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Monday, May 9, 2011

Should Colleges Ban Fraternities?

The New York Times website hosts a rather interesting op-ed page titled “Room for Debate.” Every so often they pose a timely, thought provoking, controversial question to a host of panelists that have some sort of firsthand knowledge directly pertaining to the issue at hand. The most recent such question was whether or not colleges should ban fraternities. The issue is then supplemented by an acknowledgement of recent studies that have shown that fraternity members tend to both abuse alcohol and behave inappropriately towards women more so than their non-Greek peers.

While the question of whether or not banning fraternities from American campuses would have any real effect in cutting down on alcohol abuse and incidents of sexual violence elicited a whole host of insightful responses, the two most interesting were those of Nicholas Syrett and Charles Eberly, both professors at major public universities. Syrett of the Univeristy of Northern Colorado, puts forth an argument of which the crux is that universities are ultimately responsible for the negative actions of the fraternities they host and that when it comes to the chicken or egg-reminiscent question of whether misogyny among college men is brought on by fraternities or if fraternities simply attract already misogynistic men, he believes that both are true. However, Syrett also believes that while people will naturally join groups whose ideals and agendas equate to their own, that the situation is compounded and exaggerated as “fraternities pressure men to change in order to earn membership and status with them.” Needless to say, Nicholas Syrett is clearly a proponent of eliminating fraternities from college campuses.

On the other side of the fence rests Charles Eberly, a professor and faculty advisor to a fraternity at Eastern Illinois Univeristy. Eberly writes that fraternities are “unfairly singled out” when it comes to sexual aggression and other lewd behaviors. Eberly goes on to mention the incredibly positive efforts of some of the fraternity members he advises in terms of community service and civic engagement. He mentions three brothers he personally knows and the admirable accomplishments they have all made: one spearheaded the development of a healthy men’s program that is presented to every incoming pledge class, one created a charity for children’s advocacy programs, and yet another brother is in the process of running 50 marathons in 50 states to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Eberly goes on to write that fraternities only attract media attention when something goes wrong, yet hardly ever when things go right, an occurrence which he believes to be more common than the opposite.

As a college student myself, I feel that I too have at least a bit of expertise on the subject debated so fiercely. While Syrett and Eberly make some excellent points, they are both too absolute in their arguments. I am not here to come to the defense of fraternities nor am I here to call for their complete elimination. I have never been a part of a fraternity myself but have known countless students who are. My firsthand experience with fraternity brothers has led me to a notion that I am totally confident in: it is impossible to generalize an entire extracurricular activity that hosts literally thousands of men at my university alone.

That being said, it is also important to note that fraternities and their members have been responsible for some extremely disturbing, disgusting, and entirely misogynistic behaviors that in no way should ever be condoned by a public university. Extreme alcohol abuse happens. The objectification of women happens. Moreover, I am absolutely certain that sexual violence brought on by men and perpetrated against women happens as well, all within the boundaries of college fraternities. While chapters are often responsible for some rather amazing programs and initiatives, they are also culpable for some rather unsettling happenings.

All this is too say that the expulsion of fraternities from campuses will do little if anything at all to combat the bigger problem: sexual violence against women. While I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that the hyper-masculine environment of American fraternities does nothing to challenge negative behavior towards women, I also believe that their elimination will only force the worst members of Greek life to seek outlets in other forums. As an RA at one of the largest residence halls on campus, I work directly and daily with college men; I can assure you that it’s not just the frat boys who are guilty of taking advantage of women.

While there is simply no easy answer to the problem of sexual violence that most of our universities are facing, I believe that a good starting point would be young men stepping up and facilitating some conversations confronting our age group’s ideas of masculinity. To be frank, these sorts of conversations just haven’t been happening. While there are certainly some violent fringe members of society that happen to be in fraternities, there are also a great deal of more or less rational fraternity members that would not have made some of the mistakes they have in terms of sexual aggression if they were not pressured into doing so by their “brothers.” When it comes down to it, the voices of responsible college men have simply not been as prominent as the voices of the aggressors. If we want to start making some progress, we need to start making some noise.

Ryan Derry

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