irvin, Northwestern University’s vice president for student affairs, said, “We have to be very careful before we blame the Greeks.” Telles-Irvin doesn’t claim that “the Greeks” are innocent, but she believes that it’s because “they’re so visible that they get easily targeted.” Dartmouth College President and former University provost Philip J. Hanlon appears to hold a similar view. In response to sexual assault at Dartmouth and what he calls “a culture where dangerous drinking has become the rule,” Hanlon didn’t single out fraternities, despite the fraternities at his school largely dominating social life and recently facing intense criticism.
But why not single out fraternities? If they’re so visibly a part of the problem, then why not blame them? Of course fraternities don’t deserve all the blame, and further restricting Greek Life probably won’t definitively end death, sexual assault and so on, on college campuses, but it will end some.
When bad behavior inevitably bubbles up in Greek Life, fraternity and university officials often label these instances of misconduct as “scandals.” Most of the time when people call an event a scandal, they’re characterizing it as out of the ordinary. The selfish reason people might want to scandalize a particular event is that they benefit from a certain system or institution closely connected with the so-called scandal. If people saw this particular event as immoral and normal — i.e. a normal result of the given system or institution — then people might question the legitimacy of the system or institution directly associated with the so-called scandal. This questioning would no doubt threaten the people who benefit from the established system or institution under scrutiny, so they try to create a distinction between the normal functioning of an institution or system and what they term the “scandalous” behavior. In this way, scandal-labeling assigns blame to the supposedly rogue agents of the system, not the system or institution as a whole, nor its leaders.
By denouncing individual fraternities and individual members, the larger fraternity institution tries to protect itself from ridicule and thereby survive. This is what happened when Theta Xi’s national organization tried to isolate the blame to the one University chapter member who posted a racist Facebook party invite; when Alpha Epsilon Pi’s national organization ousted University senior Andrew Koffsky from his chapter presidency after he publicly admitted to hazing allegations; and when Arizona State University suspended their Tau Kappa Epsilon chapter for several violations.
If fraternity and University officials were not to scandalize the bad behavior but instead acknowledge that they lead a corrupt system and institution, they would risk their own destruction, thereby rendering their acknowledgement an act of suicide. Therefore, because we cannot reasonably expect them to be so self-critical, we must ask whether the scandalizing response of the fraternity institution is legitimate and based on facts, or merely based on private interest.
My intuition is that the fraternity system creates “bad behavior” not on accident, but as the normal byproduct of being secretive institutions with problematic ideas of manliness that praise alcoholism and womanizing and meanwhile have unjust immunity from policing. But, we shouldn’t simply follow my intuition or anybody else’s. What’s more, moving forward, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask the unpopular and upsetting questions. We should continue to research the question of the legitimacy of Greek Life and the scandalizing claims of its officials while remaining open to the anti-establishment explanation that “bad behavior” might just be a normal aspect of frat life.
Zak Witus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.