New York Times Op-Ed
December 3, 2014
In college you’re supposed to be testing a new altitude of independence. So why join a club whose demand for fealty is such that it often comes with a hazing ritual?
You should be cultivating the kind of sensibility that makes you a better citizen of a diverse and distressingly fractious society. How is that served by retreating into an exclusionary clique of people just like you?
That description doesn’t apply to all fraternities and sororities, but it suits many of them. And it’s a reason atop others to wonder about their role in campus life.
Fraternities are under fresh scrutiny now for the ways in which they’ve abetted sexual assault. The University of Virginia has temporarily suspended its fraternities following rape allegations.
On Monday, Wesleyan University announced that one of its fraternities, Psi Upsilon, would be banned from holding social events until the end of 2015 — also because of rape accusations.
And there has been heightened attention over the last year to the wages of hazing, binge drinking and other potentially destructive behavior that so-called Greek life sometimes seems to promote. A series of stories by Bloomberg News tallied more than 75 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, and the Atlantic magazine published an epic, must-read investigation into the dangers of Greek life by Caitlin Flanagan. It was titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities.”
But fraternities have a culpability beyond sexual violence and personal injury, and it’s the degree to which they contradict one of the most important missions of higher education: giving students a breadth of perspectives.
This mission has seldom been more important. In America today, class divisions, social media, the Balkanization of culture and an intensely partisan, polarized political environment are sorting people into ever-narrower silos and eroding common ground.
And college administrators have an almost unrivaled ability to push back at that, fostering conversations across all lines: economic, ethnic, racial, religious.
“One of the most interesting and wonderful things about the four-year residential-college experience is that it’s one of those times when social engineering is most possible,” said Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociologist and one of the authors of the 2013 book “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.”
“Administrators actually can do more than at pretty much any of our other institutions, except maybe prison,” she told me. “But doing it well takes a lot of resources, a lot of thought about what the physical space should look like.”
Fraternities and sororities aren’t a logical part of that picture. The “Animal House” isn’t an especially eclectic zoo.
Michael Roth, Wesleyan’s president, conceded as much. “I do think, today, fraternities sometimes can be like the cable news station that just preaches to the choir,” he told me.
But so can the themed residential clusters — for theater rats, for ardent environmentalists — that have popped up at some schools, even becoming part of their marketing pitches. Under a putatively liberal banner, these enclaves have the same shortcoming: They contrive micro-communities of sameness in a world of difference. They favor contact with like-minded individuals over communication with a spectrum of people.
There’s an understandable draw to these enclaves. People are tribal, ineluctably so.
And there’s a benefit. In some instances, a feeling of safety and a steady grounding can be precisely what emboldens a person to venture far and wide across unfamiliar terrain.
But in other instances, such comfort strangles curiosity and binds a person to a single crowd, a blinkered viewpoint. Not letting that kind of tribalism get out of hand is one of the central obligations of a country like ours.
And that calls for a hard, cold look at fraternities, which are “more homogenous than the overall college student population” and “at cross-purposes with the goal of promoting campus diversity,” in the judgment of a stinging Bloomberg editorial that accompanied its stories.
On some campuses, fraternities and sororities handle the housing of many students, so their elimination is tricky. On others they’re believed to be a student draw and the source of some particularly generous future alumni.
But Williams College in the 1960s, Colby College in the 1980s and other schools at other times decided to eliminate fraternities and didn’t suffer any great cost or disruption. For every student or graduate who relishes them, there’s another who feels the opposite way.
Whatever the case, I’m concerned less with the fine points of their popularity than with the extent to which they encourage students to hear and listen only to voices like their own.
They can fall into that sad trap as adults. College, of all places, should steer them clear of it.