Education

5 Ways Fraternities Are Wielding Major Influence Over University Administrations

Their power is growing.

Reports on the myriad abuses that occur at fraternities have become a frequent, even expected component of today’s media landscape. Every week it seems there’s a new story on physical or sexual violence, life-threatening drug or alcohol use, racial slurs, or parties with various xenophobic themes taking place in or around colleges campuses, particularly at their fraternities.

The aftermath is predictable. Campus authorities and student leaders of Greek life condemn the acts (maybe even the individuals responsible) and promise to do better next time. Often a university will also temporarily suspend a fraternity, as Yale did last week to its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter for violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy and impeding the pursuant investigation.  

Such reprimands are just for show: universities can’t actually shutter their fraternities for good because they are autonomous institutions. As Caitlin Flanagan wrote in her cover story for the Atlantic, the product of a yearlong investigation into American fraternities, “in many substantive ways, fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.”

But most of the time, universities don't want to shut down their frats. They benefit in many ways from fraternity resources and culture, as well as from their ability to distance themselves from Greek life, if needed, to weather a media firestorm. Here are five ways universities benefit from the presence of Greek life on their campuses.

1. Housing

Fraternities and sororities are the single largest providers of undergraduate housing in the United States apart from the universities themselves. One out of every eight students living on college campuses lives in Greek housing.

According to Laura Hamilton, associate professor of sociology at University of California, Merced and author of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality(Harvard University Press, 2013),  “Even if the university were to kick all Greek organizations off of campus those organizations still privately own the property. They wouldn’t be able to reappropriate it and use it for new student housing.”

Sure, this housing puts a roof over the heads of typically rich, white students, but the fact that housing is a limited resource on campus is enough to leave frats and sororities relatively undisturbed by university administrations. “Greek housing in particular is so ingrained into many campuses that removing it would leave the schools with potentially thousands of students in need of a place to live and a logistical nightmare,” writes Peter Jacobs for Business Insider.

2. Insurance

Fraternities are self-insured, so universities are not liable for whatever legal ramifications follow a night of injurious partying. This means it’s better financially and legally, from the university’s standpoint, if students party at fraternities, rather than in their dorms or anywhere on campus. “If you know students are going to party,” says Hamilton, “you don’t want them to do it in dorms, because that’s under the jurisdiction of the university. Ideally they might be going to bars, but they’re not going to be able to get in unless they're 21.”

The Fraternity Risk Management Trust is the largest insurer, covering 33 fraternities, though there are others. In its quest to manage the risk of fraternity members at all cost, FMRT holds some questionable views a university might be loath to endorse. A section of a 2011 newsletter titled “How Good Guys Commit Real Assault,” reads, “Fraternities attract some of the best and brightest young men on campus, but history has proven that even talented, intelligent men may still carry unhealthy and dangerous attitudes.”

The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan told NPR last year that, “when a kid is injured, when somebody is killed, when somebody drinks himself to death, when a girl is sexually assaulted, the check ultimately comes from [the fraternities’] own pocket.” But that’s not always how things go down.

There have been several reported incidents of fraternities dodging compensation expenses for injuries and deaths for which these institutions are liable. At the same time, revenues from dues continue to grow (national fraternities netted $170 million in 2010, up from $150 million in 2005).  

“It’s a curious business model,” Stetson University professor Peter Lake told Bloomberg in 2013. “You’re establishing a national brand and franchising. And then when your core customers are in a pinch, you’re turning away.”

3. Outlet For Old-School American Misogyny

A safe space where some students may freely enact their boys-will-be-boys mentality is often thought of as a university resource akin to housing and insurance. That’s because the rise of American universities and fraternities are deeply entwined. Fraternities crashed the university scene in the late 1700s, when a bunch of white men decided that the philosophy-based curriculum was too stuffy for their literary tastes. Fraternities functioned as elitist book clubs first, then gradually came to resemble something more akin to gentlemen’s clubs where members smoked, drank and gambled.

Eventually there emerged a class of enviable students who could party with impunity and still stay afloat academically and generally avoid responsibility for their actions, protected by their racial, economic, and gender privilege. This trend is encapsulated in the saying, “a gentleman’s C.” Though, according to Hamilton, “Now it’s a partier’s B, because of inflation.”

The appeal of the elite boys club has never really gone away, and is often a draw to prospective students and an asset to universities that market to this taste. “When your focus starts to shift even further toward solvency because you can’t stay afloat without more money coming in, then you have to think seriously about marketing your school in a certain way and attracting students who can pay,” says Hamilton.

One way universities are doing this is by supporting the renovation of their Greek life centers. North Carolina State University, for example, is in the process of building a 20-lot Greek Village, complete with townhouses, community center and amphitheater. According to a 2006 project report (the project was first proposed in 2005), “All operating and maintenance costs would be the responsibility of the Greek organization. Infrastructure costs would be shared between the University and the organizations.”

4. Out-of-State Tuition Dollars

Drawing wealthy students to campus is more important for universities than ever before, since institutions of higher education, particularly public ones, are becoming reliant on out-of-state tuition to stay afloat. States are reducing the amount of support they provide to public universities, so schools are increasingly reliant upon private tuition money. In 1988, tuition made up nearly a quarter of public higher education revenue; in 2014, it made up nearly half.

A strong Greek presence on campus convinces some students to cross state lines for a good education and a good time. “These organizations draw a lot of students to campus,” says Hamilton, “And they draw students from out-of-state…. Students are wealthy enough to afford out-of-state tuition, if they’re not going to a private elite school it’s probably because they’re a bit more socially oriented, so they’re really drawn to a robust Greek system.”

5. Alumni Donor Base  

Another way universities make money is from alumni donations and fundraising, and no organization on college campuses is better at extracting donations than the Greek system. “A lot of alumni are really beholden to their Greek organization, so you might also lose donation dollars if you decide to get rid of these organizations,” says Hamilton.

Fraternity and sorority alumni make up the largest sector of lifetime donors to colleges, and give four times as much as alumni who were not members of these institutions. Students who are members of Greek society are, historically and now, overwhelmingly white and wealthy. And since fraternity and sorority annual dues at some colleges can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars, plus a fee to buy in, students who can’t afford to be part of these institutions will be barred from them. That is, unless their Greek society offers a payment plan or stipend.

“All of this is about attracting students who can pay…. If you’re reliant on their money, you’re going to be interested in serving their needs and less able to serve the needs of students from lower-income and minority backgrounds,” says Hamilton.

As writer and media mogul Dillon Cheverere put it in an article for Time arguing the downside of Wesleyan’s 2014 announcement that its fraternities will now be co-ed, “Fraternities—and sororities, for that matter—are seclusive by nature. They aim to accept like-minded people of similar interests and backgrounds.”

Hannah K. Gold is a journalist, creative writer and former intern at the Nation. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs here and on Twitter @togglecoat

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