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Fraternities Are Tradition. End Them Anyway.

David Skorton, president of Cornell University, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times calling for an end to the pledging practices of fraternities. Skorton knows firsthand the deadly consequences of fraternity hazing rituals since last February a Cornell sophomore died in one. Skorton writes that

This tragedy convinced me that it was time — long past time — to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, which has persisted at Cornell, as on college campuses across the country, in violation of state law and university policy.

It is interesting that the lesson he draws is to end hazing, not fraternities. Although Skorton admits that members of fraternities and sororities are more likely to abuse alcohol:

At Cornell, high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population.

And that alcohol abuse is involved in not just hazing, but sexual violence, unsafe sex, and bad grades. But somehow Skorton takes this as evidence that hazing must be ended, not the entire Greek system since

The Greek system is part of our university’s history and culture, and we should maintain it because at its best, it can foster friendship, community service and leadership.

Since when is “tradition” a sufficient reason for doing something if you aren’t Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof? There are all sorts of traditions at Ivy League and places of higher learning that we’ve done away with, like not letting Jews or blacks or women in, and it was not the death knell for these places, but rather a sign that they could remain competitive and, far more importantly, do the right thing.

Oh I know. Fraternities aren’t the same as racism, but many fraternities are, because of tradition, embedded in a particular form of masculinity that encourages risk-taking from binge drinking to stupid stunts, certain forms of sexual excess, and even at times an us-versus-them mentality that can create extreme forms of misogyny, homophobia, and racism. Yes the frat brothers do car washes to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House, but they also create an atmosphere in which “drunk chix” porn is staged, filmed, and circulated on the Internet. It’s easy to find scene after scene of fraternity parties “gone wild” on the Internet with wholesome looking college boys having sex with wholesome looking college girls who often appear to be so drunk they don’t even know they’re having sex.

It’s not like ending fraternities would end the sort of binge drinking, stupid sex acts, and outright violence that often occurs in fraternity houses. It won’t. I teach at a school that ended fraternities and these things still occur with depressing regularity. But the institutional message is clearer. The institution does not support them. And that seems important.

There is fairly convincing research out there saying that institutional culture does matter for student outcomes. A recent report found that institutions that are highly “traditional” in terms of the faculty being male-dominated or in terms of spending a large portion of their resources on men’s sports end up with “traditional” outcomes in students’ academic careers.

There is no doubt that ending fraternities changes institutional culture for the better. It sends a clear message that students need to organize their social time around something other than sex segregation. It sends a clear message that the tradition of Animal House and boys behaving badly is not part of the institution.

Not a perfect solution. There are still many ways that hazing and excess drinking and bad behavior happen on campuses. Often, for instance, on sports teams (again, at my institution with depressing regularity). But it is a step toward making places of higher about learning. And that is a tradition that even I can get behind.

Image from Flickr user tsuacctnt

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