Fraternal Discussions

Near the end of my first year as Wesleyan’s president, I wrote the following:

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

In my April 2014 blog post, “Campus Conversations on Fraternities,” I described how my thinking had changed. Six years of hearing about high-risk drinking at fraternities and dealing with fallout from highly publicized incidents of sexual violence have had an effect.  Of course, the larger world has changed too. Today there’s more emphasis upon Title IX and a much greater awareness of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education says that under Title IX, schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Are fraternities at Wesleyan hostile environments? It was striking to everyone here when so many students said yes. The students just conducted a survey on their own which indicated that 47 percent feel less safe in fraternity spaces than in other party spaces; the great majority of those thought that making the fraternities co-educational would be helpful in making those spaces safer. But is that true?

Last week at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees we discussed this issue in executive session. Some found the experiences of peer institutions instructive. Connecticut College and Vassar have no Greek life and Bates has never had it. Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby all eliminated Greek. Amherst abolished fraternities on campus in 1984 (after a brief failed experiment with co-education) and earlier this month eliminated even unsanctioned Greek life. Williams did it in 1962 and students still sign a pledge not to participate in Greek life. By 2000, the Greek system was officially dismantled at Bowdoin, in part because it was losing high-quality students who didn’t want to go to a school with fraternities. At Colby fraternities and sororities were abolished in 1984 because they were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the community, and in 1992 Middlebury did likewise because it found fraternities to be “antithetical to the mission of the college.”

Swarthmore still has two fraternities, and now a new sorority to provide access to Greek life for women. And then there’s Trinity, still in the anguished throes of dealing with angry alumni and students after it mandated co-education of fraternities, raised GPA requirements for frat membership, and did away with the pledging process. There are some who believe that the most draconian approach, eliminating Greek life entirely, is no more painful.

As you might imagine, many Wesleyans don’t care much about the experience of our peer institutions. Others point out that many fine institutions still have active Greek life, or that Wesleyan shouldn’t imitate any institution. Still others emphasize that the rates of sexual assault at schools that have eliminated fraternities don’t give any indication that those institutions are safer environments. For many, the issue is about equity and inclusion more than about direct correlations with rates of reported sexual assault. How can a co-educational institution approve of having a significant percentage of its social spaces controlled by all-male organizations?

Following our discussions, the trustees have asked me to prepare a plan to address the future of Greek life. Ideally, this would be ready before the school year begins, but certainly no later than the November board meeting. Here are the options before us:

(1) We can require fraternities to become safer places through training and education.

(2) We can eliminate single-sex residential organizations or require co-education (with full membership).

(3) We can eliminate Greek residential life entirely.

(4) We can eliminate all Greek life (on campus or off).

(5) We can dramatically expand Greek life so that there are social spaces controlled by women.

None of these options will eliminate the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault. That’s not the point. Which changes in our residential and co-curricular program will make us a more inclusive, educational and equitable place? For now, our question is simple, but it may not be easy to arrive at a consensus on the answer to it: Will Wesleyan be a stronger university (“dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism”) with or without Greek life?

Many people have written to the president’s office to weigh in on this issue. If you would like to do so over the next month or so, we have set up a special mailbox:

We will report back to the trustees and the Wesleyan community at the end of the summer on our plans concerning co-curricular life at the university in general and residential programs in particular. Stay tuned.

13 thoughts on “Fraternal Discussions”

  1. Fraternity alumni and undergraduates have reached out to you and offered assitance in addressing campus wide problems such as sexual assault and binge drinking. It would be extremely disappointing if a decision affecting fraternities is made without the benefit of meaningful discussions with fraternity alumni and undergraduates. It is hard to understand why you would even cite a survey which has absolutely no scientific credibility when Wesleyan clearly has the ability to conduct a proper survey and obtain valid results. Fraternities currently make their social spaces available to the campus at large. It should be understood that the elimination of fraternities will not increase the social space on campus because the University does not own many of the fraternities at issue. The elimination of these fraternities will actually reduce the available social space on campus.

  2. Here’s the thing: Unlike other New England colleges where the fraternity rows are often a distance from the main campus, they occupy the central street crossings at Wesleyan and have done so for for generations. For purely strategic reasons it would be sad to lose them as student residences. When the Romance Language Department took over what was the former Alpha Chi Rho (formerly, EQV) house in the seventies, IMHO, it marked the beginning of the slow decline of the east side of High Street as a destination for foot traffic, especially after dark. Downey House is no longer a dining hall. Are there any faculty still living on Court Street? I haven’t heard of any for years. Like it or not, DKE house is an important anchor on an important gateway street.

    One possibility would be to interest the alumni of all three remaining all-male fraternities in trading their individual houses for other properties owned by Wesleyan. My understanding is that there are a number of places north of Washington that Wesleyan would be glad to let go. Why not trade them? (Yes, I can hear the argument that it would merely be pushing the problem further off campus. But, as President Roth has said, the question of binge drinking and sexual assault are part of a much larger discussion. But, there are safety aspects to preserving – even expanding – High Street as a producer of foot traffic after Wesleyan’s adult presence has left town for the night.)

  3. Thank you for the update and summary of the issues. Wesleyan is about diversity. Eliminating single sex organizations is an anathema to that. Here is more background on student feelings in counter-balance to the survey referenced:

    It should be made clear that many Wesleyan students, both men and women, support the continued existence of single sex fraternities. Reclaiming Wesleyan is a student group organized to explore solutions of sexual violence; it recognizes that the issues are complex and not subject to resolution by a “for or against fraternities” polarization. Women (and Allies) for Greek Life and Single Sex Greek Housing is another such student organization with 466 members and growing. I understand that a Petition to Reform and Regulate Greek Life at Wesleyan University exists on-line to preserve all male fraternities.

    Resolution B calling for the University to ban fraternities as “rape culture” only passed by a 14-12 WSA vote on Easter Sunday, but was referenced and supported in this Blog.

    Resolution D, however, which passed at a later date by a 27-1 WSA vote, outlines numerous recommendations to reform and regulate fraternities, but not mandate co-education, and has received no mention.

    In the Wesleyan spirit of true, open, dialogue, Alumni should have an active and meaningful role in determining such an important issue.

  4. I suppose by “single-sex,” President Roth is referring to the fact that the houses are all male, which would actually make them single gender. Would it then be all well and good if the societies (and the houses) were exclusive based on standards of race? Sexuality? I don’t think Wesleyan would stand for that, rightfully so. Therefore we’re left with one question, regardless of how President Roth and the trustees decide to act: Why is it that gender, as a marker of social location, is uniquely considered to be a justifiable criterion for determining which groups bear the brunt of institutionalized exclusion and violence? For deciding who should fear for their life when they go to a party in a campus? For figuring out which members of our community have worth?

    I think the answer to these questions deal with the fact that many members of the Wesleyan community are unwilling to admit that gender is just as socially constructed as race, or sexuality. Or that is the case for more than a few members of fraternity residences, a large portion of the alumni donor base, probably at least a few members of the board of trustees. This debate about frats has been our way of having the conversation about the ever-precarious and historically contingent categories of gender that we reify in our imaginations as real every time we allow another day to pass with “single-sex” spaces without actually confronting the archaic (oftentimes unconscious) understandings of gender as essential that their existence necessitates. There is no other explanation that would explain the hubris (or sheer lack of critical cognition) involved in the cognitive dissonance of thinking, simultaneously, that spaces that are segregated by race are intolerable, while spaces that are segregated by gender are just par for the course.

  5. I’m a Psi U. I firmly believe that the fraternity system has outlived its useful life and should be put out of business. Sex and drinking are out of control and dangerous to both male and especially female students. Fraternities have become a den for bad living both at Wesleyan as well as nationally.
    The recent rape at one of Wesleyan’s fraternities was both a national and personal embarrassment.

  6. The fraternities have, for many years, been given the opportunity to engage in this discussion in a meaningful and thoughtful way – and they havent taken that opportunity. Its time for them to go. As a former member and officer of Beta Theta Pi (and three year resident in their house), I receive their alumni mailings – the last of which took a dismissive and even sneering tone towards the issue of sexual violence. Really? After an actual rape took place in the Beta house, and made national news on top of that? If the fraternities were honest partners in solving real problems, they would be at the table with solutions and ideas; instead, they remain in the same defensive crouch they’ve been in since I attended Wes 20+ years ago, mocking anyone who feels like there are concerns and who wants to talk about solutions.
    From the west coast, I’ve seen Wesleyan in the news for 2 things the last year: its the 4th most expensive school in the nation, and it bungled the handling of a high profile rape that occurred on school grounds. Super. Sign me up to send my daughters there.
    I’m a big believer in the libertarian side of the college experience – allow students to try whatever they want, make stupid mistakes, and learn from them in a safe environment. Prescriptive dictates about what groups are or are not allowed is inconsistent with that goal. That said – my own experience as a member of a fraternity, and the alumni communications since then, convince me that the all-male fraternies add nothing to the positive college experience and in fact actively undermine it by fostering an environment where stupidity, substance abuse, and absurdly outdated perspectives on gender are encouraged. Time for them to go.

  7. Can the adminstration provide data showing a correlation (and, if so, a causal relationship) between the elimnation of fraternities at peer institutions and a campus-wide reduction in sexual assault and/or binge drinking? It might advance the discussion.

  8. The great benefit of fraternities when I was an undergraduate (1954-1958) was that they represented a community within the community. Even though you could get to know, or recognize every one on campus, having a group of friends with a variety of interests with whom you shared meals and often quarters was a welcome place to share the triumphs or frustrations of the day. That was on a campus of 600. I can’t imagine such a group would be less important on a campus of 2700. In my day, fraternities were not viewed as separate from, but integral to, the quality of life on campus. Of course, except for Downey House or downtown, there was no place else to eat, but fraternity eating clubs included non-members which made for another connection to the larger community. I know the Colleges offer similar opportunities to like minded individuals, but that is not the same. Perhaps most important in today’s climate, your brothers were persons to whom you were accountable. The vast majority of men did not want to bring discredit to the house. That was also why the Honor System worked; a sense of responsibility toward one’s peers. I believe that what ever system emerges from this debate, it should carry the best features of the fraternity. That sense of shared, mutual responsibility could have a significant positive effect in reducing exploitive behaviors involving alcohol and sex. That in turn would free people to concentrate on the great academic experience available at Wesleyan.

  9. It is a sad state of affairs that academic institutions are taking the easy way out. These institutions preach the ideal of trial by fire and fail to practice what they preach. I hope that Wesleyan University decides to follow the path less traveled and attempts to create a healthier and safer Greek community.

    The fact is that the overarching theme is a problem stemming from alcohol abuse at fraternity housing. So let’s address those two issues:

    First, a ban on alcoholic beverages at any Greek sponsored event.

    Second, close down the Greek residential buildings. In doing so, those members that joined for the partying and drinking will have lost their venue for destructive behavior.

    Also, let’s make it near impossible for underage students to attend events where alcohol is present. Change their WesCards to a different color until they come of age. Have random ID checks by Public Safety to ensure that any onsite alcohol consumption is legal.

    These measures will prevent underage consumers from being present in what can amount to dangerous situations.

    Lastly, let’s address the fact that this generation is a disconnected one. All too often these students act aggressive via technological means and then shutdown in a personal social setting. The boundaries are undefined. How about a Sex Ed course that focuses on the definitions of rape, sexual assault, etc.

    Many of the Greek organizations on campus are directly responsible for increased graduation rates…especially among the minority population.

    Let us also not force frats to become coed. We live in a selective society, Japanese house wants primarily Japanese occupants, Wesleyan wants the best students in their class, etc. We choose whom we want to fraternize with…this is simply a fact of life. Wesleyan chooses the students best fit to graduate, while providing a plethora of life experiences and cultures. Why shouldn’t the student body be able to do self-selection?

    Yes other institutions are doing “it,” but again, that is the easy way and doesn’t solve any of the underlying issues.

  10. Booze and sex violations violations (including rape) in the 21st Century, not only at Wesleyan but at our local Dartmouth College, speak loud and clear to me. My old hallowed fraternity along with all others, have outlived their usefulness and should be removed quickly.

  11. I remember John Corkoran, and his feelings (above) echo my own. I am a Deke and attended Wesleyan from 1955 through 1959. My educational experience was first rate, but the real benefit I derived from my four years there was the social enrichment and personality development I got from belonging to a “band of brothers”. Charlie Wrubel was a classmate and a good friend and fraternity brother. Delta Kappa Epsilon has had five US Presidents as members, and the Wesleyan Chapter can claim a Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and the founder of Southwest Airlines. I attended when it was men only, enrollment was 700 students and tuition was only $700.00 a year, so maybe i’m out of date. That, however, does not take anything away from my enjoyment of fraternity life.

  12. A glance at the mission statements of the Fraternities and that of the University reveals much in common. Perhaps that fact can serve as one , helpful starting point in moving forward in addressing these important issues.

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