In response to years of trouble with the fraternities on campus, Wesleyan University recently announced that all residential Greek organizations must become co-educational. While I’m glad my alma mater is taking action, Wesleyan has fallen far short of a meaningful solution to the problems on campus that fraternities cause. The real solution, or at least the first step towards one, is banning fraternities from campus, not just at Wesleyan, but nationwide.
I’ve been aware of the ongoing issues with Greek life at Wesleyan since my time as a student there (class of 2010). At the same time, I’ve always thought of Wesleyan as a progressive institution; I chose it not in small part for its reputation as a university that leads by example in promoting fair treatment for all.
On first glance, the decision to include women in fraternities seems consistent with that ideology. So when I got an email yesterday from the University president informing the Wesleyan community that all that our frats were going co-ed, my immediate reaction was pride. Go Wes, woo for our gender-neutral dorms and bathrooms, and all that jazz, right? Even though the handful of frats had seemed to me to be elitist and a negative influence on campus, making them co-ed at least seemed like a step in the direction toward making them more inclusive.
Then I started seeing the news articles about the University’s new policy popping up all over the media. I first saw a story on Newser titled “Rape Factory Frat Ordered to Admit Women.” It didn’t occur to me to link that story to the email from Wesleyan—until I saw the picture accompanying the article, which was unmistakably the Wesleyan Campus. Then I noticed articles on the New York Times’ home page, Google News, CNN. I heard it mentioned on my local NPR station, and my mom even forwarded me an article from my hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While the tone of the pieces varied, all of them mentioned that Wesleyan’s solution to the problem of sexual assault and binge drinking at fraternities on campus was to demand that women be allowed into fraternities.
Put bluntly, the absurdity of Wesleyan’s response becomes obvious: There is a campus organization known as “the rape factory.” The President has to decide how to deal with it. Should he kick out the responsible students? Fine or abolish the fraternities? The president thoughtfully weighs his options and settles on an even better idea: maybe all the drunken raping will go away if women move in, with the rapists.
Ridiculous, right? What troubles me more, though, are the harmful and insidious attitudes that could lead even a progressive university to see this as a reasonable solution to a serious problem. It’s victim-blaming and slut-shaming taken to a new level: by foisting the burden for stopping bad behavior from both the young men responsible for committing it and the administration charged with creating a safe environment for all students onto the victims, the university buys into a rash of myths about women. The myth that females are naturally more controlled and moral than males, that they can keep young men’s worst behavior in check just by being present in everyday life. The myth that women who are guests or dates, rather than housemates, are asking for it or at least knowingly putting themselves in a vulnerable situation. They myth that most college sexual assault is morning-after regret that won’t happen among people who know one another well.
But there are even worse messages in this choice of consequences. “Okay, guys,” the university is saying, “you were really bad, committing felonies and everything, so here’s your punishment: living with icky women!” Using women as an aversive consequence equivalent to say, shunning, huge fines, or jail terms, says mountains about how our culture values—or doesn’t—an entire gender.
In the wake of Wesleyan’s current notoriety, I’m sure we will see loyal fraternity brothers rushing to defend their beloved chapters. They will tout the virtues of fraternities: their contributions to the housing options on campus and the social lives of member and non-member students; the lifelong friendships, leadership training, and networking opportunities; the chances to contribute to charity; the dominance of fraternity brothers in the halls of government, higher learning, and the upper levels of corporations. And of course, they will remind university presidents and boards of the high levels of donations by fraternal alumni.
But fraternities are Trojan horses for universities—and American culture. In the twenty-first century and in the wake of one Greek scandal after another, we cannot ignore the fact that the gifts that fraternities bring to higher learning mask a dark inner belly, even beyond the binge drinking and sexual assaults that prompted Wesleyan’s new policy. Hazing, classism, racism, homophobia and a plethora of other evils lurk inside the world of fraternities, and diffuse outward subtly but powerfully as fraternity brothers graduate and move into other American institutions, particularly into those powerful fraternity-like ones, from the military and the NFL to Congress and Wall Street. Perhaps it is telling that Wesleyan’s president, a Wesleyan alum, is an Alpha Delta Phi man.
It is time to recognize that fraternities cannot be easily reformed; the national organizations wield so much financial and social power that even progressive, well-intentioned universities like Wesleyan cannot impose reasonable consequences or restrictions on campus chapters. It is time for universities to accept the responsibility of providing the benefits fraternities offer to all their students, not just the elite few who have the correct pedigrees and budgets to afford the costs of going Greek. It is time for all universities to say farewell to fraternities and start the hard work of reforming the harmful attitudes that the Greek system has fostered.
Colleges won’t risk the status quo unless we give them a financial incentive. I won’t be making any more donations to Wesleyan until “the rape factory” and all groups like it are gone from campus. I encourage alumni of all universities to speak with their wallets as well. And I encourage prospective students to direct their tuition checks to schools that make a commitment to Greek-free life.
Kyle Baicker-McKee is a member of the class of 2010.