In wake of Oklahoma racist chant, how can colleges reform fraternities?

From suspending a fraternity or sorority to identifying undergraduates most open to change, it is possible to change the culture of Greek systems on campus, experts say.

YouTube screen grab
Members of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant racist slurs in a video posted online.

At the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, real changes didn't come until there was tragedy.

In 2003, a pledge at Phi Epsilon Chi died after a hazing ritual that involved drinking massive amounts of water. The college, which had already been working to combat hazing, took even more steps and did a lot of work to help the fraternities and sororities change.

"We're working with college students, who make poor decisions sometimes," says Allison Swick-Duttine, director of fraternity/sorority life for the campus. "But the culture has shifted so the behaviors we're working with now are far lower down on the ladder of risk than they were 10 years ago."

From suspending a fraternity or sorority – or banning one chapter outright – to identifying undergraduates most open to change, it is possible to change the culture of Greek systems on campus, experts say. That’s the task facing the University of Oklahoma after a video went viral of fraternity members singing a racist chant on a bus.

The university acted quickly to shut down the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house and the national organization closed the Oklahoma chapter. Subsequently, university officials also expelled two of the students who seemed to be the leaders of the chants in the video.

But the Oklahoma incident is merely the latest in a number of highly publicized incidents of fraternity misbehavior. Others also have involved racist language or events (and in the wake of this incident, some reports are coming out of similar chants at other universities), and many more involve hazing, binge drinking, or sexual assault. Such behavior has led some colleges to ban fraternities and sororities outright, or to suspend all fraternity activities while incidents are investigated.

More important, say some observers, are efforts – particularly when they have strong buy-in from current students – to improve behavior and implement reforms.

"We’re looking at a range of everything from reprehensible behavior on up to criminal behavior," says Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written several books about hazing and has been a leader in working with organizations to eradicate hazing.

Mr. Nuwer cites other instances of racist behavior and hate speech within fraternities, including black-face parties, as well as sexual assault and hazing incidents that, in the worst cases, led to death. Combating it all comes down to "the area of civility and idea of respect," Nuwer says. But he adds that he's seen some groups – from national fraternity councils down to local chapters – make big strides.

At SUNY-Plattsburgh, fraternities that used to refuse to talk about their induction rituals are now proud to be anti-hazing, Ms. Swick-Duttine says, and social events have changed. She says that, in some cases, the school needed to temporarily shut down certain chapters and then reopen them later with new students. Having the school commit to a full-time position for someone to work with the Greek houses and being willing to invest time and money to help them change helped too, she says, though she acknowledges change wasn't always easy.

"In order for that shift to happen, you have to get students on board. That can be really difficult when you have an 18-year-old with an expectation of what they think a fraternity should be," she says. She tried "to harness power of the groups who did want to do the right thing, instead of responding to those who didn’t."

With the University of Oklahoma incident, Swick-Duttine is working with the campuses fraternities and sororities to try to use it as a learning opportunity – even though the initial response of many student members on campus was that it would never be an issue at Plattsburgh.

"The students think it would never happen on our campus, so we’re not going to talk about it. We’re trying to get them to have these conversations – explaining that it only takes one person to say or do something inappropriate," says Swick-Duttine, noting that last year there was one incident of insensitive speech on campus by a fraternity member.

This week, the fraternity and sorority student leaders decided to send out a letter to all their members explaining "why the problem at Oklahoma is a problem for us," Swick-Duttine says, adding that the fact that it's a student-led effort makes it more powerful.

Nuwer, who speaks to campuses around the country about hazing and related issues, says that he's seen national fraternities, like Phi Delta Theta, make huge changes under strong leadership. Others have made shifts only to have those cultural changes weaken when leadership stops emphasizing the reforms.

"Often with these fraternities you have to look past the Greek letters and see who’s in charge," Nuwer says.

The fraternities themselves, as perhaps is shown by SAE’s swift response to and condemnation of the Oklahoma incident – are fighting against a growing perception that they're breeding grounds for the worst sort of behavior.

"Fraternities and sororities are a microcosm of American society," says Charles Eberly, a professor emeritus of counseling and development at Eastern Illinois University, repeating words said by John Robson, a former editor of Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities. The incident at Oklahoma reflects that truth, Professor Eberly notes.

But he notes that many fraternities are working to change, and to train members in leadership and how to hold their peers accountable. He cites training done by the Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, which challenges fraternity and sorority members to live ethical values and implement best practices, as particularly good.

"Fraternities have been working to change. And generally the change has originated not from older members but from undergraduates themselves," says Eberly.

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