The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to abolish college fraternities

Swarthmore College students during a sit-in at the Phi Psi fraternity house in Swarthmore, Pa., in April 2019, part of a protest to get the fraternity shut down. (AP)
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On a visit back to my college, while my son was off meeting a friend, I sidled up to the student at the desk in admissions. I told her I was an alumna and my child was thinking about applying, but he was concerned about one thing: fraternities.

Did she feel the fraternities still dominated the social scene as they had in my day? And if so, was that okay? Did she feel safe there?

She responded cheerfully that indeed fraternities were a big part of the college’s social life, but that it was no problem: When she went to a frat party, she just made sure to bring a girlfriend with her!

“Great!” I said. “Thank you!” And I went to tell my son that he was right. Not only did fraternities still rule, but the fact that they were dangerous was so shruggingly accepted that smart young women planned for it.

Remind me again — why do we still tolerate these places?

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That was four years ago. In the news so far this school year: allegations of sexual assault at Theta Chi at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; reports of individuals being drugged without consent at fraternities at Northwestern University; and an accusation of a sexual assault at Phi Gamma Delta at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. In October, about a year after reporting the incident to the police — and after students started a petition and staged protests — a University of Iowa student filed a lawsuit claiming two members of Phi Gamma Delta raped her.

If you associate fraternities with sexual assault and harassment, you’re not stereotyping: You’re paying attention.

A 2019 report sums it up: “Research on fraternity men has continuously found that they are much more likely to commit sexual violence than men not in fraternities.” More than three times as likely, even though, as one study showed, their prior histories of sexual violence were equivalent. So what was responsible for the increase? According to the report, “It appeared to be the fraternity culture itself.”

And it’s not just sexual assault. Hazing is another fraternity-related crime accepted as a part of college life. Its ubiquity has spawned an industry: anti-hazing coalitions, online prevention programs and law firms that specialize in suing fraternities for alcohol-related deaths. “Hazing prevention coordinator” — that’s a job title. Consulting firms offer campus assessments, such as the one recently completed at Virginia Commonwealth University, after a student died of alcohol poisoning. “VCU,” the report reminded its readers, “is not alone in having to overcome challenges associated with the fraternity/sorority experience.”

“Challenge” is an awfully nice word for pressuring a young person to drink so much alcohol so fast that it kills him.

That’s what happened to the VCU student, Adam Oakes. His family subsequently founded the Love Like Adam Foundation to “create an awareness of potential dangers students face on college campuses,” such as hazing and sexual assault.

Good for them for trying to save children’s lives in the wake of their own child’s death.

But why do they have to? Why have we decided these dangers — these crimes — are an inevitable part of college life? Here’s how the cycle goes: An incident makes the news. The university pledges to investigate. The national fraternal organization expresses its shock and horror. The punishment, if it comes, never matches the crime — or appears to prevent the next one.

Delta Chi, the fraternity VCU banned after Oakes died, had been suspended as recently as 2018. Phi Gamma Delta, which the University of Nebraska at Lincoln suspended this August because of the alleged rape of a minor, had been suspended in 2017 over allegations of “reckless alcohol use, hazing and inappropriate sexually based behavior, including a pattern of sexually harassing conduct.”

In addition to suspending individual fraternities, colleges and universities routinely try campuswide reforms, such as mandating sexual assault prevention education, banning hard alcohol and requiring sober monitors at every event.

Then another incident makes the news.

As with mass shootings or the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, the public gets outraged, institutions pledge reform, and yet ultimately on some level everyone accepts that this is the way it is. We say “bring a girlfriend” the way we say “know your exits” or “don’t wear a hoodie” — good advice to deal with terrible things America has normalized.

But unlike with gun violence and racist policing, a single, determined institution can abolish the problem.

Williams College did it in the early ’60s; Colby in the mid-’80s; Middlebury and Bowdoin in the ’90s. Just over two years ago, the last remaining fraternities at Swarthmore College disbanded themselves.

I’m not saying it will be easy. Colleges that have banned fraternities have faced protests, lawsuits and irate alumni. Sometimes fraternities are a significant source of student housing. Sometimes banned fraternities go underground, making them harder to regulate.

But once all the hubbub dies down, the cycle is broken.

Without fraternities, “life is much better,” a Colby administrator told Newsweek. “Women can go wherever they want to go.” Imagine that.

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