Push On To Curb Wild Fraternities

Incidents at two Connecticut colleges — and others — show that institutions of higher learning must do more to curb the negative behavior typically associated with fraternity membership.

A former Wesleyan University student who says she was raped at a fraternity party in 2010 is suing the school for failing to "supervise, discipline, warn or take other corrective action" against the fraternity. The suit is pending.

As former student sued Hartford's Trinity College in connection with a 2008 fraternity party at which he broke his neck after diving in a shallow pool while drunk. The suit has been settled for a confidential amount.

This week, Arizona State University withdrew its recognition of a fraternity. One member had drowned in a river last December after a fraternity party, and another was left at a hospital with a Post-it note saying he'd been at a drinking competition.

There's little doubt that much negative behavior — binge drinking, hazing, sexual assault — is more prevalent among Greeks than among college students in general. A study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that 75 percent of fraternity men engaged in excessive drinking, as opposed to only 49 percent of non-fraternity students.

A University of Illinois survey reported that fraternity men, who constitute a quarter of male students, were accused in nearly two-thirds of campus sexual assault cases, and that four out of 10 cases of assault occurred in fraternity houses.

In the past eight years, 52 students nationwide died and six were paralyzed in incidents involving fraternities or their members, according to Bloomberg News.

But there are pluses to fraternity membership, too.

The Good

University of Missouri research showed that 71 percent of fraternity and sorority members graduate, as opposed to 50 percent of non-members. The grade-point average of Greeks was higher than the overall collegiate GPA, the study said. Fraternity or sorority members form the largest network of community-service volunteers in the country.

Clearly, the challenge for colleges is to encourage positive behavior among fraternities while discouraging the bad, but that's easier said than done.

Simply banning fraternities is unlikely to work. The obstacles are too great, including the loss of alumni dollars.

Trinity's experience is a case in point. In 2012, College President James Jones and the board of trustees announced that all fraternities and sororities had to become coeducational. Because most of their national parent organizations have one-sex requirements, that would have effectively closed them at Trinity.

The response was quick and negative. Many fraternity-member graduates — including some significant donors — said they would no longer give to the college.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education charged that the new rule "gravely violates [Trinity] students' right to freedom of association — a right Trinity explicitly guarantees in its policies."

Last month, Mr. Jones said that he would leave Trinity in 2014, a year earlier than planned. He didn't mention the Greek flap in his announcement, but those close to the matter have said it played a part. (The coeducation initiative is still in place.)

The Cornell Plan

A far better plan was developed by Cornell University President David J. Skorton after the hazing-related death of a fraternity member in 2011. Called "a new model for Greek life," it focuses on prevention, intervention and response.

Local chapters must get the OK, in advance, from the national fraternity, the university and the chapter's alumni for all pledging activities. Mandatory live-in advisers and other changes are being considered.

Not every group complied immediately. This past academic year, eight Cornell fraternities out of 41 were punished; two were disbanded, one was suspended and five were warned, mostly for alcohol violations. But there was no revolt among alumni donors.

The system will work, its supporters say, because the rules are firm, reasonable and clearly stated, and alumni have an active say in the process.

It's an approach that should be tried at Connecticut colleges.

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