Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What's Right With Fraternities

The following is an article by Ben O'Donnell, a 2008 graduate of Dartmouth College, which was published in the December 8 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Eduation.

Here's to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Lying, Stealing, Cheating, and Drinking. If you're going to lie, lie to a pretty girl. If you're going to steal, steal from bad company. If you're going to cheat, cheat death. And if you're going to drink, drink with me.

So goes a popular toast often heard in fraternity basements at Dartmouth College, my alma mater. Biblical inaccuracies aside, that cheer, followed by all participants' draining their cups, reveals the essence of what people who love fraternities love about them and those who hate fraternities hate about them. Haters see boys-only mischief, barroom bluster, and drinking. Enthusiasts exult in the brotherly solidarity, the bravado, and, well, the drinking.

But lately it seems the detractors have been dominating the discourse. The fraternity, in both popular imagination and higher education, has been tarred as an enclave of mindless revelry, dangerous rituals, cookie-cutter conformity, and regressive attitudes toward gender, class, and race—in short, everything antithetical to the academic mission of any institution of higher learning. "Frat boy" is synonymous with trust funds, polo shirts, paddle-wielding pledge trainers, and beer cans crushed on foreheads.

Chris Miller's The Real Animal House and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons come to mind, as does the infamous episode in Borat, in which drunken frat boys act out the stereotype all too well.


Compounding those negative perceptions are the senseless fatal drinking and hazing incidents that continue to occur around the country. Accordingly, many universities have taken steps to dry out or disband certain fraternity chapters, or even abolish entire Greek systems, dismissing them as backward old boys' clubs. Yet fraternities have long been integral and beneficial to college culture—and so they should remain.

Like most incoming freshmen at Dartmouth, I had no opinion of the much-talked-about Greek presence on the campus. After a two-hour drive from the heat of any city, I became enthralled with the scene pretty quickly. So when I was eligible in my sophomore year, I joined Phi Delta Alpha, along with most of my close friends. With 60 percent of eligible students going Greek, Dartmouth is an institution whose social life is dominated by fraternities and sororities—although the old-school fraternity ethos of Dartmouth's whiter, more male, more conservative days has been tempered by the current diverse, free-thinking student body.

Still, Dartmouth's Greek system has at times maintained a tense relationship with the administration. An attempt to abolish single-sex houses in 1999—and thus extinguish the Greek system as the campus knew it—was thwarted by alumni. The Dartmouth administration had taken its cue from Colby and Middlebury Colleges (and, later, Bowdoin), which had eradicated the Greek presence on their campuses. Other colleges have seen similar clashes.

It's clear that problems remain in fraternity systems at almost every college where Greeks exist. For every news story about a successful charity carwash or sack race, there is another reporting a stupid intracampus frat war, a naked pledge spoiling a campus tour for prospective students, or a life cut short by extreme alcohol abuse. Most of those issues, however, do not stem from the concept of a fraternity but from its execution in individual chapters. In fact, a modernized and moderated fraternity system can be a strongly positive influence on both students' lives and campus culture.

Fraternities bolster collegiate friendships more than any other social organization I can imagine. Much, if not all, of a brotherhood lives under one roof, and nearly all the day-to-day activities of college life are often shared: Brothers study together, watch TV or shoot pool together, eat together, and hang out doing nothing together. That type of immersion—usually not at the expense of extrafraternal friendships—does create a special type of camaraderie. At my fraternity that is evident from the groups of recently graduated brothers living together in New York and Boston, and from the dozens of alumni who return to visit the house every year—some of whom graduated 50 or more years ago.

Also, because most fraternities bring together 20 to 80 people in a given chapter, most brothers are constantly exposed to a variety of personality types and thus must develop certain interpersonal skills that can serve them well in society at large, especially in the workplace. The "I'd rather choose my friends" mentality that discourages many students from joining a Greek house makes sense, but the fraternal flip side has its own silver lining: In taking the pledge plunge with strangers, brothers befriend through proximity, or at least learn to tolerate, those with whom they do not see eye to eye.

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, fraternal diversity extends beyond personality types. At Dartmouth and other colleges where students are open-minded and fraternity dues are kept to manageable and negotiable limits, houses do not segregate along racial, ideological, or socioeconomic lines. I shared a house with students who hailed from California and Nigeria, and our political spectrum included both the president of the College Democrats of New Hampshire and the editor-in-chief of the conservative Dartmouth Review.
Granted, that diversity has yet to be realized across the country, and stories still abound like the one in which white members of a University of Wisconsin fraternity held a mock slave auction of fraternity brothers in blackface and Afro wigs. Also, for the most part, fraternities across the country are still overwhelmingly straight in terms of sexual orientation. (Dartmouth has a few exceptions.) But while a fraternity is no salon or symposium, the diversity of opinions, ideologies, and backgrounds in a given house tends to promote real conversations.

Fraternities also demand responsibility in order to keep a house running. Undergraduate fraternity officers keep a house afloat by managing its finances, overseeing building maintenance, and acting as liaisons to university and national fraternity officials. There are other responsibilities too, like monitoring parties, coordinating charity events, and, of course, keeping a watchful eye on the beer supply.

And some officers—usually the president and vice president—put more on the line for their positions than most professionals do for their jobs: If legal action is taken against a fraternity, those officers can be charged with criminal activity, even if they were not personally involved in or even aware of the incident. In recent high-profile hazing deaths, ranking fraternity officers have been among the parties assigned blame. In 2007, after a Rider University fraternity pledge died of alcohol poisoning, the fraternity's president was charged with aggravated hazing and became the target of civil suits; he recently agreed to pay the deceased's family $150,000 and provide information relevant to the lawsuit. (Lawsuits against administrators, the university, the national fraternity, and the defunct chapter are still pending.) The president and two pledge trainers of a University of Texas fraternity were recently convicted on hazing charges stemming from a 2006 incident in which an intoxicated pledge fell to his death. And at some universities, Greek presidents face legal action if their houses are found to have served alcohol to minors.

Such exercises in responsibility foster a better version of the type of career networking that so many universities advertise. Sometimes fraternity graduates will go to work for older alumni. But that preferential hiring does not take place at the same remove as typical alma mater favoritism, in which the employer and employee know little about each other, other than that they both cheer for the same college football team. Rather, working alumni still involved with a fraternity (as corporation president, alumni adviser, or a similar position) witness firsthand the capabilities of undergraduate brothers. To do an important in-house job well while still a student is to prove to established alumni that you probably have what it takes to be a valuable employee.

Clearly there are real problems and excesses at some fraternities that must be dealt with more effectively. The tradition of bingeing in college isn't going anywhere, but the simple switch in fraternities from serving great quantities of liquor in major gathering spaces to primarily offering beer would prevent students from getting handles of vodka pumped out of their stomachs in the ER. The implementation of policies that allow students, without risking disciplinary action, to report friends who have had too much is also a positive step. Clemson University is considering such a policy, and Dartmouth has recently put a similar one into play, called the "Good Samaritan" or "Good Sam" policy. Some national fraternities have gone dry, but that seems to accomplish little more than forcing drinking to off-campus venues or under the radar.

Attitudes toward women, class, and exclusion are more entrenched in fraternity culture at some universities and must be dealt with in a nuanced way from house to house. Student-aid policies within houses would deal with the latter two issues, as membership dues are often prohibitively expensive for students on financial aid, especially at national fraternities whose corporate headquarters take a cut of the money. Colleges must also match their fraternity spaces with equally robust sorority and coeducational ones so that women have an alternative to frequenting frat parties on frat terms.

Ultimately, however, universities should accept that there is value in what a fraternity essentially is: a place where, yes, guys can be guys; where rituals, power games, performances, competitions, friendships, and self-regulation can be played out; a community in which identities are cultivated. Here, in rooms of their own, young men may sometimes thumb their noses at the dictates of grown-ups, but they also grow up themselves.
On the surface, the cheers, the chants, and the frat lore can seem like silly stuff, and, indeed, some frat boys do just end up fat, drunk, and stupid. But most brothers graduate with valuable experiences in the burdens and bonds of tradition, responsibility, and especially camaraderie. Not such bad things to take away from an undergraduate education and into society.