The Place of Fraternities

Along with roughly a tenth of the student body, I was in attendance at Sunday’s meeting with President Martin on the topic of sexual misconduct on campus. I admit, I entered the meeting somewhat cynically, but became hopeful by the time it was over. There were multiple deans present, and Biddy committed to several action steps on the spot, which indicates a new era of administrative action and student involvement in the issue, a great step forward.

On the other hand, I didn’t necessarily agree with the students and faculty who called for an end to the off-campus fraternities as a necessary step to combat sexual misconduct. It’s not that I believe that fraternities are blameless, by any stretch of the imagination, but rather that I don’t want to hold them blameworthy for acts that not every member is committing. Then again, part of the impetus behind the meeting with President Martin was an ACVoice article commenting on a misogynistic t-shirt design that was printed by the members of one of the fraternities, so it’s incontrovertible that they do contribute to the problem.

In over two years at the College, I hadn’t formed a coherent opinion on fraternities. They are both the source of some good things and many bad things in a campus community. In addition, frats exist in a strange shadowland at Amherst: they exist in fact, but not on paper, and they are disallowed from making their presence publicly known on campus. To get a factual basis upon which to ground this article, I talked with Dean Lieber and Dean Boykin-East, both of whom were helpful in clarifying the history of fraternities on campus, and they also provided a sounding board for my own ideas about what steps the College should take next.

As a brief perusal of the print archives of The Student confirms, fraternities were the centerpiece of social life on campus for much of the College’s existence. The vast majority of students committed to fraternities, which hosted nearly all of the campus’ parties. This was a much simpler situation before 1975, when the College began to admit women. Because the frats controlled many of the dorms, and because none of them admitted women, as per their national charters, several campus dorms were effectively foreclosed to women. In addition, several female students felt marginalized by the male frat culture.
In response, the College required that the campus fraternities admit women as members. This resulted in nearly all of the fraternities being cut off from their national organizations for infringing upon the terms of the charter. Additionally, women were still constrained by the male hierarchy and the sexist rituals of the old frats. Thus, in 1984, the faculty and the Board of Trustees both voted to ban the fraternities from the campus. However, unlike several of our peer institutions, which disallowed membership in fraternities entirely among the student body, Amherst chose to allow the students to associate freely with fraternal organizations off campus.

To recap the lengthy history lesson: admitting women caused friction in a campus that was dominated by all-male fraternities, which led to them being banned from campus. But the College allowed free association off campus, which brings us to our current untenable situation in which fraternities exist fully and students engage openly in them, but the College is unable to deal directly with them, unless they openly violate the on-campus ban, because it does not recognize their existence.

It’s clear that something needs to change, but less clear as to what should change. The College could follow in the footsteps of institutions like Williams and Colby, that disallow fraternity membership entirely, and effectively abolish the fraternities. It could also recognize the fraternities, bring them back on campus, add sororities as an option for female students, and regulate the activities of the organizations with official recognition and all that it entails.

I don’t think that fraternal organizations are all bad, nor that all of their activities are negative. Fraternities provide a great opportunity for students to enter into a community of their own on campus, where the younger students have upperclassmen to look to for leadership. They also provide a strong web of connections, both within the College and within the national organization; particularly in times of economic strife, connections can be invaluable. 85 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are fraternity members, and so are the vast majority of individuals in the federal government.

Fraternities, though, are more widely known for their negative externalities. While not all fraternal organizations engage in dangerous or misogynistic behavior, it would seem that most of them do. I’ll indulge in confirmation bias for a moment; recent events would indicate that even fraternity members at one of the best colleges in the country can actively promote ideas that are antithetical to basic human decency. Leaving the anti-woman tendencies of frats aside for the moment, hazing alone is a great reason to ban fraternities. Hazing has contributed to deaths at MIT, Florida A&M, and many other institutions; in addition, hazing often forces pledges to commit acts that one should not speak of in polite company, to put it lightly. Fraternities are also selective, divisive organizations. Only certain types of people are invited for membership in certain fraternities, which promotes the kind of social self-selection that defeats any attempts at diversity. Similarly, fraternities control much of the social power of the campus, especially in the realm of parties and alcohol.

Even with all of these negative effects, I would still generally presume in favor of fraternities. I believe that strong, clear regulatory policies, such as a ban on hazing, and focused education in such areas as alcohol consumption and sexual respect could redeem many of their problems. It would be impossible to eliminate the negatives entirely, but such a start would probably set the balance in favor of frats. At Amherst, though, I oppose the existence of fraternities.

The College already has an extensive, involved alumni network that removes much of the need for fraternal connections. We are also a small campus, where students are much less likely to get lost in the social cracks, muting the utility of fraternities as social nets. I also recognize that the problems caused by fraternities, though already present on campus in abundance, would not magically go away if frats were recognized and regulated.

I don’t want this to come across as a blanket reproach to, or condemnation of, fraternity members. To me, the issue of fraternities is an issue of pros and cons, on balance. If fraternities would do more good than harm, I think we should have them, by all means. This college, though, is a place where the harm is clear and the good is little. I would therefore encourage the College and the Board of Trustees to abolish fraternity membership at Amherst College.