Monday, May 09, 2011

NY Times Debate - Should Colleges Ban Fraternities?

Unfairly Singled Out

May 5, 2011

Charles Eberly is a professor of counseling and student development at Eastern Illinois University.

Controversies surrounding fraternities are not new. In "The Company He Keeps," a history of white college fraternities, Nicholas Syrett methodically describes the changing perception of manhood in fraternities from 1828 to the present. But as my mentor, John Robson, said on many occasions: "Fraternities are a microcosm of American society."
Bad behavior draws attention. The many good deeds do not.
John was the editor of the 19th edition of Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities, the 1977 American Library Association reference book of the year. The hegemonic masculinity widely reflected in current American society and embedded in contemporary undergraduate men, including many who are members of college fraternities, was thoroughly examined in "Guyland," a 2008 book by Michael Kimmel. Banning college fraternities will not eliminate the underlying hegemonic masculinity in American society, nor will banning fraternities end college student sexual assaults.

Much of the research on the college fraternity is conducted by people who are not members of the organizations. Fraternity proponents can demonstrate with solid empirical evidence that the positive outcomes of the fraternity experience far outweigh the sensational, negative incidents that get notice in the media. Some researchers are in the process of doing just that.

As for the role of the drinking culture on college campuses, it is far more complex than just addressing that segment associated with fraternity membership. Severely regulating fraternity member group or individual behavior, or members of other student organizations, is a knee-jerk response to a much bigger issue that faculty members face on American campuses.

Faculty members are not rewarded for working with students outside the classroom, and those who do are discouraged by their department chairs. As one vice president of academic affairs once told me, "If I were advising a young faculty member about using his time advising a student group, I would tell him the time he spent with the group could have been better spent researching and preparing another article for publication." Few campus fraternity chapters have faculty members as advisers. Until students have role models among the faculty who are willing to walk with the students on their turf, wrestle with the personal issues students face outside the classroom as they mature, and come back week after week to support them, very little will change.

Sadly, negative consequences surrounding the actions of fraternity and sorority members seem to be highlighted with far greater frequency than the positive outcomes associated with membership. Typical of the latter are examples from a fraternity chapter I counsel at Eastern Illinois University. One member who is graduating with a master's in school counseling developed a program on healthy men's development that is presented to all new members of the college's fraternity system each year, and another brother created a charity to support a local children's advocacy center.

Yet a third is running marathons in all 50 states to support suicide prevention in memory of a brother who committed suicide in 2008. The chapter is planning a fund raising drive to construct a wishing well on campus in coordination with another fraternity chapter that lost brothers in a bus accident, with the contributions going to the children’s advocacy center.

All these men are expressing their masculinity in a productive, healthy manner that contributes to their goal of developing leaders for tomorrow’s communities. Single incidents of young people making poor choices seem to be trumpeted and echoed multiple times. As one city newspaper editor told me in person as a reason for not publishing a positive article, “What students do on campus is of little interest in the city,” except, of course, when the behavior is negative
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