Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Future for Fraternities????

Should Parents Ban Fraternities?


Much of the conversation here over the past few days about gender roles on campus has included mentions of fraternities and sororities. It is not coincidence, many of you said, that all the incidents I described in my Sunday Styles article [see below], about why young women have moved past stereotypes in the classroom but not in relationships, involved Greek life.

As it happens, there has been a lot of talk of fraternities and sororities on campuses themselves over the past week or two, as well.

In mid-August, fraternities at the University of Southern California were reminded by the administration that last year’s ban on pre-rush parties, those taking place before recruitment officially starts, still stands. That ban was put in place in response to incidents like “a misogynistic e-mail sent on the Kappa Sigma fraternity Listserv and photos of a suspended Kappa Sigma appearing to have sex on a U.S.C. rooftop spread virally,” wrote Rachel Bracker, a student reporter, in The Daily Trojan newspaper. There was also the matter of eight students being “taken to the hospital for alcohol poisoning.”

At Princeton last Tuesday, the school’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, announced that, effective next year, freshmen will no longer be permitted to join a fraternity or sorority, nor will they be allowed to participate in
“rush” activities during freshman year. Explaining the ban, university administrators said in an announcement on the university’s Web site that while the groups have just a small presence on campus (about 15 percent of Princeton undergraduates participate in four sororities and about a dozen fraternities), they have a negative effect:

We have found that they can contribute to a sense of social exclusivity and privilege and socioeconomic stratification among students. In some cases, they place an excessive emphasis on alcohol and engage in activities that encourage excessive and high-risk drinking. A major concern is that they select their members early in freshman year, when students are most vulnerable to pressures from peers to drink, and before they have had a full opportunity to explore a variety of interests and develop a diverse set of friendships. We hope students coming to Princeton will want to expand their circle of acquaintances and experiences, not prematurely narrow them.

That same day, Cornell’s president, David J. Skorton, used an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times to pledge to end fraternity hazing on campus. His announcement came a few months after a 19-year-old sophomore at the school died in a fraternity house “while participating in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking.” This convinced him, he wrote:

… that it was time - long past time - to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, which has persisted at Cornell, as on college campuses across the country, in violation of state law and university policy. 
Yesterday, I directed student leaders of Cornell’s Greek chapters to develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve “pledging” - the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. While fraternity and sorority chapters will be invited to suggest alternatives
for inducting new members, I will not approve proposals that directly or indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior. National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way.
He goes on to ask “Why not ban fraternities and sororities altogether, as some universities have done?” Good question. He goes on to answer that there is good in the system, in that it “can foster friendship, community service and leadership.”

Since this is a parenting column, I have a related question: What is a parent’s role here? Odds are, parents are paying at least some part of the membership fees for these fraternities and the tuition that enables participation in the first place. If a parent is philosophically opposed to these groups because they subdivide a campus and codify the rights of 20-somethings to pass judgment on each other, should that parent forbid a child to join? What if the concern is more personal and less global? As Dr. Skorton points out, “At Cornell, high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population.” I ask as a parent who holds both of these kinds of objections to fraternities, and yet whose son is also a member. Like Dr. Skorton, I reason that there is “good in the system,” particularly the friendships he has forged - but some days I worry that that’s just
rationalization, and not good enough.

Can parents just say no to Greek life? Would you?
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