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Frat houses refine the purpose of brotherhood

In response to cases of tragic misuse of alcohol, fraternities decide to ban hard liquor at events. The next step is to restore the core purpose of these campus clubs.

AP Photo
This photo shows the shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity house on Penn State University's main campus in State College, Pa. The fraternity was closed up after the February 2017 death of a pledge from a night of hazing and drinking.

At college fraternities across the United States and Canada, the true meaning of brotherhood has just been clarified.

After several high-profile deaths from heavy drinking at parties or initiation rites, the major association representing fraternities announced Sept. 4 that it will no longer allow frat houses to serve hard liquor at chapter facilities and events.

The ban, which is expected to go into effect at hundreds of campuses within a year, is designed to return these private men’s clubs to their original purpose. “At their core, fraternities are about brotherhood, personal development, and providing a community of support. Alcohol abuse and its serious consequences endanger this very purpose,” said Judson Horras, president and chief executive officer of the self-regulating North-American Interfraternity Conference.

The NIC’s move adds to other recent moves in higher education to persuade students, especially incoming freshmen, that liquor is not a liberator from the stress of making friends or fitting into campus life. And the fact that fraternities themselves are taking action – rather than school administrators – hints at a culture shift in Greek life away from the notion that heavy drinking is an obligatory rite of passage.

In recent years, many colleges and universities have tried to regulate fraternities and sororities, such as by delaying the recruitment of freshmen until spring, or have even banned them outright. These measures are designed to prevent deaths from drinking during hazing rituals as well as sexual assaults.

Punitive steps, however, while sometimes necessary, may not be effective if students, both men and women, simply form underground groups off-campus where they can hide destructive behavior. A far more lasting solution is to ensure they are offered healthy pursuits and fulfilling opportunities beyond academic learning.

Restoring the highest meaning of brotherhood (and sisterhood) is a good start. Students must not only find aspiration toward learning and a career but also inspiration about what constitutes the good life.

With so many challenges facing students on campuses, a group of prominent colleges joined together in 2013 and formed the Resilience Project. These schools are pooling ideas on how to assist students in learning from failure and coming out stronger. At Bates College, for example, students are encouraged to discover “purposeful work.”

At Cornell University, fraternities and sororities have emphasized outdoor recreation, such as camping trips. At other schools, frat houses have refocused on volunteering.

Brotherhood can be a great unifier for students if it is based on higher pursuits, such as giving and trust. Forming common bonds is also a sure way to avoid excessive drinking and the tragedies that come from it.

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