Swarthmore is the latest to make the news, as its two remaining fraternities disbanded days after the college suspended fraternity activities while an investigator looked into derogatory comments made on internet bulletin boards between 2012 and 2016, posts that predated current students.
I’m not going to make an argument that those stories shouldn’t be reported — the Timothy Piazza hazing death at Penn State is not something that should be ignored, for example, neither should stories of sexual abuse or derogatory conduct — but it seems fraternities and sororities only rate the public’s attention when something bad happens.
Part of that is no doubt due to the secret nature of those organizations. But it is also aided by public perception, one fed by films like Animal House, of fraternities existing only as party organizations and havens for promiscuous sex and the consumption of alcohol.
Backlash against these organizations is nothing new, even in the early 1990s, students were coached to avoid Greek life. But in today’s hyper-sensitive, PC world, that movement is on a new level.
Harvard, for example, has announced sanctions against members of single-sex organizations, according to Stand Up to Harvard, a group fighting against that policy. This was a closed-door decision, made without the input of students, faculty or parents. The organization goes on to say women’s organizations were hit particularly hard, with several sororities and women’s final clubs either shutting down or placed on life support.
From what you read or hear about in the media and the way today’s colleges and universities tell it, you would be excused for thinking Greeks are the source of all that is bad in campus society. In some cases, this has proven to be the case, but all too often, when it comes to Greek life, it is a case of guilty until proven innocent.
Case in point: The 2015 Rolling Stone “A Rape on Campus” fiasco, where a University of Virginia student claimed to have been the victim of group sexual assault at a fraternity party. The story fell apart and Rolling Stone retracted it when there was no evidence to support it, but not before a nation weighed in.
Again, it would be out of line to speak in absolutes, but clearly there is a disconnect between the general public and reality regarding Greek organizations.
So, let’s change the narrative by painting a different picture: My nearly 30-year experience with my own fraternity.
I arrived on the campus of Lock Haven University in the fall of 1990 a member of the honors program and a week earlier than the general student body to take part in band camp and learn the fall halftime show. I was the first in my family to go to college, and really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was to stay away from the “Animal House.”
Looking back, I have no idea where that would be, but I certainly found a place to unwind after those log, hot days in the sun: band parties. By the end of the semester, I knew I’d better buckle down and focus on my studies or I was going to end up flunking out of school.
By spring, when I had managed to pull myself out of the drop zone, I discovered a couple of my friends were in the process of joining a social fraternity, and I began to hang around with the members. Some I had met over the course of the year, others for the first time. But I finally began to develop a group of friends – not based on partying, but on mutual interests. And from all walks of life, many of whom I would not have met otherwise.
By fall of my sophomore year, when I was invited to join, it was a no-brainer. These were my friends. The people I spent my free time with, and the people who were my support network in my college community. I cannot sell that short. One of my best friends has committed suicide that same fall, and without the support of my soon to be brotherhood, I’m not sure how I would have handled it.
My fraternity experience was where I was learning how to work with others, and how to lead. And sure, we had fun. But if I made the stupid decisions all 19- or 20-year-olds make, I had 20-odd guys keeping me honest.
That same spring, I came to the decision to transfer schools, and again, I received the most support from my brothers. In the intervening years, I got back as often as I could, but over time in those days before Facebook, I lost track of many of my fraternity ties. One of the benefits of our much-maligned social media has been to reconnect us with those we lost track of over the years.
I was happy to see the professional networks that had developed between many of my brothers. I was also dismayed to learn that our chapter had been put on hiatus due to dwindling numbers, but efforts were afoot to relaunch the chapter. I vowed to support the cause to the best of my ability, as I had come to realize how important those relationships were to me and how much I had lost without them in my life.
The groups of young men who were the backbone of reforming the chapter, and those who have followed in their footsteps, are an impressive group. Active, involved, campus leaders and high GPAs. I am proud to be associated with them, and excited to see the course they set for the future.
A couple of weeks ago, our fraternity chapter celebrated the 50thanniversary of its founding. We met on campus for a dinner and presentation at the university’s alumni center. Men who founded the organization in 1969, current members and those of us in between. We were all there because of the impact that organization had on our formative years. It was a heartwarming experience, and I’ve never been prouder to be part of something as I was that night.
The college years are the first real chance for many to strike out on their own and begin to take on a role as an adult in society. A big part of that is supporting students in making decisions on who they wish to associate with. These efforts to banish Greek organizations and other societies from the public square will, over time, prove wrong-headed, I have no doubt. And quite frankly, I believe they will prove unconstitutional.
Society as a whole would be far better served if colleges and universities worked with these organizations to support the positive effects they have on the student body, rather than take those opportunities away.