Critics bust fraternity culture

Students stand outside the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house on 20 April, 2012. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption San Diego State's campus was rocked in 2012 by a student death at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity

The college fraternity system is broken and places college students at risk of injury or death, writes the Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan.

Her article, published last month after a year spent researching fraternities, has ignited a debate about the value of Greek life and the relationship it has with universities.

"While the fraternities continued to exert their independence from the colleges with which they were affiliated, these same colleges started to develop an increasingly bedeviling kind of interdependence with the accursed societies," she writes.

"Fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way," she says. "At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters."

But that association comes with a price, she contends - in serious injuries to students, increased alcohol-related crime around campus and parental liability for student misconduct, among other problems.

Some of the members of these "accursed societies" are rushing to the defence of Greek life.

"I'm not alone when I count my college years as the most formative of my life," writes Steve Roney in a follow-up piece in the Atlantic. "Those years were dominated by my fraternity participation."

He says that the critics of the fraternity system have drowned out the positive sides of the experience.

"Nothing in this world can be all things to all people," he writes. "Not everyone likes fraternities, but joining one was absolutely the right choice for me, as it is for thousands of young men each year."

Other fraternity members aren't as optimistic.

Sam Smith writes in Scholars & Rogues that while he has fond memories of his time in a the Greek system, if he had a college-age son, he'd do "everything in his power" to keep him from pledging to a fraternity.

Flanagan's piece, he writes, proves that today's national fraternity organisations are only looking out for themselves, and if something goes wrong it's the students - and their families - who will be left in the lurch.

"In a time of crisis, depending on the details of what has happened, national will be Johnny on the Spot, yes, but not to save you," he says. "Instead, they'll secure the perimeter and begin looking for a bus to throw you under."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Binge-drinking contributes to the fraternity problem, writes Caitlin Flanagan

Katie JM Baker of Aljazeera America takes issue with Flanagan's focus on accidental falls from fraternity houses while ignoring what she sees as examples of the most sinister parts of Greek life.

"Erecting more balcony guardrails won't persuade frat brothers to stop hosting offensive Asian-themed ragers and sending mass emails referencing 'rapebait'," she writes. "It won't stop them from throwing beer bottles at black students, calling them 'Trayvon Martin' or more or less getting away with sexual assault."

Flanagan ignores black fraternities, class issues, sororities and the larger problem of rape culture, writes Jezebel's Kate Dries, and offers no solutions to the problems she does identifiy.

"Instead, she manages to hide an actually fascinating explanation of the way fraternities take out insurance and work with lawyers to protect themselves by ignoring basically every college student whose issues already aren't getting enough attention."

Matthew Leibowitz for The Wesleyan Argus agrees that Flanagan should spend more time focusing on how to change fraternity culture.

"The problem with this piece is that it mimics the problematic nature of past and often present activism around sexual assault," he writes. "It chooses to focus on punishment and unhealthy prevention as opposed to productive prevention and the improvement of culture."

There are encouraging steps being taken to address the negative aspects of Greek life, he says, but Flanagan's piece does not present a way of moving forward.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities in the country and the organization with the most fraternity-related deaths since 2006, recently decided to ban pledging in an attempt to cut down on hazing.

Flanagan - this time writing for the Washington Post - chimed in, saying that the fraternity's edict is meaningless. The real problem in her eyes is alcohol abuse.

"Every one of the incidents described in my files - every single one - involves as its principal player titanic quantities of booze. Collegiate binge drinking is not confined to the fraternity house, obviously, but the two entities have a synergistic effect on one another," she says. "Saving lives - and reducing the incidences of rape and serious injury - depends on taking alcohol out of the equation."

In the end, the question remains: do the merits of Greek life really outweigh its faults?

The editors of the Bloomberg View don't think so. In a January editorial, they argued that most colleges would be better off without fraternities.

"Too often, fraternities are at odds with the mission of a college or university," they write. "Focusing on that mission may be the best way for colleges and universities to see their way clear to the reform and, when necessary, abolition of campus fraternities."

(By Kierran Petersen)

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