The Fraternity Question

“I’m pretty sure he raped that girl,” said a friend of mine, referring to an older member of the fraternity he had just joined. Some other new members and I, standing in front of the frat house, hung our heads and mumbled gloomily as we conceded he was probably right.

Seemingly out of nowhere, my friend, who I thought I knew fairly well, shrugged, smiled, and said “Oh, well,” laughing nervously. It struck me as odd at the time, but it later occurred to me that something more nefarious was at work: joining a fraternity had encouraged my friend to think that rape wasn’t that bad.

Alarmingly, social science research suggests that this apparent effect is not an isolated incident but a systemic problem. This raises the questions: what are fraternities doing to our young people, and what should we do about it?

The issue of the impact of fraternities gained national prominence last October when some pledges at Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were marched around campus chanting, “’No’ means yes, ‘yes’ means anal,” “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac,” and other boorish slogans. Following complaints by a group of female students, the federal Department of Education announced in April that it would investigate whether the chants and other incidents at Yale violated Title IX of the Civil Rights Act by creating a “hostile sexual environment.” Fearing a loss of about $500 million in federal funding, Yale suspended DKE for five years, effectively killing the organization. 

The Manhattan Institute’s Charlotte Allen argues that the suspension, combined with the federal investigation and an anti-fraternity feminist media blitz (including Caitlin Flanagan’s Wall Street Journal op-ed), constitutes a “scorched-earth war against fraternities.” This “war” represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Left out of Allen’s analysis, however, is the question of whether or not fraternities are a net positive influence on students. According to Ben Novak, alumnus, former trustee, and former professor at Penn State University, they once were.  In an interview with Inside Academia TV, Novak said that up through about 1960—what he calls the “golden age of fraternities”—fraternities were a civilizing institution.

“Young people went into a fraternity, and it polished them,” he said. Novak blames the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the 1978 movie Animal House for the apparently debauched state of Greek life today. “It could be said that there is no film that so effectively destroyed an institution than Animal House destroyed fraternities,” said Novak. The changing culture and the movie, Novak believes, lowered people’s expectations about Greek life and the reasons they joined. Fraternities’ civilizing function was mostly forgotten.

Whether or not Novak is right about frats in the past, the idea is widely held that something is wrong with them now. Even the North-American Interfraternity Conference, Greek organizations’ main lobbying group, concedes there is a problem. The Conference recently launched an initiative called Standards designed to “propel fraternities to be who we say we are.” Implicit in this call for reform is that they are not currently who they say they are, and the situation needs fixing.

Proponents of Greek life are quick to point out that the public perception of modern fraternities as institutions prone to all manner of debauchery and destruction is not the full picture. They’re right. University of Texas at Arlington economics professor Jeffrey DeSimone summarized some positive attributes found by social science research in a New York Times “Room for Debate” article. “While fraternity membership has been associated with cheating on exams and poor academic performance,” he noted, “other evidence suggests that fraternity members declare majors earlier, obtain higher-paying entry-level jobs and donate more to their alma maters.”

Additionally, the survey-based University Learning Outcomes Assessment (UniLOA), conducted by researchers at Indiana State University, concluded that fraternity membership correlated with modest increases in such areas as critical thinking, diversity appreciation, and communication compared to non-members. The North-American Interfraternity Conference adds that Greek organizations’ 600,000 members provide 10 million hours of volunteer service per year, or about eight hours per person per semester.

(The NIC didn’t provide a comparison to the average student’s number of service hours. In my own experience, eight hours per semester—the equivalent of one Saturday with Habitat for Humanity per semester—seems average. Moreover, if listening to lectures on “oral sex and orgasms” counts as volunteer service, as one Huffington Post article counted it, there is even more reason to discount the figure.)

On the other hand, a number of data points suggest that fraternity membership has serious disadvantages. Professor DeSimone found that fraternity membership encourages heavier drinking. Drawing on his own research, he wrote in the Times that “10 to 20 percent of the difference between members and non-members is plausibly attributable to being in a fraternity.” In other words, the high level of binge drinking by fraternity members is primarily accounted for by self-selection, but membership exacerbates the problem.

More distressing is the link between fraternities and rape. According to Oklahoma State professor John Foubert, “The population on college campuses with the highest likelihood for committing rape is fraternity men.” Writing in the New York Times, he added that research has shown this repeatedly, pointing to several academic articles demonstrating that connection.

But what about the chicken-or-egg question: Is the increased likelihood of rape a product of self-selection or does fraternity membership lead to rape?  Available data suggest that fraternities do have a negative influence.

A 2007 survey-based study by Foubert and a couple of his students found that “prior to entering college, men who joined fraternities and men who did not had statistically equivalent rates of precollege sexually coercive behavior.” However, “8% of first-year men who joined fraternities committed a sexually coercive act during their first-year compared to 2.5% of men who did not join fraternities.” Fraternity members were therefore three times more likely to commit a sexually coercive act—i.e. unwanted sexual contact, up to and including rape—than non-fraternity members.

Foubert acknowledged in the Times that the study needs repetition to be confirmed: “It was one study on one campus,” he said. Still, if the findings are confirmed, it will be one of the most significant of all data points in determining university policy toward Greek life. Having “personal relationships with several people who are ethnically different than me,” one of the areas that improved among Greeks according to the UniLOA study, may be a good thing, but it hardly outweighs the sexual violence issue.

Fraternities, then, seem to have a decidedly negative influence on university life. Still, if the bad behaviors can be minimized—if something approximating Ben Novak’s “golden age” can be restored—they could be very valuable to university life. To that end, a number of promising strategies have been tested.

One of these is The Men’s Program, developed by professor Foubert. He says it is the only “rape prevention program [that] has been shown to have a clear, long-lasting effect on men’s attitudes.” The program encourages sympathy with rape victims (including male victims) as a means of rape prevention.

Another approach is social norms theory, which seeks to discourage drinking and other behaviors by correcting misperceptions about the prevalence of those behaviors. Once students realize that not as many people drink as heavily as they thought they did, the students will themselves drink less. As I wrote in a previous Pope Center article, this approach has seen a number of moderate successes.

Some think the pathologies of Greek organizations won’t be cured without a spiritual awakening. One person who agrees with that is John MacKorell, campus director of Greek InterVarsity’s chapter at NC State. Greek InterVarsity is a Christian student ministry that specifically targets fraternities and sororities. “Without Jesus,” said MacKorell, “Greek life is bound to continue perpetuating the broken culture which it has become in recent decades.”

An institution-revolutionizing spiritual awakening may seem far-fetched, but MacKorell says he’s seen the lives of Greek students, including his own, changed in profound ways. “I lived both perspectives,” he said, referring to his shift from pursuing “all the alcohol, drugs, and sex you want” to “true brotherhood, real service, and clean fun.”

These approaches, unfortunately, are still a long way from curing fraternities’ problems, and some administrators aren’t willing to wait for that. A number of schools, including Alfred University and Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, and Williams Colleges, have banned fraternities and sororities altogether.

In an interview with the Pope Center, Alfred University president Charles Edmondson said that he wouldn’t recommend abolishing Greek life as a solution for all colleges and universities, but he felt it was necessary in Alfred’s case. The university banned Greek organizations in 2002 following the beating death of a fraternity member. According to Edmondson, the groups had been deteriorating for some time. At the time of the incident, only one out of the five fraternities on campus was not on probation.  Since banishment, alumni giving increased and Alfred experienced a “sharp decline” in sexual violence. Indeed, Edmondson noted, “closure has been all positive for us.”

Despite Edmondson’s hesitancy to make recommendations, universities should clearly be using all the policy options at their disposal to fix the pathologies of fraternities. As Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff has pointed out, fraternities don’t have a court-recognized right to exist. For the sake of students, then, colleges should find a way to drastically change fraternity culture—and soon—or get rid of them.