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'True Gentlemen' analyzes the troubling co-dependence of colleges and fraternities

By further exposing the profound problems with fraternities, Bloomberg News writer John Hechinger has made a far more valuable contribution to American college life than any fraternity ever could.

True Gentlemen By John Hechinger PublicAffairs 320 pp.
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  • Kevin O'Kelly

Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), one of the largest and wealthiest fraternities in this country, requires all its prospective members to memorize and recite its organizational creed, “The True Gentleman.” Such a man, in the words of this creed, is one “whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies ... who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own.” 

Undergraduate women at colleges across the country will tell you that SAE stands for “Sexual Assault Expected.” And understandably so. During the Halloween weekend of 2014, women reported having been raped at SAE parties in Georgia, Maryland, and California. After another woman reported her assault at a University of New Mexico SAE house in 2013, one member told investigators said it wasn’t rape because the victim had been “giving mixed signals.”  The general attitude toward women at many SAE houses can be summed up by a joke told at a Stanford chapter party: “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing: you already told her twice.”

SAE is hardly unique among college fraternities. A study of sexual violence at Indiana University found that while only 12% of undergraduate men belong to fraternities, their houses are the sites of 23% of reported rapes. But in True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities, Bloomberg News reporter John Hechinger focuses on SAE not only for the sake of narrative focus, but also for the fraternity’s notoriety. The SAE chapter at Dartmouth College inspired a fraternity house depicted in the movie "Animal House." [Editor's note: This review originally misstated the relationship between Dartmouth's SAE chapter and the movie "Animal House."] University administrators have shut down 30 SAE chapters and disciplined 130 others.

The problem with fraternities isn’t limited to rape culture. Applicants for fraternity membership are hazed mercilessly. New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, has written about developing what was called “pledge ass” during his hazing:  pads of damaged tissue and nerves from repeated beatings with 2-by-fours. Pledges at many fraternities are forced to play drinking games (often with hard liquor) until they pass out. Some of them don’t wake up. Other hazing rites are a testament to a warped creativity: John Buford, a 2010 pledge to SAE’s Princeton chapter, recalls drinking a 20-ounce bottle of tobacco spit, getting whipped at a strip club, and swimming naked in a frozen pond. 

Yet these same incubators of rape culture and general sadism are remembered with love by many of their former members. Many successful businessmen, lawyers, and politicians seem to honestly consider the day they joined their fraternity to be one of the most important days of their lives. It’s easy to see why: On large college campuses, a fraternity can provide a close-knit community where members learn leadership skills and make lifelong friendships. Furthermore, fraternity membership provides entrée into a network of contacts that can prove invaluable to a career. 

But Hechinger is quick to point out the very fact that fraternities can provide such advantages indicates another reason they are problematic institutions. Most fraternal organizations’ memberships skew white and upper-class. Annual membership dues can be as high as $7,000 a year and are out of the reach of many undergraduates. Furthermore, successful pledges are often children of members or attended the same high schools as members of the chapter they pledged. Even if a minority student could afford the membership fees and had the right contacts, it’s unlikely they would feel welcome at organizations such as SAE, which holds theme parties that celebrate the antebellum South.

Despite the criminal behavior and class privilege fraternities enable, most of them aren’t going anywhere. Hechinger succinctly analyzes the troubling co-dependence of colleges and fraternal organizations. Members of fraternities such as SAE often go on to quite  lucrative careers – and become generous donors to their former colleges. Furthermore, fraternities provide housing to thousands of students, sparing many universities the cost of building additional dormitories.

Hechinger has written a damning indictment of the institutions that profoundly damage the lives of young men and women across the country. Yet implicit in "True Gentlemen" is the assumption that at one time, fraternities were better. Hechinger almost seems to believe the late-middle aged alums who, when confronted with evidence of brutal behavior at frat chapters, protest, “But that’s not what we were about.” The more likely explanation for such reactions is not that Greek life enjoyed some more virtuous past, but that rape culture, sadism, and institutional racism have been part of our national life so long they were largely invisible to previous generations. By further exposing these profound problems, Hechinger has made a far more valuable to contribution to American college life than any fraternity ever could.

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