Having been in academics quite some time, I am familiar with an unfortunate pattern involving the Greek system on American campuses. Something awful will happen involving a fraternity or sorority, such as a gang rape or hazing death. Then there will be a backlash and a surge in calls for banning fraternities (and sometimes sororities). This will be followed by some administrative action, such as hiring well-paid consultants to address the image problem and creating some new bureaucratic post on campus. Academics will write a few highly theoretical articles about the Greek system. The media will cover the event, squeezing it for the blood and pain that the news cycle feeds upon. At the end of a specific event is the return to “normalcy” which terminates with the next terrible incident that grabs the attention of the media.
The latest cycle has been started by a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at UVA. As with other awful incidents, events are playing out following the usual script: media coverage, calls for action, theoretical academic papers being crafted in the hopes of advancing careers, and so on. It must be noted that many people are acting in good faith: they want things to change for the better. As in past incidents, there is a call to ban fraternities from campuses.
The main moral argument for banning fraternities is utilitarian: the existence of fraternities is claimed to create more harm than good, thus making their removal morally correct. In terms of the harms, the catalog is hardly surprising and certainly matches the usual intuitions about campus life in general and fraternities in particular.
First, while college students are generally heavy drinkers, members of fraternities are significantly more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking (75%) than the general college population of men (49%). This heavier drinking also entails that fraternity members suffer more from the negative effects of heavy drinking (such as injuries and academic problems). In addition to alcohol, fraternity members also abuse drugs (prescription and otherwise) at higher rates than non-fraternity members. Sorority members are also more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking than their non-Greek counterparts.
Second, fraternity members are much more likely than non-fraternity members to commit sexual assault. It must, however, be noted that most fraternity men never commit sexual assault. While there is some disagreement about the causes, this is typically linked to the greater abuse of alcohol, group psychology and fraternity culture. Sorority members are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-Greek counterparts. This is also linked to alcohol abuse and cultural factors.
Third, there is hazing. On average, about one person is killed per year due to a hazing incident. Others are injured or otherwise harmed. Most fraternities officially ban hazing, but it obviously does occur. Obviously, hazing is not confined to fraternities—my own Florida A&M University lost a student, Robert Champion, to band hazing in 2011. While sororities apparently engage in hazing, fraternities are the ones that make the news the most often.
These harms power the argument for banning fraternities (and sororities) on the basis of the claim that getting rid of them will reduce the harms in question. To be specific, if fraternities cause their members to abuse alcohol, commit sexual assault and haze more than they would otherwise, then getting rid of them would reduce (but obviously not eliminate) these problems.
One response to this argument is to argue that banning fraternities would not have the desired effect. The reasoning behind this response is that fraternities merely collect together people who would behave badly on their own anyway and hence a ban would not have a significant impact. This does have some appeal in that non-fraternity members do binge drink, do commit sexual assault and do engage in hazing.
This response can be countered by arguing that a fraternity does not just collect together people who would behave badly on their own, the social dynamics and culture of the fraternity plays a causal role in this bad behavior. That is, the group dynamics changes individual behavior and a man who is in a fraternity is more likely to behave badly because of that membership. Given the studies of group dynamics, this does have considerable appeal: people do generally behave differently in groups and most are easily swayed by cultural factors and peer pressure.
Another response to the argument for banning fraternities is to admit that fraternities do cause some problems, but to counter by arguing that the good they create outweighs the harms. In defense of fraternities, people typically point to some of the following benefits.
First, fraternities often engage in charity work and community service—they do good things for the campus and general community. While I was not in a fraternity in college, many of my friends were and they certainly did many good things. As a faculty member and a member of the community, I also see the good works done by fraternity members.
Second, fraternities provide opportunities for leadership, brotherhood and the forging of social connections that often prove incredibly useful later in life. Fraternities have a well-established history of producing leaders in various fields, such as business and politics.
These benefits do have their appeal and it must be noted that some fraternities are include upstanding and outstanding men who do good on campus and go on to do good after they graduate. These positive factors should not be simply ignored or dismissed.
That said, as with any utilitarian calculation, the positive factors must be weighed against the negative factors. In this case, the question is whether the positive aspects of having fraternities on campus outweighs the negative aspects. There is also the closely related question of whether banning them would create more good than harm.
This is partially a matter of facts—the statistics about drinking, sexual assault and so on are factually matters and should thus be addressed by the usual rational means of assessment. However, it is obviously also a matter of value in regards to how much weight is placed on each positive and each negative factor. To use a somewhat dramatic example, this would involve questions about how many sexual assaults are offset by fraternity contributions to networking, leadership development and campus service. While some would be inclined to take the view that the number would be zero, it must be noted that we routinely tolerate horrible consequences in return for positive consequences. For example, tens of thousands of people die each year due to automobile accidents, yet we still tolerate driving. So, weighing the horrible against the positive is, sadly, a matter of how things are done. And, for utilitarian calculations, how they should be done. The obvious practical problem is that people disagree in these evaluations and such disagreements need to be settled in order to make a decision. Obviously enough, defenders of the fraternity system would contend the positives outweigh the negative. Detractors would claim the reverse.
Naturally, there are alternative moral approaches to utilitarianism. For example, one might take the view that to weigh the benefits of fraternities against the fact that fraternity men are significantly more likely to engage in sexual assault is a moral travesty. The fraternities should be shut down, it might be argued, because sexual assault is to be prevented. While this does have some appeal, the same reasoning could be pushed to the entire university system: since sexual assault occurs on campus and eliminating campuses would eliminate sexual assault on campus, campuses should be eliminated. This can, obviously enough, also be countered.
My own view is somewhat mixed. Given the harms associated with fraternities, there is clearly a moral case for eliminating them. That said, there are some positive aspects to the fraternity system that can support a moral case for preserving them, presumably with some extensive reforms.
In any case, this cycle spins on. If it follows past patterns, people will soon forget about the UVA case and matters will go back to “normal.” Then some new horror will emerge involving a fraternity and it will start again.