The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A decade of bad press hasn’t hurt fraternity membership numbers

University of Oklahoma President David Boren, left, speaks with students as they protest a campus fraternity's racist comments on March 9, 2015 in Norman, Okla. Boren lambasted members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on Monday who participated in a racist chant caught on video, calling them disgraceful and their behavior reprehensible, and ordered that their house be vacated by midnight Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Steve Sisney)

Hazing. Trespassing in a cemetery. Destruction of a ski resort. Public dildo-waving. Sexual assault. Jaw-dropping racism.

Those are just a handful of incidents in which America's fraternity brothers have made national headlines since the start of the current academic year. The latest episode, in which members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon ("the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South") were videotaped chanting racist lyrics to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It," has drawn universal condemnation and the immediate shuttering of the fraternity's University of Oklahoma chapter.

All this bad media attention, however, hasn't dampened undergraduates' enthusiasm for joining Greek organizations. According to the American Freshman Survey, which interviews more than 100,000 freshmen entering America's colleges each year, interest in joining a fraternity or sorority is the highest it's been in 15 years.

In the fall of the current academic year, 11.3 percent of male freshmen said there was a "very good chance" they'd join a fraternity during their college career. That's up considerably from a low of 7.4 percent in 2003. 15.5 percent of female freshmen said they'd probably join a sorority, up from 11.1 percent in 2004.

These numbers generally comport with figures on new fraternity members compiled by the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a trade association representing 74 of the nation's largest fraternities. Their numbers show a 45 percent increase in new pledges from the 2005-2006 school year to 2013-2014.

Each of the headline-grabbing incidents noted at the top of this story have been accompanied by calls for reform and promises of better behavior in the future. But evidently, America's fraternities prove the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Unless interest and enrollment numbers begin to decline, fraternities can continue to operate largely as they have been, without taking a big hit where it matters most -- in their pocketbooks.