From Penn State to Florida State, colleges across the country have been joining an ever-lengthening list of schools with recent high-profile fraternity fatalities tarnishing their records. Pitt nearly fell into the same trap last week.
A member of the Sigma Chi fraternity chapter on campus was hospitalized after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol at a party. Fortunately, he’s safe now.
In light of this debacle, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner put all fraternities and sororities on social probation, banning the presence of alcohol at any Greek event for an unknown period — a mostly inconsequential slap on the wrist considering the gravity of the situation.
“This is a sobering reminder of the importance of examining the culture of our campus and our collective and individual roles in defining who you are and who you ought to be as a fraternity and sorority community,” he said in a letter to Pitt’s Greek community last week. “I look forward to our discussions.”
Sadly, it seems we often rely on incidents like this to spark any serious discussion of all the ways Greek life undermines the goals of higher education. Pitt and other universities should work to promote diversity and inclusion, encourage critical thinking and prepare students for the working life after college.
But even a fleeting look into the stunt-driven, habitual blowout party culture typical of Greek life shatters any delusion that universities are achieving these goals. A mere glimpse should be enough to alarm universities across the country.
As an executive member of an actuarial professional development fraternity — Gamma Iota Sigma — I recognize the unfairness of painting all Greek life with the same brush. While many frats and sororities exist primarily for superficial social purposes, there are still those whose focus is on engaging in community service and contributing to charity. Likewise, the organization I help run devotes itself to corporate outreach and membership development — rather than parties and contests of who can give themselves alcohol poisoning the fastest.
Yet many fraternity-related “accidents” appear inextricably linked with fraternity culture itself — a majority of hazing deaths are connected to the organizations, with others related to marching bands and sports teams. The death toll for this kind of recklessness has remained in the hundreds since the beginning of Greek organizations, with binge drinking seemingly encoded in Greek life DNA. According to a 2001 study from Harvard University, undergraduates involved in a fraternity or sorority were more than twice as likely to report “frequent” binge drinking than their unaffiliated peers.
Given that binge drinking severely hampers judgement, it’s no wonder fraternity members are over three times more likely than the average college student to commit sexually aggressive acts, according to a 2005 study from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. On the other hand, women who are members of sororities are nearly 75 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted, according to the same study. This has devastating implications not just for students involved in Greek life, but for the safety of women on campus as a whole.
Why, then, has so little action been taken to address these issues? The answer is abundantly clear: money. According to research from Laura Hamilton, associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced, alumni donors who were in fraternities as undergraduates hold a disproportionate amount of influence over colleges’ donation schemes.
“A lot of alumni are really beholden to their Greek organization,” Hamilton told the online magazine Alternet in a 2015 interview. “So you might also lose donation dollars if you decide to get rid of these organizations.”
As long as they’re in the pockets of the administrators, it will be difficult — but not impossible — to eliminate Greek life’s negative effects from campus. All it takes, as proven by the universities who have succeeded, is the prioritization of integrity and student safety above their own greed.
After an investigation provoked by Delta Kappa Epsilon in 1988, Middlebury College, for example, did away with Greek life altogether. The frat had hanged a brutally beaten female mannequin, soaked in blood-red paint and covered in sexually explicit slurs, off the balcony of its house that May.
Sexual assault had been rampant in the frat — this display was a disgusting show of the members’ pride in their despicable acts, and, thankfully, the tipping point for the college. By 1990, Middlebury had issued an ultimatum to Greek life organizations on its campus, requiring them to either go coed or close their doors.
The incident at Pitt’s chapter of Sigma Chi was severe enough to warrant the kind of scrutiny that led to the abolishment of Greek life at Middlebury. Even though the frat scene at Pitt — with only about nine percent of students participating in Greek life — isn’t as influential as most other large public schools, the influence that it does exact on the University can often be negative.
And while there may be less extreme solutions than removing Greek organizations from the University’s social life altogether, frats and sororities can’t be trusted not to continue dangerous, abusive behaviors off campus. That much should be obvious from the response among Pitt’s Greek life groups that the temporary ban on alcohol at frat parties was an overreaction to last weekend’s incident at Sigma Chi.
Given Middlebury’s success, banning fraternities and sororities on our campus would certainly reduce rates of binge drinking and sexual assault. But let’s not say we’re setting naming standards for our clubs — let’s say we’re setting behavioral standards. Instead of a blanket abolition of frats — which would unfairly include the eradication of various honors and community service societies — we must drastically raise our standards for their behavior or remove them entirely.
And if Greek organizations can’t conform to these stricter — albeit basic — standards of behavior, we have an obligation to the welfare of our school to end them. If they can’t improve, they have no place at an institution of learning.
Neena primarily writes about politics and local issues for The Pitt News. Write to Neena at firstname.lastname@example.org.