Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Do We Have a Constitution, Officer?

A country is only as democratic as its police, and Constitutional rights are only as real as its police treat them. The fight over police work in America is ultimately a fight over whether or not the United States Constitution is real.

The Constitution plainly states that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." It could not be clearer. It could not be more essential. But in 2015 we hear apologists for police misconduct, across our country, loudly advocating a civil order where the police can punish any citizen who does not comply swiftly enough to please the police officer, where police can arrest citizens without cause, where police officers can kill unarmed citizens with impunity to guard against hypothetical and thoroughly imaginary dangers. There is no due process of law. You have no rights.

Officer Michael Brelo, recently acquitted of manslaughter in Cleveland, stood on the hood of two unarmed citizens' car and shot fifteen bullets into their windshield. Brelo had already shot 32 other bullets at that car. In fact, Brelo and his fellow officers, who shot 137 bullets at those two unarmed citizens, were also shooting at each other, because they had surrounded the car and were shooting into a circle. Brelo, the only one prosecuted for shooting, was standing on the hood of the victims' car because, even if they had had a gun, Brelo knew they were no longer in condition to return fire.

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams's lives were taken, by paid agents of the state, without due process. There was no trial. There was no judicial process, and there are no consequences. Nor was there ever any danger to any police officer except from other police officers. The chase (which involved more than a hundred cops) began because Russell and Williams's car had backfired and a jumpy police officer, hearing an engine backfire, decided that he was being shot at.

The police can take two citizens' life in response to their own fantasies. They go free after doing it. The Constitution is not in force. We do not live in the country we say we do.

In Baltimore, Freddie Gray was arrested for no reason that the police themselves can explain. He was arrested without committing a crime; he had looked at a police officer, and then he had run. Baltimore police officers punished these non-crimes by arresting Gray, and by beating him; he was limping on his way into the police van. He was dead when he came out. But other citizens put into Baltimore police vans have come out with broken bones, concussions, and spinal damage: the Baltimore cops' way of dispensing "justice" without any judge, without any chance for the citizen to defend or explain himself, without any law needing to be broken at all.

Did they mean to kill Freddie Gray? Or did they just mean to punish him by doing him bodily harm, without due process of law? Either way, there is no Constitution in Baltimore. This is not the America we talk about.

Police officers in Cleveland, in Baltimore, and across the country, consider themselves entitled to beat citizens who don't cooperate as the police officers see fit, to beat citizens who say something a police officer doesn't like, to beat citizens who make the police officers run. They see this as their right and their privilege. They don't ask a judge. They don't bother with the law. Your rights in the Constitution are not your rights, because the police don't bother with them.

People who excuse or encourage this behavior, who say that you're in no danger if you obey a police officer, should be up front about what they believe. They believe in abolishing the Constitution. They trust the police, any specific police officer on any given day, more than they trust the Founders. If your Constitutional rights can be voided whenever a cop, any cop, in any mood, decides to give you an order, then you have no Constitutional rights. The Founders deliberately decided that no one in our system, not even George Washington himself, could be trusted with unchecked power. Allowing police to dole out any punishment they see fit to anyone who disobeys any order, even unlawful orders, is a mockery and misunderstanding of everything our system was meant to be.

I am from a family of police officers. I grew up around police officers, including many, many officers I love and admire. I know lots of good cops. But I have never known a cop who was not a human being, with human failings. I have never met a police officer who should be allowed to do anything he or she wants without accountability. Thomas Jefferson mocked the idea of "angels sent as kings," by divine right; certainly, a system that requires all police to be angels, because they are empowered to do whatever they want, is even worse.

Yesterday Cleveland agreed to Justice Department oversight for the Cleveland Police. That oversight includes things like not beating suspects who are already in custody and in handcuffs. But that is not a new rule. That was always the rule. The Cleveland police knew that rule and disobeyed it. That Cleveland police officers did that, time and again, shows that they have routinely ignored the law, that they consider themselves above the law and can not be held accountable. The New York Police Department forbids its officers to use chokeholds on suspects, and has forbidden that for years, but for years its officers routinely did it anyway. The six Baltimore police officers who took Freddie Gray on his fatal ride all told their superiors the same story, a story that did not match video evidence. Lying and falsifying reports has become routine. Standing orders are routinely ignored. It is clear that in many police departments, the rules that are written down are not actually obeyed, and the focus is on protecting one's fellow officers from oversight.

Every cop is not bad. But when police are not properly supervised and held accountable, then the bad cops are put in charge and the good ones have to follow their lead. When the police avoid the authority of the laws, then there are no laws but the police.

If the police are not answerable for what they do, then nothing else matters. If they are beyond the law, then none of us are safe from them. If the police need not answer for what they do to us, then the police become, in the most literal way, irresponsible. And then the Constitution is just some words on paper, no more real or meaningful than the beautiful and high-minded constitutions of every other police state.

Michael Brelo was acquitted because the judge said no one could prove that Michael Brelo's shots killed the two unarmed people who had committed no crime. After all, by the time Brelo was standing on the hood of the car, both of those victims were probably already dead. But that means Brelo was standing there, pouring fifteen more bullets into two defenseless human bodies, to make sure that neither of them survived. Think about that when you go to sleep tonight, and try to pretend that you have any rights.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Friday, April 24, 2015

No, Colleges Still Teach Shakespeare

You may have seen news stories, timed for Shakespeare's more-or-less birthday, claiming that top American colleges have stopped requiring Shakespeare. This is not news (nothing about college requirements has changed lately), and not really true. The study uses a very specific and misleading definition which allows it not to count most of the ways that Shakespeare is actually taught in college English departments. The study refuses to accept anything but a required stand-alone Shakespeare-only course as a "Shakespeare requirement." If Shakespeare is only part of required courses, that doesn't count. And if a department has a requirement that drives most of its students into Shakespeare courses, that doesn't count either. This is misleading.

Worse, the study then rants about the various things that can be "substituted for Shakespeare" at various schools, cherry-picking various electives with titles like "Detective Fiction," "Digital Game Theory," or "Creatures, Aliens, and Cyborgs" and fulminating that these trendy classes are replacing Shakespeare. This isn't just misleading. It's outright dishonest. The authors of the study, having read the requirements for the fifty-two schools they're discussing, know full well that these courses don't fulfill the requirements that would otherwise demand Shakespeare. The schools offering the three courses I just named require courses in earlier literature, and those courses do NOT fulfill them. The authors of the study know this. They just pretend not to.

Now, I myself could only benefit from more Shakespeare requirements. I'm a professor of Shakespeare, after all. And I certainly value Shakespeare at least as much as the folks who wrote this study did. But this report is a big nothing. When you take out the dishonesty and spin, it's less than nothing.

A little background: this study is from ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is a conservative organization dedicated to having trustees and donors micromanage academic decisions that have traditionally been left to faculty. (ACTA says it's for "Academic Freedom & Excellence," but in practice it seems upset that academics have too much freedom to make academic judgements.) And ACTA, for its own reasons, limited its study to the fifty-two highest-ranked colleges and universities in the US, according to the US News & World Report rankings. (They got fifty-two by taking the top 25 "National Universities" and top 25 "Liberal Arts Colleges"; because of ties in the rankings, that's a bit more than 50). So they didn't bother looking at the schools the vast majority of students actually attend, which might or might not say something about ACTA's own biases.

What is notable is that the focus on "Top 25" schools means that ACTA included three schools that do not have English majors. West Point, Harvey Mudd, and MIT have "literature" majors instead. MIT's literature major has two tracks, one of which looks like a traditional English major (and thus tracks its students toward studying Shakespeare) and one of which doesn't. The others have more general literature requirements that aren't necessarily focused on literature in English at all, which makes the lack of a Shakespeare requirement not terribly newsworthy. French and Classics majors mostly aren't required to take Shakespeare either. That didn't stop ACTA from listing these schools without English departments as schools where the "English major" doesn't include Shakespeare.

Now, of the 52 schools that ACTA deigned to examine, it's true that only only 4 require a stand-alone course in Shakespeare-and-nothing-else. But there are three things that ACTA isn't telling you about:

1. Historical period requirements. Nearly every school that ACTA surveyed, 47 of 52, requires English majors to take at least one course, and sometimes three or even four courses, in literature written before a certain date. For more than 40 of those schools, that date is 1800 or earlier; for another half-dozen or so, it is before 1900, 1850, or 1830.

What does this mean? It means that to "get out" of taking Shakespeare you have to take something else from a similar time period, or earlier. There are about six schools on ACTA's list where you can hypothetically get off soft by reading Bleak House, Moby-Dick, or Wordsworth. (But to be fair, it would be pretty hard to fulfill all of Swarthmore's three required pre-1830 courses with writers from 1800-1830.)

At the rest of the schools, the vast majority that ACTA looked at, the choice isn't between Shakespeare or Lady Gaga. It's between Shakespeare or Milton, Shakespeare or Chaucer, or - at some places - Shakespeare or enormous quantities of Alexander Pope.

In practice, most students fulfill these requirements either with a Shakespeare course or with a thematic course that include a hefty amount of Shakespeare. (I once taught a course called "Love and Sex in Renaissance Literature" that included his sonnets, two of his plays, and his long poem Venus and Adonis, but also Sidney's sonnets, Spenser's sonnets, a chunk of The Faerie Queene, Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and healthy servings of poems by Donne, Herrick, Wyatt, Surrey, Petrarch, etc. This, by ACTA's lights, is "not a course focused on Shakespeare." And the word "sex" was in the title! Gadzooks!)

If students don't fulfill these requirements with Shakespeare, they're often taking a course in early literature that's harder, less popular, or both. Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, and Donne are all more difficult for undergraduates to read, and more challenging on a line-by-line level, than Shakespeare is. And here's an insider's tip: the 18th century, although wonderful, is the least popular literary period for English majors. It's much easier to get students to read King Lear than Clarissa.

This is not dumbing down the curriculum. Not by any means.  English majors graduating having "only" read Paradise Lost and not Hamlet is not a big crisis. But ACTA doesn't want to count these schools as "requiring Shakespeare." Smith College makes its students take TWO of three single-author courses: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Those who avoid Shakespeare by reading Chaucer and Milton aren't going to be especially ill-educated. And in practice, almost all of the students will take Shakespeare and one of the other two. What does ACTA say about this requirement? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required." Oh no, the sky is falling!

2. Survey Courses. These are less popular than they once were, but several schools on ACTA's list still require students to take survey courses that include Shakespeare. Those courses have titles like "Major Poets," "Literary History," or "British Literature to 1700."

Most of the few actual English departments that don't require courses before 1700, 1800, or 1850 require a survey instead. Some schools require a number of courses before 1800 AND the survey. So students do get taught Shakespeare, in a way that's required for all majors.

This doesn't count for ACTA, either. So, for example, Yale University requires its majors to take THREE courses before 1800 AND two survey courses: "Major British Poets from Chaucer to Donne" (the semester that includes Shakespeare) and "Major British Poets from Milton to T.S. Eliot." But students can get out of the surveys by taking four advanced courses on the poets on the survey, two from each semester. So you could theoretically get a B.A. in English from Yale by reading The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost instead of Macbeth. But it would be a pretty rare student who does. Yale actually has a fairly conservative curriculum. But ACTA's verdict? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required."

With requirements like that, does it have to be?

3. Limits to the number of Shakespeare classes.

Since the whole point of ACTA's polemic is that Shakespeare is being done wrong and pushed out of the curriculum, you'd think that they would point out that FIVE of the schools on their list limit the number of Shakespeare courses that can count toward requirements. (When we throw out the schools without English majors, that's 10% of ACTA's total.) At Bates, Bowdoin, Columbia, Princeton, and Rice students can only use ONE Shakespeare course to fulfill the pre-1800 requirements.

This doesn't mean that students at those schools aren't allowed to take more than one Shakespeare class. It means that the second, third, and so on Shakespeare courses are just electives. More importantly, it means that those schools require their students to read challenging early literature besides Shakespeare. The problem isn't that students at these schools are avoiding Shakespeare. The problem is that they use Shakespeare to avoid Chaucer, Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney, Donne, and Milton. So students have to be steered to reading more widely in early periods.

These schools don't require Shakespeare because Shakespeare is doing just fine on his own. Also, the dining halls at these schools do not require dessert. That's not some liberal War on Pudding. That's because the requirement isn't necessary in the first place.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Marathon, Democracy

It's Marathon Monday in Boston, the second Marathon since the bombing. A Massachusetts jury is currently deciding whether the surviving bomber should serve life in prison or be executed, but that jury  will not meet today, because it is a holiday. Today is Patriot's Day.

There's a school of thought, what I call the "Never Forget" school of responding to terrorism, that would make the Boston Marathon primarily, now and forever, into a memorial to the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. That attack would become the main meaning of every future Marathon. But that would be a terrible mistake. For starters, the Marathon is already a memorial.

The Marathon celebrates at least two great moments in the history of democracy. The event and its name celebrate the Athenian victory over the Persian Empire at Marathon in 490 BC. The Marathon is Boston's attempt to align itself with the idealized version Athenian democracy that early Americans took as a model. On a more concrete level the day of the Marathon, Patriot's Day, memorializes the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, when the Massachusetts Minutemen stood up to the British Army. 

Neither of those two events should take a back seat in historical memory to the Tsarnaev brothers and their grubby little bombs. The bombing is not the most important thing that has ever happened in Boston; it's not even in the top one hundred. I'm not proposing forgetting it. But I refuse to promote that day above our better and more historic days. I refuse to make our story about our pain instead of our achievements. I will not bump the Minutemen out in order to make this day about the Tsarnaevs, who are nothing. I wouldn't bump Phedippides, the first marathoner, either. 

(And don't you dare suggest that we talk less about Joanie Benoit. I don't live in Boston anymore, but I'm still from Boston, and anyone who disrespects Joanie is officially on notice.)

Democracy is a marathon: long, difficult, and tedious. It requires patience. It doesn't do things the quick way. The lazy and short-sighted can't imagine why anyone would bother, when you could just have a tyrant and an SUV. And democracy, like the marathon, can be painful. It often requires you to keep moving forward and put the pain out of your mind, to forget the hurt and remember the prize ahead. That is a good lesson. The ancient Athenians invented both of these institutions and the Athenians, frankly, could be a little crazy. The marathon, like democracy, asks a just little more of us than the human spirit can be expected to bear, and it offers us victories of the spirit that seem jbeyond human grasp. Their is no better celebration, no better tribute.

Happy Patriot's Day.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ted Cruz and the Quest for the GOP Obama

Ted Cruz's declaration that he's running for President doesn't make a lot of sense from the normal perspective. No one has ever given him any reason to suspect that he could become President. No poll has showed him with even ten percent support.  It only makes sense when you realize who Ted Cruz is modeling himself after: Barack Obama. Of course, he's not like Barack Obama in almost any way. But Ted Cruz doesn't know that. He doesn't see the real Barack Obama. He sees the conservative caricature of Barack Obama, and that's what he's trying to mimic.

Like Obama eight years ago, Ted Cruz is a first-term US Senator who hasn't achieved much in the Senate yet, but who is popular with some activists in his own party, and who is considered a rising star by some. That much is true. But that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. And that's apparently enough for Cruz to tell himself that he can follow Obama's route to the White House.

But in the real world, Ted Cruz is nowhere near the path Obama was on in 2007. Cruz doesn't have the base of donors he would need to run an actual campaign. He doesn't have the organization he would need, or the people to set up that organization; most of the talented GOP campaign-runners don't want anything to do with him. And he's got no support from other elected Republicans. Most Republicans hate Ted Cruz. Cruz announcing his candidacy for President is like someone saying that if you overlook his hitting, his fielding, his running, and his throwing, he's a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame someday. Eight years ago, Candidate Obama was already building one of the most formidable national campaign organizations in decades. He had built relationships with major donors. He had major power brokers in his party, people like Ted Kennedy, urging him to run. If Cruz looked seriously at where he is right now and compared it to where Obama was at this point, he'd see how ridiculous he's being.

But that would mean seeing Barack Obama as he actually is. And the Republicans are committed to seeing Barack Obama as merely a media phenomenon, a guy who might be a talented orator but doesn't have any substance. They're committed to seeing him as an incompetent manager, in over his head. So they don't allow themselves to understand even bottom-line facts about him. They forget about the terrifyingly efficient ground organization he built. They forget that he outplayed and out-strategized Hillary Clinton, who wasn't any naive newcomer. They prefer to believe that Obama is just an unqualified guy who made a couple of nice speeches and got lucky. So Ted Cruz is trying to run as that version of Obama: the reality-free "Imagine" speech he used to kick off his campaign is his idea of an Obama speech. Cruz actually imagines that some vacuous lofty rhetoric might be all he needs.

Cruz is not only ignoring the practical differences between Obama and himself (like, you know, having a plan and not having a plan). But he also misunderstands the differences between himself and Obama as candidates. Cruz is abrasive where Obama is affable. Cruz is way out on his own party's right wing; Obama has always been comfortably middle-of-the-road for a Democrat, but gets called a crazed radical socialist by the right-wing echo chamber. Instead of comparing himself to the actual Obama and moving toward the middle, Cruz compares himself to the Republican fantasy of Obama and tells himself that if a far-left-winger could win, a far-right-winger can. Of course, a far-left candidate hasn't.

The Republicans have made this mistake before; their first attempt to run their own Obama wasn't Ted Cruz but Sarah Palin. That seems ridiculous now, but Palin in 2008 looked to the Republicans almost exactly like Obama looked to the Republicans: inexperienced, with no real substance, but charismatic and exciting on the stump. Of course, the weakness in Palin's preparation started to show disastrously early whereas, to some Republicans' mystified frustration, Obama's alleged lack of preparation never gives itself away. The obvious explanation for that is something Republicans don't want to consider.

And of course the search for a Republican Obama, and Ted Cruz's hopes to follow what he thinks of as Obama's strategy, overlooks a major factor in 2008. One of the reasons that a senator with a short track record in Washington was viable that year, when he wouldn't have been in a normal election cycle, was the Iraq War. The newcomer was viable because the establishment candidates had all voted for a war which, by 2008, voters had come to see as a terrible mistake. Obama was elected as a newcomer because the old guard had screwed everything up so badly. And Republicans don't want to think about that reality at all.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why Fraternities Are Out of Control

College fraternities have been in the news for the last two weeks, and not in a good way. First, the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma got videotaped singing a cheerful little fraternity song about keeping blacks out of the frat and hanging them from trees. (No, seriously.) Then a frat at Penn State turned out to be keeping a private Facebook page full of photos of unconscious naked women (not to mention pictures of hazing and drug dealing), prompting an anonymous frat bro to give a local magazine an insanely self-righteous defense of the page. (Because getting young women to pass out and then photographing them naked in sexual situations apparently isn't wrong, but objecting to that behavior is somehow flagrantly immoral.) And now a frat at North Carolina State turns out to keep a pledge book filled with endorsements of BOTH raping women AND lynching black people. Good times.

Are American fraternities out of control? Of course. They are designed to be out of control. I don't mean they all behave badly. Some of them are great. I mean that frats are designed so that there is virtually no way for anyone outside the frat to control the behavior inside the frat. What happens in the frat house is largely whatever the kids in the frat house decide will happen. As things are currently organized, there's not much anyone else can do about that.

I don't mean to say that fraternities are bad. Many people I respect have testified to their healthy and positive experiences in Greek organizations, and I believe them. The sanest and most reasonable of my forty-odd cousins was president of his fraternity in college; he's definitely not the kind of person who starts a singalong about lynching. The positive stories are real. So are the horrifying stories. The truth is, no one's personal fraternity experience can tell you what American fraternities are like, because every fraternity house becomes its own little enclosed world.

First of all, fraternities aren't actually part of the colleges and universities where the fraternity brothers (or sorority sisters) live. They're independent organizations, franchised at various schools around the country. The original point of fraternities was to be outside the jurisdiction of the college authorities, and they still pretty much are. At many places the only thing a school can do is withdraw recognition from the frat, meaning the local chapter is no longer an official student organization. But that can backfire; the frat will still be there, the students will still join it, but because it's not an official university organization the school can't even threaten to discipline it any more.

The basic structure of a fraternity is that there are local chapters at each school, which elect their own leadership; there's a national office led by alumni, which maintains fiscal oversight and takes care of things like publicity and branding; and there's the network of other alumni across the country, who have no official role to play but can still exert a powerful influence.

The chapters are largely self-governing on a day-to-day basis. There's not always a lot of adult supervision. This means that every fraternity chapter becomes a lesson in small-group dynamics. Dominant personalities can exert a big influence on the rest of the group. And, just as the psychology textbooks explain, the group starts to define its members' sense of what is normal and not.

The racists singing their racist group song at the University of Oklahoma had obviously gotten to a point where singing the words, "hang him from a tree" (to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It") seemed like a totally normal thing to do. (I don't propose group psychology as an excuse; everyone involved knew better.) While they had to know that what they were doing is not morally acceptable, they put the group's customs ahead of general American mores. And what's striking is not that they didn't see what they were doing as wrong, but that they didn't see it as weird. In fact, singing that song together, in front of their dates, is a very, very strange thing to do. Maintaining a Facebook page full of pictures of unconscious naked women is a weird, serial-killeresque behavior that one group of fraternity brothers came to view as totally normal. Frat houses create their own sense of reality. Sometimes the reality inside the house is pretty normal, because the people setting the tone in the house are normal, and life inside is basically like life outside but with more male bonding. But sometimes the frat house drifts away from the outside norms, and once that drift starts there's an echo-chamber quality that can intensify it. Maybe the initiation rituals turn into progressively more dangerous hazing. Maybe the misogyny or racism becomes toxic. Maybe the drinking culture gets to a place where the hard-core alcoholics are defining the norms. Maybe some of the frat brothers are dealing serious drugs.

And a fraternity chapter isn't necessarily the place that alumni, even recent alumni, remember it being. Remember, the whole membership turns over every four years.  The frat you belonged to might be a very different place five years after you graduate, and you wouldn't necessarily know it.

If a chapter comes unmoored from reality, no one on the outside is going to know until it's too late. The national organization doesn't micromanage what goes on or monitor the dynamic inside the house. The college doesn't have much oversight role at all. The adults on the outside won't know that anything's wrong, and the kids on the inside won't be able to see that anything's wrong. The problem only becomes visible when it becomes public, because something terrible - a rape, a drunken accident, a hazing death - becomes impossible to hide.

What happens then? At that point, the national fraternity shuts down the chapter, expels individual frat brothers, or both. This is partly, as Caitlin Flanagan has pointed out in The Atlantic, to make the national fraternity impossible to sue and thereby to protect its assets. If a student is exposed to a lawsuit, that student is cut loose so that the fraternity itself is not exposed to the lawsuit. And on paper, national fraternities do set up rules, sometimes improbably strict rules, that allow them to expel almost anyone they like. They simply don't put much effort into enforcing those rules until after there's been a scandal. (National frats can be like Claude Rains in Casablanca: Shocked! Shocked, to find out that partying is going on!) This certainly happened at the U of Oklahoma, where the chapter was immediately decertified by national and the two students who could be seen (on video) leading the segregationist sing-along were immediately booted from the frat.

That looks like accountability, but it isn't. For many fraternities, the point is to preserve student control of the chapter itself, and not to interfere until the kids have obviously blown it. National fraternities will disown their members. What they won't do is supervise them.

And the national organization's authority, even if it wanted to use it, can be undermined by individual alumni, who operate in a completely decentralized way. Sometimes alumni who have become important donors for their old school run interference for their old fraternity chapter. And sometimes ugly behaviors that have been eliminated at one campus can reappear, because new members have learned them from older alumni or from brothers on other campuses. A frat with a tradition of dangerous hazing, for example, might reform but then have the old practices sneak back in with legacy pledges who've heard stories from fathers, uncles, or older brothers.

The racist song that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon boys were singing is clearly not unique to the U of Oklahoma chapter; there are independent reports, some older than the SAE video itself, of SAE members singing exactly the same words at other campuses. But I doubt it's heard at every SAE chapter at every college. Every chapter, even of the same frat, is its own thing, but chapters of the same frat are also part of a social network that passes traditions and practices back and forth.

I also suspect the SAE segregation/lynching song is fairly old; if I had to guess, I'd say it dates either from the period when Southern universities were being desegregated by court order or from the slightly later period when all-white frats were forced to desegregate. But the U of Oklahoma chapter certainly hasn't been singing the lynching song uninterrupted since the 1960s; they did have an African-American brother in that fraternity house, who graduated ten years ago (and who has blogged eloquently about the pain and shock today's SAEs have given him). Obviously, the lynching song died out at that chapter (or had not yet been introduced there), and then came back, brought in through contact with SAEs at other schools or with SAEs who had graduated years earlier. National SAE would certainly not have been dumb enough to try to keep that song alive. But National SAE isn't fully in charge. No one is.

A fraternity is basically a system designed to carve out a largely unregulated space for college boys, generally aged 18 to 22, to live together in groups free from adult control. Obviously, that system is going to lead to an enormous range of results. In a good chapter, that freedom is going to teach responsibility, maturity, and the exercise of independent judgment. If there's no adult in charge, you have to step up and be the adults. A bad chapter can turn into Peter Pan and the Lost Boys with too much alcohol or, in the most extreme cases, into The Lord of the Flies with access to credit cards. How many fraternity chapters are good, how many are bad, and how many are ugly? There's no way to know. The only fraternity house that you can ever really know about is the one you're in, and even then you only really know while you're in it. But even if the bad chapters are only a small percentage of the total, there's no adult around to apply the brakes once things go bad.

(Of course, students in other clubs, teams, and organizations can also go Lord of the Flies. There are hazing cases involving sports teams, clubs, marching bands -- you name it. The difference is that those organizations are clearly and fully under the school's control, there's nearly always a faculty or staff member assigned as an official adviser, and when things go wrong the school has some straightforward remedies.)

It's not clear to me how much longer frats will continue to have this kind of autonomy. For the last couple of years, the Department of Education has been leaning on every college and university in the country to strengthen their rules about sexual assault or else be ruled out of compliance with Title IX. The federally-recommended changes, which just about every campus is enacting, specifically hold the schools responsible for behavior by their students OFF-campus. How can that be? That can be because the Department of Education no longer wants to hear colleges saying that this or that terrible incident happened in an off-campus frat house and so the college can't do anything about it. The federal government has put every college on notice that they WILL be held responsible for what happens to their students at off-campus frat houses. That means, sooner or later, schools are going to have to demand more control. If they're going to be held accountable for what fraternities do, then they will have to hold those fraternities accountable. They can't afford not to.

Fraternity brothers and alumni (and sorority sisters and alumni) aren't going to like that. If colleges take a greater hand in governing their Greek organizations, it will take away the independence and the freedom from academic governance that Greeks most value. But the most important element of a good fraternity experience, the independence, is exactly the thing that can lead to the biggest disasters. Fraternities are designed to be out of direct adult control, but the stakes have grown too high for colleges to leave them unsupervised. What happens to fraternities next is a mystery.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog