This Week in Fraternities

A round-up of news and research on those hard-partying bastions of brotherhood.
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St. Patrick's Day festivities at a University of Michigan fraternity. (Photo: Rex Roof/Flickr)

St. Patrick's Day festivities at a University of Michigan fraternity. (Photo: Rex Roof/Flickr)

Fraternities often find themselves in the headlines for their booze-fueled escapades, but lately things have taken a decidedly cheerless turn. Check out our round-up of the latest controversies surrounding these scandal-plagued organizations:

1. FRATERNITIES AREN'T EXACTLY BEACONS OF RACIAL PROGRESS

In early March, a video surfaced showing members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter chanting racial slurs on a bus. The incident served as a harsh reminder of the racist origins of fraternities, and their continued lack of diversity today.

"Most frats were originally all white," Nicholas Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities told the Los Angeles Times. By 1965, only a fifth of all American universities required that frats get rid of their discriminatory clauses. As Syrett explained: "When students of color came to universities, many groups wrote clauses to bar them from membership. And while the clauses are gone, some remain all white."

It is surprisingly hard to find demographic data from the country’s largest fraternities. SAE only began keeping track in 2013, and it was only during a press conference Wednesday—to announce a new initiative to increase diversity in the wake of their most recent scandal—that the organization’s president shared demographic data: Twenty percent of  the frat members identify as minorities. (Fun fact: SAE ranked number one on Rolling Stone’s 2013 list of the worst, most out-of-control frats in America.)

2. THEY'RE ALSO NOT VERY GOOD TO WOMEN

Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho chapter was suspended this week after the State College Police Department found “some very disturbing images” on the group's private Facebook page that included shots of women in varying stages of undress and consciousness, and photos of other illicit activities like hazing and drug sales. The Facebook group was brought to the attention of authorities by a former member of the fraternity.

Fraternities have long been a dangerous place for women, according to Syrett, who wrote for the New York Times in 2011:

In the 20th century some fraternities became quite organized in their hostility toward women, with protests against coeducation, and coordinated ostracism of the first classes of female students; one 1960s California fraternity sponsored “Hate Women Week” on campus. By the 1980s, a number of studies have shown that there was a widespread movement among fraternities toward alcohol-fueled sexual aggression and assault, whereby victimized women are understood as vehicles for men’s pleasure and bonding.

3. FRATS CAN BE DANGEROUS FOR THEIR OWN MEMBERS

The Phi Kappa Alpha chapter at the University of South Carolina was suspended this week after an 18-year-old member was found dead on Wednesday. In Connecticut, the fraternity’s University of Connecticut chapter lost its recognition for hazing members and providing alcohol to minors—while already on probation for harassing members of the school's Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

At the University of Houston, police are investigating alleged hazing by members of the university’s chapter of Sigma Chi for hazing, which in Texas is a misdemeanor offense that can carry six months to a year of jail time, and much more if the hazing results in death.

4. FRATS HAVE ALWAYS HAD THEIR SHARE OF PROBLEMS

As CNN's Mariano Castillo pointed out, campuses with more Greek life may be more hostile to minorities—because fraternities were basically designed to be racist and sexist. A slew of studies dating back to 1989 have found that fraternity members are more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual assault or hate crimes: A preoccupation with masculinity, loyalty, elitist attitudes, activities that revolve around alcohol, and a lack of adult supervision all make frat members more likely to commit crimes.

5. EVEN FRATERNITIES AND UNIVERSITIES DON'T WANT TO ASSOCIATE WITH FRAT BOYS

The parent fraternities, as well as the universities where these chapters reside, are quick to point out that the actions of these aberrant frats are “inconsistent with [their] values.” SAE created a whole new position to address their diversity issues—a director of diversity and inclusion—in addition to mandatory diversity education for its members, and an anonymous tip line for reporting inappropriate behavior. The Kappa Delta Rho fraternity suspended their Penn State chapter for a year after the abovementioned Facebook scandal. The university is conducting an investigation of the incident, and the brothers who posted photos of naked women may face charges for harassment and invasion of privacy, according to the State College police. Five members of the University of Houston’s Sigma Chi chapter have already been suspended, and they face expulsion and criminal charges if the hazing allegations pan out.

The value of fraternities has been questioned for decades, but their popularity among incoming freshmen has not suffered from the steady stream of scandals that have erupted over the years. It remains to be seen if these latest embarrassments will incite real change in these well-established institutions.

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.

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