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Last month, The Atlantic published a cover article about the many problems plaguing national fraternities. While its title, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” may be unfortunate (or totally awesome, depending on your personal taste for “Dark Power”) the piece is not. It’s so comprehensive, unbiased and well-written that it should be mandatory reading for rushes, pledges, actives, and all independents who believe frats are simply university sponsored rape factories. However, since hardly any of you can get through one of my completely engaging, funny, and smart 800-word screeds, I can’t trust that you’ll make it through all 20,000+ words of Caitlin Flanagan’s impeccably researched essay. Allow me to distill the main thrust to these few sentences (apologies to the author).
Your university, and more importantly your national organization, keeps you at arm’s length. Nationals buries its head to the intense partying and bad decisions that make your experience so memorable, because while it can’t risk the litigious exposure, it also can’t say goodbye to the large sums of money fraternity men tend to donate after graduating. This limbo you exist in–too dangerous to embrace, too valuable to jettison–has created adversarial relations between local fraternities and their national organizations and universities. This state has also affected the overall opinion of how fraternities are seen as elitist and protected. Imagine the cliché of the prep school miscreant whose father happens to be the school’s main donor. The student’s actions, largely undisciplined, will continue to get worse, while administrators throws up their hands in public and sneak him more cigarettes in private. He is expected to take responsibility for himself while he’s in a situation where a lack of responsibility is cradled.
It’s a well-reasoned, wonderfully backed argument (seriously, read it–or at least post tl;dr in the comments). By far, the most interesting and offensive revelation in “The Dark Power of Fraternities” is how your national fraternity “insures” you. In order to qualify for insurance, it’s near certain that you agreed, upon initiation, to a risk management document, which laid out the appropriate ways of partying in your house. Unfortunately–and I hate to break the bad news here–if you have ever had an underage person drink alcohol in your fraternity, then you have violated the terms of your risk management agreement. Likewise, if you have ever had liquor (as opposed to the approved “beer or wine cooler”) at a social function, then you have violated the terms of your risk management agreement. Ever furnished alcohol you purchased to a 21-year-old friend? You sir, are a great guy and a law-abiding citizen–but again, you violated the terms of your risk management agreement. Here’s the kicker: if you violated those terms, then, as detailed in the form you signed, you were no longer acting as a member of your fraternity, and therefore, were no longer under the insurance umbrella of your national organization. Your organization, the very one you helped pay for every time you submitted dues. What I’m saying is, and I’ll borrow a quote from the article here: “the very fact that a young man finds himself in need of insurance coverage is often grounds for denying it to him.” And then you’re just chum for the sharks, exposed completely to this great nation’s civil lawsuit system. Oh, and since you’re in a fraternity–and that carries a certain, shall we say, je ne sais quoi?–you’ll definitely lose.
So then, of what use is the national fraternity to you? It will claim to help you; your risk manager can probably walk you through the policy of who he should call if an emergency arises: first the police, then the national organization’s 24-hour crisis hotline. Then your nationals will ride in like a white knight, comfort you, get every detail it can, and promptly use all of that against you in a court of law. So, allow me to insert a piece of sage advice: never call your national fraternity. Call a lawyer. Your national fraternity, like all organizations that offers nothing, yet somehow stay necessary, cares only about what all other organisms care about: survival. What matters to your nationals is not the wellbeing of its members, but rather that there is something to proffer to the coffer. Should it attempt to protect you, it will expose itself to litigation, a loss of large sums of money, and bad press. That would be unacceptable, after all, since we’re dealing with the isolated actions of a few bad apples, right? That would be the view of Peter Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. As the article points out, his view is that if you don’t like the policies of the risk management bible you should “get out or prepare to face the consequences.” To this, I have to wonder that if all fraternities followed these policies, how many houses would exist? How would these policies affect membership? Would Peter Smithhisler even have a job?
Ultimately, what gave Caitlin Flanagan’s article gravitas was her economic treatment of fraternity men. She did not see them as individuals tossed off as “adults that should know better.” She reasoned soundly about the realities of being 18 to 22 in the bizarre bubble that is collegiate life, and considered that, short of sexual assault, anyone’s actions in that space could be, and SHOULD be, considered reasonable. Fraternities, for better or worse, exaggerate that bubble. If a couple of magic-playing high school virgins find themselves in a house of 50 collegiate men with hardly any rules, they too will succumb to “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” so to speak. They desire sex and alcohol and adventure–this is to be expected. Hell, we could change the title of the article to “The Dark Power of College” and hardly miss a beat.
Well, unless you are the national fraternity. Then you just pretend this whole thing doesn’t happen, that the black eyes are the work of outlier individuals, and that everyone else is sharing a non-alcoholic beverage and talking about chemistry class. It’s better to ensure your existence for another few years than exact any real change to protect the individuals in your organization. Quietly and slowly, the dangers of being a fraternity man grow as the lawsuits balloon. We are expected to take personal responsibility just as those assigned to lead us coddle a lack of responsibility; after all, they themselves can’t even be honest about the realities of their organizations. What I’m personally left with is a version of the football and concussion argument happening all over America right now: I loved my fraternity and I feel it taught me invaluable life lessons, but would I ever want my son to join?