It’s a debate known long to colleges: should traditionally social fraternities continue to persist on campuses? Today, I officially finish my term on the IFC Executive Board and so can reflect wholeheartedly on my learnings over the past year, as well as speak honestly without fear of distraction from my work. Those who paid attention to articles on campus know that I, together with others, have posted previous posts on fraternity life. Some of mine are here and here, and some of the critics’ posts are here and here. Today, I attempt to reconcile many of these seemingly opposing ideas, clarify some large misconceptions and propose a future for fraternities on campuses.
I’ll start by saying the past year on the Executive Board has broken my heart. I came onto the Board with an idea of what my role should be, a lot of it based on lofty ideals. I held myself to a lower standard then, and in retrospect, I was very much a typical new fraternity member, with warped ideas of masculinity, alcohol use and mental health. A lot of it came from the way I grew up, with the military and my own wrongful interpretation of popular influences. But as I sat on the board, something compelled me to spend Winter and Spring quarter listening to and understanding my community. That’s when I heard real stories, stories that weren’t about kegstands or rolling joints, but about difficult nights feeling alone or about being hazed and feeling ashamed or the worst, sexual assault and rape.
I’d be a liar if I told you that I initially didn’t want to justify some of these stories as blips in the larger picture. I couldn’t reconcile my experience of friendship and heightened solidarity with what was happening in the larger community. Where was the accountability and where was the trust? Did chapters feel okay simply letting another chapter run its course, despite knowing that it was set on the wrong path? I realised this ought to be my mandate – empowering our community to own our problems and make sustainable changes to address these issues. There were, of course, definitive stages that had to be met:
- Acknowledging we’ve done wrong
- Recognising that we can do right
- Collaborating and trusting
- Transitioning to a new normal
I spent my year focused on bringing us into the first stage and preparing us for the second stage. I frequently ran into challenges both from within and out of the community. Members would refuse to acknowledge that we had issues or struggle to change their chapter cultures given general memberships’ lack of adherence. It was a hard enough to stay the course and maintain membership involvement, and now the prerogative to think about complex issues challenged how leaders should prioritise their time. From without, we faced no shortage in shelling about the problems we had. Personally, one of the frustrating thing about Daily columnists (and I used to be one) was that they never tried to ask the board about our views or about what was being done. In some ways, it was a true temperature check of the visibility of our measures to the community, but in other ways, it was misdirecting in where reality was truly at. We were trying, but our focus wasn’t to let the world know we were doing good work so that we could get a pat on the back. It was to convince our members of this mandate and to get their participation onboard. That’s why the Board rarely wrote a letter back. We listened, and we tried to make sure we stayed consistent with our goals of improving our community. The letters merely reminded us that we had work to do and no shortage of critics.
So why keep fraternities around?
Why allow institutions that were built on racist and sexist principles continue to exist? Firstly, can the foundations of an institution change? Can people join an organisation, re-evaluate the principles, take what’s good and leave what’s bad, and therefore redetermine the future of an organisation. I think we must first be open to the ability for institutions to change. Why not tear them down and start something new all over again? Because it’s costly and the costs affect everyone. Think about Northwestern. Northwestern started out as a racist institution, but it’s been able to redetermine its future by establishing new fundamental principles and deconstructing elements of its racism. Its people (administrators, students and faculty) believed its core purpose of education was still valuable and made an effort to change from the inside. Has Northwestern changed altogether? Not yet, but it’s a journey and it has benefited so many from its change.
Fraternities provide the same promise. Fraternities provide the facilities to improve its members and provide a support system for them. But rather than its past where it encouraged toxic masculinity, it can now use its all-male-identifying environment to promote healthy masculinity in a space that is challenging but still in its own ways ‘safe’. Of course, masculinity defined by men alone isn’t enough and must be shaped by interactions with society at large, and different identity groups. We must interact with women, with members of colour, with non-heterosexual men and realise that masculinity is not a box. Fraternities done right can transform young boys, corrupted by the world and popular media already, into mature men who care about issues around them and are compelled to work for what’s right.
But all that’s ambitious. and all that’s bold. The reason why I believe it’s possible, though, is because I’ve seen change happen. I’ve seen my chapter grow and try to navigate complex territory with values-based discussions and debate. I’ve seen growth in members and I’ve seen fraternities provide support systems for people that have fallen through the cracks. So, every time I hear something bad about our community, I acknowledge it and accept that we have to do something about it. But I don’t rush to the abomination of every member. I identify the institutional structure that perpetuates injustice and I work to tear them down, but I don’t invalidate the institutional structures that perpetuate goodwill. Because we can do with whatever good we have, given that it’s so scarce these days.
Some elements of fraternities will never change, I believe. Competitive drinking is endemic to most student organisations, and fraternities are no exceptions. Symbols and rituals and recruitment are how organisations practice its values and ensure members coming in are aligned with said values. But in all of these things, we can curb the bad and promote the good. We can promote inclusive values-based recruitment instead of casual alcohol-based recruitment. We can promote responsible and intentional social planning instead of reckless partying.
I believe in possibility, and I must trust that people can become better. It is this trust and belief that has allowed me to move past initial challenges and build valuable relationships with so many people. I used to make enemies by disagreeing with others, but I now trust that through listening and negotiation, everyone comes out with some level of empathy that is useful for building a better future.
Because fraternities are fundamentally social organisations, members have to build leadership in navigating social phenomenon and convince others about issues. Value judgements have to be made, and competency must be built. This is another opportunity that must be fully exploited by chapters to transform members to powerful members of our community. There is a promise.
Trust that the IFC at Northwestern can change, and trust that people are listening and trying to champion this change, as vigorously and vehemently as possible. I leave the community slightly better than where it was last year, and I hope it can continue doing good to its members and the communities it interacts with.