This past week, The Atlantic released an article written by Caitlin Flanagan titled “The Dark Side of Fraternities.” The article, which includes a large section on events dubbed “Beta-Gate” at Wesleyan, goes into detail about several of the troubling occurrences at fraternities in America. The author uses these examples to propose that fraternities are a dangerous force on college campuses, gaining power “mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.” It is important to respect the tragedy of these experiences happening in fraternity, sorority, and student houses in most university settings. While I respect investigative journalism’s need to create a gripping story that evokes emotion in the reader, the tone, as well as the ultimate argument of the piece, is not productive for continued efforts toward combating the very sort of incidents that Flanagan discusses.
The problem with this piece is that it mimics the problematic nature of past and often present activism around sexual assault. It chooses to focus on punishment and unhealthy prevention as opposed to productive prevention and the improvement of culture. Flanagan makes a convincing case that fraternities are villains from which that individuals should keep away. Undoubtedly, organizations should receive punishments for the crimes they commit, as should individual members. However, the article, rather than trying to find a way to fix this problem, seems to suggest the best solution would be for no one to enter a fraternity house.
Flanagan and I agree there is a problem within fraternity culture, but, at least within this extensive article, she does not seem to present a way of moving forward. College campuses have made huge strides in combatting sexual assault on campus as well as making sure students make safe and smart decisions in respect to drinking, yet they still have a long way to go. Fraternities must, and are beginning to, evolve alongside their colleges. Wesleyan’s fraternity system has taken huge steps toward being a safer and more inclusive community on campus. Several organizations, both with houses and without, have events required for their incoming members regarding member and guest safety, consent, and smart decision-making.
More encouragingly, fraternities at Wesleyan have organized and attended conversations about sexual assault, drinking, and safe campus environments, working together with a variety of groups on campus. This movement is not only occurring at Wesleyan. Schools such as Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and Dartmouth College have all taken steps to combat sexual assault in the Greek community, requiring members to go through various training events and to raise awareness about these issues as organizations on campus. In addition, many schools require party hosting training for all incoming members, which includes education on drinking and risk management. It is important to point out the realities of modern fraternities alongside the fraternity system that Flanagan describes, because together they form a fuller picture of an old, significant institution with the potential for change.
As the piece notes, fraternities have a rich history of providing a space for young college men to become leaders. Flanagan discusses the vast number of successful individuals that fraternities have produced, acknowledging that “the organizations raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, contribute millions of hours in community service, and seek to steer young men toward lives of service and honorable action.” It is important to maintain these positive attributes while fighting to change the harmful aspects of the culture that Flanagan investigated.
At the same time, it is important to separate non-harmful aspects of fraternity culture, which may be distasteful to some, from the real changes that need to be made. We can disagree about whether backwards baseball caps and tank tops look good, but we can agree that fighting sexual assault and preventing risky situations are important goals to have in a college community, both in and out of the Greek community. Fraternities, as Flanagan notes, have successfully produced leaders in several areas; they can also produce leaders who work toward creating a safer campus. Brothers of fraternities can organize events to combat sexual assault on campus. They can work to make sure that, even with a raucous party going on, all guests are safe and having a good time. There is no reason why fraternities, along with the entire Greek system, cannot fit into a modern, sex-positive, safe, and healthy college community.
Just as colleges must work to improve in these areas, so must fraternities. The Atlantic piece presents an anachronistic institution that is dangerously powerful. Fraternities have shown that the experience they provide is not only relevant for today’s college kids, but is increasingly producing members that are part of positive social change on campuses.
Leibowitz is a member of the class of 2014