Staff Editorial: What is it going to take? WU must reform the way it handles fraternities on campus
What is it going to take? How many people need to be harmed before Washington University takes adequate action to protect its students? The University fraternities have a long history of bringing danger and harm to our campus community. This history includes, but is not limited to: hazing, irresponsibility with alcohol, two guns on campus and multiple accounts of sexual assault. And now, Kappa Sigma has two new pledges with allegations of assault and misconduct.
The chapter was alerted to the allegations by other fraternities, however, they chose to keep the pledges. Fraternity members investigated some of the claims despite being advised not to by Campus Life. While they might have been well-intentioned, the execution just heightens the problem. Character witnesses are problematic, to say the least—of course the friends of the accused are going to give a positive report; they are friends, after all.
How did the University react to this situation? How did they respond to concerns about student safety? When asked what advice she would give to sorority women concerned about their safety at Kappa Sigma events, Campus Life’s Coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Life Molly Bennett said, “Everyone can make their own decision…If someone does not feel safe, then they do not have to attend a social event.” We understand that Campus Life was unable to do anything in this situation, but this sentiment is reductionist; the onus of safety should not fall directly onto students. Wash. U. allows fraternities to be active on campus, allows them to host parties, allows them to continue to operate despite all of the harm. If the University chooses to allow these activities, it is their responsibility to make them safe for students.
This statement opens the door to victim-blaming; now if a student is assaulted at a fraternity event, based on Bennett’s statement, the presumed response may be, “Well, it’s on them for going.” The University must take responsibility for the groups that they allow to operate on campus. It is on them to make Wash. U. a safe environment, to ensure that students do not live in fear at a University where their safety is not prioritized.
Aside from the wrongdoings mentioned above, fraternities have many elements that the Student Life Editorial Board believes bring more bad than good to campus. Fraternities tend to be exclusionary, as their high dues often do not always allow for students of low socioeconomic status to participate. Many choose to join fraternities in order to benefit from alumni networks. However, as fraternities primarily cater to the privileged, these networks are promoting a system of an unequal distribution of social capital that further consolidates this privilege.
Fraternity houses are a social scene and thus, fraternity brothers are given social power over their peers—they control who comes into the party, where people are in the house, what people drink, etc. Without many other social scene options on campus, people can feel they must go to these fraternity parties, whether or not they actually enjoy the fraternity scene. This need for socialization paired with unearned social power can lead to a sense of superiority that may lead to the illusion of a right to take control of others, as in cases of assault.
Wash. U. is often thought of as a campus that does not have an overly-prevalent Greek life scene, however socially, this is far from true. Many people who would not regularly be drawn to Greek life join simply because many of their friends did, or because in order to get into a fraternity party they need to be on the “list” and the easiest way to be on the list is to join Greek life.
It can be intimidating for people to come and speak out against a group that has shown a pattern of violence without feeling threatened, both physically and socially. It can feel even harder to gather this bravery when it does not feel like adequate action will be taken in order to eradicate the problems brought to light. In the past, the University has responded to fraternity misconduct by suspending social activities and banning alcohol; however, we believe this could lead to underground parties rather than a break in activity and this is a band aid fix.
Eradicating the dangers that Interfraternity Council (IFC) fraternities bring to campus is, by no means, an easy thing to do. Serious offenses require serious change. Calling for serious actions like discontinuing all IFC fraternities on campus or taking fraternity houses away from IFC chapters to give to more inclusive groups (such as cultural and affinity groups) are some options that are not by any means easy to accomplish. One example of this being done well is the Hamsini Living Learning Community that opened in House 5. The shifting in who inhabits fraternity row would allow for a more equitable environment that would also increase safety. Parties would no longer primarily be hosted in male-dominated environments and women could be involved in the hosting of parties.
Many people may see immense value in participating in IFC fraternities, seeing it as an opportunity for bonding, a way to make friends and a way to enter into an alumni network. However, there are so many other extracurricular activities that offer ways to socialize and form connections on campus. The Student Life Editorial Board rejects the notion that the benefits of fraternity life are exclusive to the Greek system and we implore the University community to think critically about the reasons the fraternity system remains on campus despite there being a documented pattern of interpersonal violence.
The initial process of shutting down fraternities would be difficult and understandably cause upset. The Editorial Board acknowledges that there are requirements dictated by Campus Life which were introduced to protect student safety at social events, that there are organizations, like Leaders in Interpersonal Violence Education, that are focused around these issues and we realize that these mechanisms do make a difference. However, these systems do not fix interpersonal violence. These trainings and policies do not stop what has happened in fraternity basements. We realize that there would be a risk of social migration to off-campus locations that are less regulated, but we nonetheless believe the institution of fraternities irrefutably exacerbates risks of chronic interpersonal violence. Many colleges, such as Rice University, the University of Notre Dame and Boston College do not have fraternity life, and the Student Life Editorial Board commends them for this, and hopes the University may model themselves similarly.
Not every fraternity brother is a bad guy; not every fraternity is immoral. However, the environment and power structure of IFC fraternities breed greater issues. The University needs to make serious changes in the way that fraternities are allowed to operate on campus, if they are allowed to operate at all. Instead of prioritizing student safety, they have allowed harm to continue to be done and have allowed yet another IFC fraternity to be colonized on campus. We are tired. We are scared. We need change.
Editor’s Note: The Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H) provides confidential and anonymous support and can be reached at 314-935-8080 24 /7 during the fall and spring academic semesters.
There are counselors at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center, located in Seigle Hall, Suite 435, available confidentially to any University student. The office can be reached at tel:314-935-3445 or by email at mailto:[email protected]
The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at tel:1-800-656-4673 or via online chat at https://hotline.rainn.org/online 24/7.