The deadline for students to evacuate the Beta house has passed this Monday, and with it the fate of the Greek organization and perhaps all Greek organizations on campus is in limbo for the foreseeable future. Accusations of perpetuating rape culture, harassment, alcohol and drug abuse, excessive partying, and more are at the crux of the discussion. But is closing Beta a case of treating a symptom instead of the underlying problem? To dissect that, one must think about Wesleyan’s culture.
It doesn’t take one long to understand some of the major tenets of Wesleyan culture, namely the idea that students are actively encouraged to experiment and go outside of their comfort zone as a theoretical fifth class each semester. Experiment with art, experiment with activism, experiment with expression, experiment with identity, experiment with sexuality, and experiment with substances.
It is those last two that seem to cause the problems on campus, namely because they carry a certain element of risk. That is the idea behind experimentation, after all: to take a risk and venture into the unknown. Experimentation can have positive outcomes, such as a better awareness of oneself and one’s community, or negative ones, which we all have seen.
Going through orientation this year, I felt as though I was being sent two messages at once. The first was to experiment, but the second was to be responsible. The University wants us to try new things and to do it sensibly, but these two ideas are not always compatible. If experimentation means taking a risk and risks always involve a degree of irresponsibility, then what the University was telling me to do was to practice responsible irresponsibility.
The University—both the students and the administration—should realize that if it is to pride itself on being an experimental campus, it must take the good with the bad. One cannot expect that all experimentation will end up as a positive experience. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes the culture that the University prides itself on has disastrous results.
This is not to say the decision to close Beta, at least temporarily, was necessarily a bad one. I can only imagine the amount of pressure the administration was feeling when, within the first month of classes, the University was dominating the headlines with a student tragically falling out of a window and sustaining serious injuries. Because of the litany of front-page stories Beta has had over the past few years, the college administration had to do something to transform the headlines with a timely act of damage control. The University and Beta alike have a reasonable responsibility to provide for the safety of their members and guests.
But don’t kid yourself. The closing of Beta is unlikely to make the University safer. The experimentation will continue, just at a different site. Perhaps at a location that is out of sight of the administration, more underground and possibly more dangerous.
And so the University—both the students who are speaking out about Greek organizations and the members of the administration who closed Beta—have a decision to make. There are three choices: the first, to continue to enact a policy of treating symptoms which can have unintended consequences; the second, to accept that experimentation is risky and tragedies will happen; the third, to attempt to alter fundamentally the alternative culture at Wesleyan. None of the three options seems particularly palatable, but at least with the acceptance that tragedies will happen when the student body is so apt to try everything and anything, the college can take measured steps to improve safety.
Awareness about the dangers of alcohol and drugs without being judgmental is an excellent step, but it is a bit naive. At the end of the day, a majority of students will party and consume substances in excess. Accepting this fact opens up new possibilities to keep students safe. How about creating a policy that all parties are required to have sober students trained in spotting alcohol poisoning and potentially dangerous sexual situations? The students could be paid, giving them a bit of incentive, and their jobs would be to ensure that every party has at least a couple of level heads bound by confidentiality to make decisions should a dangerous event arise. It would also form a contract between the party-throwers and the college; the college would get an assurance that the party-throwers are attempting to be safe, and the party-throwers would gain assurance that they can handle problems without fear of getting into trouble with the college.
Whether or not that idea is supported is not the main concern. The first step in modifying the University’s experimental culture is to acknowledge that it exists and can have tragic negative repercussions. With an honest conversation, we can stop blaming and instead develop proactive, practical countermeasures to reduce the risk and make the Wesleyan experience safer for all.