Racist chants. Nude photos of unconscious women. A criminal investigation into hazing. Fraternities around the country seem to be coming under fire as never before over behavior that would shock the frat boys of “Animal House.”
Despite a major national push to reduce drinking and sexual assault on campus and increase diversity, some fraternity chapters have failed to clean up their acts. Universities and the fraternities’ national offices are quickly punishing the offenders amid more promises of reform.
Some critics blame popular culture, saying it’s making fraternities essentially ungovernable.
“There’s this underlying acceptance that boys will be boys, this is fraternity life and this is what you have to accept when you walk through the doors of a fraternity,” Ellen Kramer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Wednesday.
Defenders of fraternities say they do a lot of good work on campus and the focus on their misconduct is misguided.
Bad behavior inside the walls of a frat house — or on campus generally — is nothing new, of course. Alcohol, immaturity and freedom from parents have been a potentially troublesome combination for generations of undergrads.
But the incidents at the University of Oklahoma and Penn State, in particular, have stunned many and happened despite heavy scrutiny of misconduct at colleges.
At Penn State, police are investigating allegations members of Kappa Delta Rho used a private Facebook page to post photos of nude and partly nude women, some apparently asleep or passed out. A former member told police the invitation-only page was used to share photos of “unsuspecting victims, drug sales and hazing,” according to court documents.
The Facebook posts were “very sad and very offensive,” Penn State President Eric Barron said Wednesday, adding that students could be expelled. Referring to Penn State’s fraternity system, Barron added: “It’s just unfortunately a large system with some very fine young men and some men who are not doing smart things.”
The page came to light Monday, nearly a week after a University of Oklahoma fraternity was shut down when members were caught on video singing a racist song. The university expelled two students identified as ringleaders. Sigma Alpha Epsilon disbanded its OU chapter and announced Wednesday it will require all its members nationwide to go through diversity training.
“We are focused on trying to determine the root of this song or this chant, where it came from, that’s our primary focus,” said Blaine Ayers, executive director of SAE, adding he was disgusted and embarrassed by the video.
At the University of Houston officials promised expulsion and criminal charges pending the outcome of a police investigation into hazing allegations. The Sigma Chi chapter and five members were suspended over what university President Renu Khator described as disturbing allegations affecting “the health and safety of our students.”
Also this week, Sigma Alpha Mu said its chapter at the University of Michigan will be disbanded after some of its members helped trash two ski resorts during an alcohol-fueled weekend, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Why do the problems persist?
“That’s a legitimate question,” said Peter Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. “My response is that when fraternities are made aware of behaviors inconsistent with their policies or values, they are swift to action, and individual chapters are held accountable when appropriate.”
He added: “And that is a meaningful part of the fraternity experience.”
Smithhisler’s group has created three commissions to study hazing, drinking and sexual assault and come up with recommendations for fraternities. The study groups have yet to complete their work.
Some colleges have gone to extremes to address the problems. Colby and Bowdoin colleges in Maine banned fraternities in the 1980s and ’90s. Last fall, Wesleyan University in Connecticut ordered fraternities to go coed within three years. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, which helped inspire “Animal House,” recently banned hard liquor and is overhauling its housing system.
Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, a group formed in October to prevent sexual assaults, said fraternities and universities can drastically reduce problems by targeting campus “social influencers” — fraternity presidents, athletes and other campus leaders — who set the tone for their organizations.
“I don’t think it’s an impossible task at all. I don’t want to sell young people short. I think they are capable of making good choices and moving away from these types of behaviors,” she said.
Fraternities have about 372,000 members among 7.7 million male undergraduate college students. Despite their relatively small membership, they have long been the social backbone of many campuses, holding weekend parties and mixers.
They are seen by members as a way to make friends and gain valuable professional connections. And they perform charitable works. At Penn State, for example, the Greek system raises millions of dollars each year for children with cancer.
“We are absolutely seeing a light being shined on Greek life right now, but these things are not unique to Greek life,” Tombros Korman said. “Sexual assault or inappropriate behavior or inappropriate chanting or comments — those aren’t just happening in Greek life.”
At Penn State on Wednesday, 21-year-old student Jaclyn Gross, of Rockville, Maryland, said fraternities and sororities are generally a positive influence on campus.
“It wasn’t the entire frat who did it,” she said of Kappa Delta Ro and the Facebook page. “I don’t think you can clump it all together.”
Another student, 21-year-old Kayla Bracall, of Pittsburgh, said Greek organizations do a lot of good on smaller campuses.
“But I fear that at large campuses like Penn State they have the potential to develop a very negative culture,” she said.