I wasn't surprised by the video of Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers chanting a chillingly racist song calling for the lynching of African-Americans and the emphatic denial of membership to people of color. After all, I'd been a brother of Dartmouth College's notorious SAE chapter -- a fraternity that had its own "traditional" songs with racist verses, songs about violence towards women, and songs about how the house was above the law. I'd seen how fraternity groupthink breeds pathology among status-anxious, binge-drinking and vulnerable young men. My experience taught me that intelligent and well-meaning students could be made to do things as part of a fraternity brotherhood that they'd never dream of doing on their own. So why are we surprised when, time and again, fraternities express hostility towards minorities, women and even their own members?
In the aftermath of the racist Oklahoma video, the university's president, David L. Boren, immediately removed SAE from campus. The chapter was derecognized by its national organization and the students in the video were exposed and expelled. Some say the story ends there. But it doesn't -- and it can't.This short-term solution is troubling because it assumes that responsibility for the corrosive impact of fraternities rests on the individual chapter or brother. However, significant research and historical study show that the exclusive fraternal structure is at the core of the problem.
Fraternity psychology is a form of groupthink. It works through the power to deny membership based on discrimination. Without discrimination, there's no group identity -- and without group identity, the fraternity itself is just a mansion, some kegs, and a meaningless set of letters. But what's as troubling is how this group identity is too often formed when pledges are coerced, through hazing and trauma bonding, to behave in ways that in a different context they'd find reprehensible. Through the very structure of the organization, brothers assume the values and social roles inherited from the bygone era that produced the fraternity -- Antebellum America, a time before emancipation, women's suffrage, civil rights and the notion that all Americans deserve equal access to education.
We must stop making apologies for fraternities. Reform can only begin when we no longer reduce a structural sickness to its symptoms, and instead acknowledge that these behaviors are the results the system is designed to produce. The Oklahoma University incident isn't an easily excused deviation from the norm, a case of a few bad actors, or an isolated scandal. It's a nauseating reminder that the fraternity system is a channel through which hateful attitudes from our past have been allowed to metastasize on our campuses. It's also a call to action for all who want to end the on-campus crises of racism, sexual assault and hazing violence that are fueled, enabled and protected by a 19-century social structure. We must demand more from our colleges and universities. Fraternities cannot evolve on their own: Their very structure is at fault.
Discrimination and violence are not just entwined with the history of the American fraternity, but encoded into its DNA. More than a century of "isolated incidents" is a clear pattern. Why do these groups persist? Why are they still specifically exempt from Title IX, our country's signature legislature to ensure equity in education? The Hunting Ground, a new documentary chronicling America's epidemic of campus sexual assault, illuminates how these social organizations wield remarkable financial and political power over university life.
At Dartmouth College, where fraternities rule supreme, decades of pleas to reimagine campus life without a gender-segregated social system have been ignored. Current Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon has disregarded a recent faculty vote to abolish Greek life, a litany of student op-eds recounting the system's personal toll, and student and alumni surveys that called for ending fraternities. Himself an alumnus of Dartmouth fraternity Alpha Delta -- the inspiration for National Lampoon's Animal House -- Hanlon surely remembers that the last president to hint at Greek life reform faced both hundreds of student protesters and a lawsuit from disgruntled alumni. It's also not a surprise that fraternal organizations are represented in Washington D.C. by a powerful political action committee -- "FratPAC" -- with former Senator Trent Lott as their lead lobbyist.
Though students must be responsible for their actions, it's naive and reductive to ignore how their behavior is directly shaped by the secretive institutions to which they pledge allegiance. We cannot solve our campus crises without examining the culture that creates them. Despite rigorous research showing fraternity brothers are more likely to commit sexual violence than unaffiliated men, fraternity apologists still try to deny the role that collective fraternity psychology plays in developing and encouraging violent behaviors and attitudes. Likewise, defenders of the status quo always stop the discussion about reform well short of identifying how the fraternity culture has produced the same results nationwide over a more than century-long historical sample.
Colleges and universities must reimagine undergraduate social life in order to guarantee campus safety. Congress must repeal the fraternity and sorority exemption to Title IX to ensure equal access to education and eradicate inherently discriminatory student organizations. You can call a fraternity a drinking club, you can call it a social organization -- you can even call it a secret order -- but what it is, and the only thing it ever will be, is a codified system of privilege and segregation that has no role on the college campus of the 21st century.
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