Even if you are a Caitlin Flanagan h8ter, read her cover story in this month’s Atlantic about how dangerous college fraternities are, to your daughters, your sons, and to you.
There’s always a downside to a Flanagan article: the excessive gesture to whatever theory keeps her recognizable as a conservative. For example, it seems almost mandatory for right wing writers to assert that college is all play and no work, and that student leisure is an expensive, wasteful university marketing ploy. This works to obscure the fact that that wealthy donors would rather have their names on buildings than lower tuition anonymously. It neglects the fact government at all levels has Hoovered public dollars out of public and private education (what’s that big sucking sound? It’s your tax money going to war and corporate subsidies rather than education!) It hides the role of athletics in shifting funds out of the classroom, and that big chunks of athletic budgets are comprised of mandatory “student life fees” that could be going to tuition, food and housing costs for students who will never go to a football game or use a climbing wall.
However, you gotta love her. Who but Caitlin Flanagan would begin an article with a frat boy shooting a bottle rocket out of his butt? Her shout-out to Radical homeboy Nicholas Syrett’s study of frat life, The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (UNC Press, 2009), is another plus.
Things you might want to know if your kid is at, or starting, college in the fall:
- Colleges and universities value Greek life not just because they believe it sutures alumni dollars (please note that I am using the male form of the word here) to the institution, but because it provides supplementary housing they do not have to pay for and maintain. Hence, many of these houses are filthy, garbage-strewn, public health hazards.
- Greek housing often does not meet fire and building codes. Combine that with alcohol and pledging, and over a quarter of injuries at frats are the result of beatings, pledging, and falling from heights. Add another 7% for car accidents, and any man or woman who spends time at a frat seems to have a greater likelihood of being killed, beaten, accidentally injured, doing something stupid that results in his or her physical harm, raped or involved in a car accident than if he or she was on active military duty. In fact, your child may have a greater likelihood of being physically harmed at a Greek house than of graduating in four years.
- Fraternities are underinsured, or have policies that deliberately shift liability to their members to protect their real estate assets. In the unlikely event that frat members are held responsible for the mayhem they create, they will be personally liable in any civil litigation. That means you parents, assuming you still have any savings or equity in your house after paying tuition and legal fees, are personally liable for any fines or legal settlements imposed on a minor child.
Flanagan draws back the curtain on the $10 million Title IX suit against Wesleyan University by a Jane Doe who was entrapped, beaten and raped at Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Doe was, as I will discuss below, subsequently stalked, harassed and defamed by members of that fraternity and by other student members of the Wesleyan community. She was refused any kind of substantive assistance or relief by university officials. She was so traumatized by this experience, which occurred in her first semester of college, that she was forced to withdraw. As you will see if you read the article, although Wesleyan still refuses to apologize for what happened to Jane Doe or acknowledge that it was the outcome of their own sexual violence policies, the law suit has been settled.
Everything Caitlin Flanagan is saying about what happened at Wesleyan is true, as are her insights into the university’s motivation for allowing Beta to be Beta, regardless of the danger it posed to other students. Wesleyan’s attempt to blame Jane Doe for her own rape are drawn from legal filings, and is thus indisputable, yet the university disputes it. As Flanagan points out, some of the university’s reluctance to confront Beta effectively had to do with the university’s bizarre commitment to raising the profile of conservatism on campus over the last decade, which also included giving greater protection to various forms of hate speech and, in the name of diversity, inviting the most viciously homophobic reactionary on the Supreme Court to give a named lecture.
However, the Jane Doe story is not unique, and it is mostly embedded in a long-term, horrendous track record on rape that Wesleyan shares with nearly every other private college (Wesleyan’s response to the Atlantic article is here. Please note that it is written in the present tense, and makes no claims about the past; and that my statements below refer to the past.) Consider the following:
- The “Free Beta” movement included fraternity members standing outside Jane Doe’s dorm window and chanting at her, harassment the university failed to take action to stop, either in the interest of the student’s privacy or in the interest of her safety and well-being. As part of their protest, Beta also set up a tent village in the center of campus that Doe would have to pass every day to go to class. This was an act of intimidation that affected everyone at Wesleyan, female and male, who had a history of having been sexual assaulted.
- A horrid little Lord of the Flies wiki called the Anonymous Confession Board immediately went into motion to shame and defame Jane Doe, and by extension, intimidate anyone else who might be inclined to report a rape. Members of the student community routinely used the ACB to insist that rapes were just hook-ups and break-up sex gone bad, or that the woman (always a woman) who had been raped was a slut and/or taking revenge on a man (always a man) who didn’t want to have sex with her. In the case of Jane Doe, the ACB was the first place faculty went to see what was going on, and it was sickening. Furthermore, female students played a particularly nasty role in explaining that Jane Doe must be lying about her rape because they “knew” Beta members and they were “such great guys.”
- Jane Doe became reluctant to go to class because she never knew when she would run into Beta members demonstrating on behalf of their their “freedoms.” Hence the university found a fraternity’s interpretation of Beta’s constitutional right to unfettered speech and public assembly more compelling than Jane Doe’s right to an education – which, by the way, she had paid for, and they were contractually and legally obligated to deliver under civil rights legislation that has been repeatedly found by the courts to be equally constitutional. Please also note that this is the campus that does not allow queer people to write in chalk on the sidewalk because it might create a hostile environment.
- At the time Jane Doe was sexually assaulted, Wesleyan’s sole rape-prevention programming was coordinated not by a trained professional, but by an undergraduate intern who worked with an all-volunteer staff of undergraduates. Programming created by these overwhelmed young people revolved almost entirely around role-playing workshops and skits meant to educate students about the meaning of an apparently mysterious and complex transaction called “sexual consent” which involves listening to some version of the words “Yes” or “No” when soliciting a sexual act. The word rape was almost never used, violence within consensual sexual relationships went almost entirely unaddressed, and students were allergic to conversations about programming that would intervene in campus violence. When asked by faculty why no one trained in sexual assault prevention worked at the university, we were told that there was no money in the budget to protect students from sexual violence.
- Prior to 2012, Wesleyan’s website offering information about sexual violence overwhelmingly emphasized actions women could take to avoid being raped, so it isn’t a legal mystery, despicable as it was, why the university’s lawyers argued that Jane Doe had failed to make good choices. The website mentioned the prevention of male violence not at all; gave very little information about how to seek medical help in the immediate aftermath of a rape; and asserted that not seeking medical help or going to the police was a good choice without mentioning the consequences of that choice for oneself or other people.
- In the aftermath of Jane Doe’s rape, many faculty were unable to locate this website, which inferred that, useless as it was, a student who had just been raped might have difficulty finding it too.
- Since the 1990s, any university official could have Googled the Beta or Delta Kappa Epsilon chapters on campus and learned that female Wesleyan students exchanged advice about how not to be separated from your friends at a party and which rooms and floors at DKE you were most likely to be assaulted in. I sought out this information regularly so that I could stay informed. Why did administrators not do the same?
- Subsequent to the rape of Jane Doe, a group of female faculty met with staff from the dean’s office and the chief of the town police. At one point a university employee asserted that Wesleyan’s policies were better than going to the police because they prohibited “sexual conduct” that could not be prosecuted as crimes. Asked what those things were, the dean mentioned a whole series of behaviors which are, in fact, felonies, misdemeanors, and/or constitute illegal sexual harassment. This the police chief actually said to the room full of university officials, which was enormously satisfying, although at the same time, it was troubling that administrators on the front lines of the rape crisis were so ill-informed about what was a crime and what was a social no-no. As the faculty wandered out of the room, one of us said: “You know that you are in trouble when the chief of police of Middletown, Connecticut is your best feminist ally in the room.”
- Even after Jane Doe’s rape, the university continued to cover up sexual assaults, including an incident in which a student was forcibly immobilized on the floor while a member of the faculty groped his genitals. After reporting this to a dean, the humiliated and traumatized student was sent to HR to tell his story, for reasons that re entirely unclear to me. Some genius there told the student that he had been sexually harassed, not sexually assaulted, and that he should just take it easy. The faculty member, who was suspended from teaching for a semester after the student pursued the matter, still works at Wesleyan.
How do I know these things? Reader, I was there. Students reported these things to me, and to other faculty, on a regular basis as they began to realize that the university was not going to act in any substantive way to help them. It was a horrible burden. Jane Doe’s parents, unable to get the university to respond to what was happening to their daughter, came to me for advice weeks after their daughter had reported that she had been restrained, raped and beaten.
I told them to go to the police and that the only way to make the university pay attention was to file a civil suit; subsequently they did, I am sure for their own reasons, and not because I told them to. After almost two decades of having women and men troop in and out of my office to tell me the details of being sexually assaulted and having these assaults covered up by the university, the Jane Doe case was the straw that broke the camels’ back. When I had an opportunity to leave the institution, I did, and that was one of the reasons. I never wanted to have heartbroken, weeping parents, or their shattered children, sitting in my office again.