Hank Minor: Why we can't have nice things

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 11:39am

I hesitate to critique Greek life from the outside, because members I know routinely attest to the unparalleled benefits they receive from their membership. And maybe they’re right. Still, it feels a bit like when students defend the use of laptops in their seminar class, or when someone would launch into a defense of classroom cellphone use in high school — I’m on your side, but it’s fairly obvious to everyone what we’re really talking about. 

Admitting that Greek life isn’t about charity, volunteer work or (merit-based) networking means admitting that its presence on the modern college campus is largely vestigial. And for the thousands of students who enjoy it for less-than-upstanding reasons, it means admitting that, for the University of Michigan, Greek life is a liability.

Renée Graham wrote for The Boston Globe last week that “(f)rom hazing deaths to racist parties, fraternities and sororities are incubators of behavior ranging from objectionable to criminal.” And though I promise I’m not trying to be anti-fun, it’s a compelling argument. When was the last time a fraternity made national news for something even marginally wholesome, not for killing a pledge or hosting a blatantly racist party?

Many students go into Greek life in the fall looking for parties, camaraderie and memories to last a lifetime. A nontrivial number of them, though, appear to find the kind of camaraderie that would leave them to lie on a couch for nine hours, dying from alcohol-induced asphyxiation. I realize universities value the sort of alumni loyalty that’s built at fraternities and sororities, but it’s time to innovate.

The University of Michigan, perhaps more than almost any other college in the United States, knows how to build a brand. In 2014, our football program alone was worth an estimated $731.9 million — second highest in the country, right after the University of Texas. I find it hard to believe that building alumni — and really, donor — loyalty requires the University to maintain Greek life in its current state, or in any state at all. Imagine, if you can, a world where alumni donate to the University because they think it has a worthwhile impact, not because they’re compelled by nostalgia.

Universities attempt to build specific campus environments by selecting for certain types of students — the University of Michigan, for example, wants to admit classes of the “Leaders and the Best.” It’s worth considering what impact Greek life has on this endeavor, though, and whether our conception of “best” is undermined by the existence of fraternities and sororities. What sort of student is drawn to the University and — more importantly — what sort of student leaves it?

We could devolve into the usual caveats and compromise here — plans for “strict new rules,” calls for reform before removal — but I’d rather the University act decisively for once: Just ban fraternities. Other colleges have managed it before — Middlebury College in the ’80s, Williams College a generation prior. Neither of them have lost any prestige. From an administrative point of view, the decision should boil down to what’s best for the University — and at this point, I’m not sure what benefit it gets in return for the tradeoffs of Greek life.

There is a legitimate place for tradition in universities, especially — as with this one — when they’re older than the states they reside in. Tradition that shields sexual assault and rape, that puts the lives and potential of academically talented students at risk, and that perpetuates white-male hegemony in industries like finance and tech, though, might be the sort we can leave behind.

Florida State University indefinitely suspended all activities at its fraternities and sororities on Nov. 6. The university’s president, John E. Thrasher, said at a news conference that “(t)here must be a new culture, and our students must be full participants in creating it.” What President Thrasher and other university leaders are missing, though, is the fact that Greek life isn’t capable of fostering another culture. The fact that they — no matter the university, college or constituency — continually build the same environments is evidence enough.

The University, like FSU, is going to have to deal with this problem both now and in the future. It’s hard to remove Greek life, but under the surface it uniformly encourages and nurtures the sort of culture that’s hard to defend as “just part of” the modern university. After so many years of second chances, perhaps it’s time to reach a verdict — and personally, I vote guilty.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu.