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
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