Whenever tragedy strikes these days, you can be sure there’s an eager columnist salivating at the keyboard ready to exploit the suffering of others at the drop of a hat by hastily crafting an impulsive and heavily slanted opinion piece to push forward their own agenda and beliefs. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters… it doesn’t matter. You can, without fail, set your watch to the same regurgitated rhetoric playing out on both sides of the coin by individuals that don’t have an ounce of objectivity in their bodies.
The entire Greek system is unsurprisingly a target for these long-form, “thought-provoking” essays whenever news of a hazing incident, sexual assault, or alcohol-related death breaks. Calls to end all fraternity and sorority life have become pretty commonplace by those who paint these young men and women as the same ridiculous caricature of a privileged, bigoted, unyielding, wicked, white youth.
The latest recycling of this faulty discourse comes courtesy of Occidental College Associate Sociology Professor and TIME Contributor Lisa Wade on the heels of the extremely sad situation at Penn State, wherein Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza unfortunately lost his life from multiple traumatic injuries sustained after drunkenly falling down a staircase twice with the brothers not calling for help until the next day. 18 members of Beta have been charged with unlawful acts in the heartbreaking death of their friend Tim and Penn State has taken severe actions against all Greek life on campus, including the elimination of fall rush, day parties, and hard liquor from fraternity functions. But that’s not nearly enough for Lisa. She thinks it’s time to abolish all Greek life once and for all because reform is not possible.
Seems reasonable. If society has taught us anything, it’s that the actions of very few are clearly indicative of a massive group of people so long as they fall under the same general umbrella (see: terrorism). Can you smell that? Yeah, the giant whiffs of this bullshit argument are already starting to hit home, and it is a foul beast. Let’s just try to get through this nonsense without having a full-fledged brain aneurysm.
In 1863, the third president of Amherst asked his fellow college presidents what they thought of this new thing called a “fraternity.” The overwhelming consensus was alarm. They described fraternities as a “plague” and “un-American.” They “sow dissensions and produce factions,” said one president. “They have led to greater unkindness and ill feeling than almost anything else in college,” said a second. “Nothing but evil results,” said another.
You’re telling me that super puritan administrations during the 1800s were threatened by strange new ideas like staying up past dark, eating an extra biscuit with their bowls of porridge, or — heaven forbid — showing an ankle or two? Color me shocked. Guess what was also a hot button topic in 1863? Ding. Ding. You got it. The country was literally at war with itself over owning human beings as property, but those darn rascals on college campuses were the real evildoers, what with their singing the devil’s music about holding each others’ hands and the importance of persistence. Two men… holding hands. They simply could not stand for it.
Young rich men invented “social” fraternities to isolate themselves from their middle-class peers, thumb their nose at the religious values of their professors and wrest control away from the administrators who set their schedules, curricula and objectives. They came to prominence during a period of widespread and largely forgotten campus violence. At a time when militias were commonly called in to tamp down riots led by students armed with pistols and flame, the young rich men to whom fraternities appealed were nothing short of a menace.
Back then, if you went to school past like the age of 5 and weren’t already working in a steel mill or coal mine, it was safe to say your family had some gold and silver pieces jingling around in their pockets. And calling these riots and revolutions menacing is a bit of a stretch. Did a couple fraternity guys make it rain snowballs and create a blockade by packing large snow and ice piles at the doors and in the hallways of Miami University (OH) buildings in 1848? Hands up. We’ll own that. Really set back classes hours, if not days. How Miami was able to recover and become the institution that currently stands before us is truly a testament to the fine folks that have ran that fine school for the last 170 years. But menacing? Maybe pump the breaks on the hyperbole, teach.
Until the mid-1800s, and in some cases until the turn of the century, university presidents tried valiantly to close fraternities down. Brown, Princeton and Union, for example, banned “secret societies” and expelled students who attended unauthorized meetings. Their efforts would fail.
Because attempting to ban the right to assemble in this country founded solely to escape oppression is valiant.
Fraternity men consolidated power by placing their own members in every conceivable position of authority on campus. Describing the 1860s, a Yale graduate argued that fraternity men were said to manage “the entire system of college politics.” A 1900 account from Northwestern reported that fraternity men conspired to ensure that only they received scholarships, leadership positions, and awards.
Don’t hate the player, Lis. That’s the game for you. We just learned how to play better than most.
In their free time, fraternity men entertained themselves the same way they do today: with parties that bordered on perilous. Fraternity men invented the prototypical collegiate party that we now associate with higher education more generally. It isn’t enough to have a good time; they want their partying to smack of revolt.
You’re giving our founding fathers way too much credit. Pretty much every single fraternity was started from an a cappella group or poet society. Really. Look it up. These were not raging party animals. We’re talking about dudes that would sit around sipping cups of tea, discussing literature, and penning love letters to Martha or Louise back home.
“Someone come and get your mans Daniel Webster Crofts. He’s all lit up on that imported herb…al tea.” – FIJI founder John Templeton McCarty, probably
Hence the latest in a long , sad saga of young people being gravely injured or killed at or after fraternity parties: Timothy Piazza, 19 years old, a pledge at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi, fell twice down the stairs after being instructed to drink what a forensic pathologist called a “life-threatening” amount of alcohol. Surveillance footage shows brothers carrying him, turning him over, pouring liquid on his face and slapping him. A massive bruise blooms on his torso. They put a backpack on him to make sure he lies on his side and doesn’t choke on his own vomit. Someone Snapchats his lifeless body.
At 10:48 a.m. the next day — twelve hours and one minute after he first appeared unconscious on film — they call 911. Only then did they spring into action, concocting a plan to destroy and withhold evidence. Now 18 of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers and the fraternity itself are facing 850 criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter.
In the aftermath of Piazza’s death, Penn State’s president wrote a heart-wrenching open letter. He detailed the facts about Greek life: excessive drinking, high rates of sexual assault, hazardous initiation rites and fatal accidents. He also listed the well-intended and genuine efforts by Penn State to change Greek culture — efforts that don’t seem to be working — and wondered if the right answer is abolition.
Probably could have transitioned into that a little more smoothly, but here we are. Look, they’re 18-to-22-year-olds that were grossly incompetent at the absolute worst moment. They weren’t monsters torturing a limp body, they were scared kids trying to wake up their friend. It’s terrible how it all went down, but accidents happen and inebriated 18-to-22-year-olds aren’t going to handle this situation properly regardless of whether or not they have Greek letters across their chests.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 1,800 college students die a year from alcohol-related deaths. For full transparency and fairness, that’s not a totally reliable number, as it includes any car accident that has even the smallest trace of booze linked to the fatality, but you get the idea.
There are over 380,000 current undergraduates in recognized IFC fraternities nationwide this year alone, and 40 total members of the millions that have walked through those organizations have died in hazing or alcohol related incidents since 2000. From 2000-2012, 21 college football players died from negligence by their coaches during simple conditioning drills with an obviously significantly lower amount of kids suiting up in pads. Last year, lightning took out 38 people just in the continental U.S. Man’s best friend, dog, ran down 31 good citizens of this great land. I’m pretty sure even Polio came back with a vengeance and knocked off a child or two. I say all of this not to compare horrendously poor tasting apples to oranges, but to show that fraternity houses aren’t these little shops of horrors that are just offing brothers left and right.
Let me be clear: Abolition is the only answer. All social fraternities — alongside the sycophantic sorority life that they exploit — must go. They must go permanently and forever, at Penn State and everywhere else. Reform is simply not possible.
In fact, Beta Theta Pi was a reformed fraternity. It was considered, in fact, a “model” fraternity, one that “reflected a national perspective on best practices.” It had strict behavioral guidelines, a no-alcohol policy, live-in adult supervision and video surveillance. But the investigation discovered that the fraternity engaged in sexually humiliating hazing and regularly threw parties where alcohol was served, spending $1,200 on booze in the days before the fateful party. Beta Theta Pi defied Penn State’s efforts at reform — revolted, even — and it cost Piazza his life.
Reform is not possible because the old-line, historically white social fraternities have been synonymous with risk-taking and defiance from their very inception. They are a brotherhood born in mutiny and forged in the fire of rebellion. These fraternities have drink, danger and debauchery in their blood — right alongside secrecy and self-protection.
They cannot reform.
Right, because we’re just so damn stuck in our ways.
The thing about our rituals and traditions is that the majority of the current guys in the chapters could not care less about it.
To capitulate to the reasonable demands of outsiders would be to fundamentally change their culture, their role on campus, their very reason for existing. Avoiding risk and obeying common sense safety guidelines would undermine their fundamental character, the specific nature of their identity that is most vital to who they are. Becoming kinder, safer places would do such violence to their legacy that it would mean altering their organizations beyond recognition.
We’re all for common sense and a safer environment, but typically the guidelines proposed by administrators are neither of those things. And being inherently defiant against authority isn’t a Greek thing. It’s a basic human nature thing.
When I visit colleges to discuss my book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, I advocate for their abolition. Eyes widen, mouths begin to form the word “no.” “It’s impossible,” they say, their faces a testament to the power fraternity men still wield.
Fraternities may no longer decide who’s in the yearbook, but they still exert control. The proof is in the knee-jerk insistence that they are too formidable to fight. But we must push through this sense of impossibility. What happened to Timothy Piazza was a predictable tragedy, and there will be more unless we end Greek life for good. I make no claims that it will be easy. Fraternities have dominated campuses, defied authorities and rebuffed efforts at suppression for nearly 200 years. But in that time we have ended slavery, given women the vote and put men on the moon. Of course we can get rid of fraternities. College presidents, administrators and trustees just have to muster the will to do it. As for the rest of us, we need to keep pressure on them to do so, and keep counting the bodies until they act.
When slavery, women’s suffrage, and the moon landing come to mind, the only rational next thought I have is stopping punks in boat shoes from hanging out in their seclusive gangs. This woman is an educator of young minds, ladies and gentleman. We’re done here..