In today's social and political climate, the college fraternity seems hopelessly out of step. In the midst of heightening attitudes of feminism, #MeToo, and growing awareness about racism and classism, a group of organizations open only to men who can afford their dues seems inherently problematic. This is before one takes into account abysmal statistics among these organizations regarding alcohol, hazing, and sexual assault. As part of a research project, I recently had the opportunity to investigate campus climates across the nation – I was not surprised to find evidence of strong anti-Greek sentiment, with many schools pushing to ban Greek life outright. If fraternities cannot learn to change with the times, they face a steep decline from a place of prominence to irrelevancy.
If fraternities are so problematic, shouldn’t we welcome their decline? Well, perhaps – but only if they continue to promote the toxic ideas of masculinity for which they have become so infamous. As a fraternity man myself, I would much rather welcome their reform. Too often, conversations surrounding gender focus exclusively on women’s issues, with the result being that women today have often thought a lot about what it means to be a woman. Meanwhile, men have been told about what unhealthy masculinity looks like, but haven’t been offered the alternative of what positive masculinity looks like in many cases. As one of the few male-only spaces available to young men, college fraternities are in a unique position to fill this conversational gap by creating a more positive image of masculinity centered around the notion of brotherhood.
For many fraternities, such a change would be a return to their roots. Until the late nineteenth century, most of today’s Greek organizations were secret societies. They persisted despite official persecution because of a strong shared belief in certain core values – usually some variations on brotherhood and mutual support, although of course each organization’s values are their own. This, not networking or partying, is the core of what it means to be in a Greek organization. A re-emphasis on this central idea could simultaneously represent a valuable conversational contribution, a useful tool for addressing the more problematic aspects of Greek life, and the revitalization that many fraternities need in order to stay relevant.
These ideas are of course relevant to party culture. Being away from home for the first time, many freshmen understandably want to “cut loose” – and they look to their peers, especially those in Greek life, to learn how. It should go without saying, but there are healthy ways to drink and express sexuality, and we need to hold each other to those practices. A big part of college is learning how to have fun without harming yourself or others, and “brotherhood” means that fraternity brothers owe it to each other – and especially to their younger members – to help those who need assistance finding that balance.
At some schools, perhaps, this wholesale revision of Greek culture might seem like a pipe dream. At Furman, it is already underway. In September, Furman Panhellenic participated in National Hazing Prevention Week by gathering signatures in a petition to change hazing from a misdemeanor to a felony. Although I can only speak for my own fraternity, Beta Theta Pi is on track to be the first fraternity in South Carolina certified as a “stigma free zone” with respect to mental health issues, which disproportionately affect men. More to the point, these kinds of initiatives and ideals are, in my own limited experience, beginning to permeate into fraternity culture and social norms.
Although I may be biased towards Beta, these reforms aren’t a competition. They’re an existential necessity. If we as Beta Theta Pis, Pi Kappa Phis, Sigma Alpha Epsilons, Sigma Chis, and Sigma Nus don’t want to go the way of Kappa Alpha and Tau Kappa Epsilon, then promoting positive fraternity culture at Furman is a task in which all of us should be invested – together.