Underground Frats: 1984-2014. RIP?

The Trustee’s Office emailed students yesterday informing them of a decision by the Board of Trustees to prohibit participation in fraternities, sororities and “fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations,” including off campus. The decision arrives exactly thirty years after the Trustees in 1984 banned all on-campus fraternities.

The timing of the decision, however, probably has far less to with recognizing the thirtieth anniversary of the 1984 ban than with with the present federal investigation of Amherst College for possible Title IX violations. While the Trustee’s letter made explicit no mention of the Title IX investigation, it underlies their rationale. As the Trustee’s letter explains, the Board was essentially faced with a trichotomy. First, they could have recognized fraternities and regulated them as legitimate campus organizations. While some may believe that fraternities would be better behaved if they were visible rather than underground, given the history of fraternities on campus and the current pressure to comply with Title IX, this would have been unacceptable. Second, they could have maintained the status quo and left the situation ambiguous. In 2013, the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee specifically urged the Trustees to clarify the college’s stance on the issue, and accepting the status quo would have represented an indefensible deferral of responsibility by the Trustees at a time when the college is under unprecedented scrutiny to actively reform.

The third option, and the one that the Trustees ultimately chose, was the only viable decision. That is not to say that it was the best, or even a good, choice — simply that it was the least bad. The language of the letter is extremely vague. What exactly constitutes a “fraternity-like” organization? How exactly will a prohibition of off-campus organizations be implemented and to what extent will the college be willing and able to enforce such a prohibition?

In invoking the Honor Code, the Trustees indicate that they will punish individuals for participating in off-campus fraternities. This is both practically and morally problematic. By what means and by right does the college propose to monitor with whom students associate with off campus? The issue of fraternities cannot but ignored, but the college should target fraternities as an institution rather than the individuals who constitute them.

By that we mean, the problem is not who students choose to associate themselves with, but rather when they choose to associate themselves with an institution that has no place at Amherst in the twenty-first century. The college should communicate to students the dark history that fraternities have had a Amherst, what compelled the college to resolutely ban them in 1984, and the problems that have persisted since they went underground. If the college is serious about disassociating itself from that past once and for all, then instead focusing on punishing current members, it should focus on preventing fraternities from perpetuating themselves. That would entail educating incoming first-years about the negative historic legacy of fraternities during orientation and cracking down on recruiting and pledging activities, which inevitably occur on campus.

Given the context of the situation, one cannot help but feel that the timing of the Trustee’s letter was at least to an extent politically motivated by the recent disclosure of the names of the colleges under federal investigation for non-compliance with Title IX. If fraternities do engage in certain high risk behaviours, they are not unique in this regard. If this college is earnest about demonstrating full compliance with Title IX, fraternities are not the only student organizations that ought to be scrutinized. Extracurricular groups and athletic teams may not identify with Greek letters but that does not mean that they cannot engage in hazing or excessive drinking. In this sense, it does feel as if the college is throwing frats under the bus.