Fraternities: Racist and sexist or merely exclusive?

Mounting revelations about offensive fraternity behavior – including suspensions at Penn State and North Carolina State this week – have generated a debate over their place in a society that increasingly values diversity, respect, and inclusiveness.

Jonathan Drew/AP
Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at North Carolina State University campus in Raleigh. The frat has been suspended as authorities investigate the discovery of what appears to be a pledge book filled with racist and sexually explicit language.

The bad news about college fraternities just seems to keep coming – the latest at North Carolina State University, where Pi Kappa Phi was suspended this week when what appears to be a fraternity pledge book filled with racist and sexually explicit comments was found at a restaurant near the school's campus in Raleigh.

The book included handwritten references to rape and lynching, some of them signed by names that matched members on the fraternity's website, according to local press reports. Earlier this month, North Carolina State officials suspended another fraternity – Alpha Tau Omega – in response to charges of sexual assault and drug use.

Meanwhile, at Pennsylvania State University this week, President Eric Barron suggested that the whole campus fraternity system might need to be reevaluated following the suspension of Kappa Delta Rho, which had a private Facebook page that included photos of nude and partly nude women, some apparently asleep or passed out.

“This evidence, which is still being gathered by the State College Police, is appalling, offensive and inconsistent with our community’s values,” Dr. Barron said in a message to the Penn State community. “This is not only completely unacceptable behavior, but also potentially criminal.”

“In addition to the shutdown of the KDR fraternity on campus, we are working with the fraternity’s national headquarters to determine if the fraternity will have a presence at Penn State and if so, we will help set the conditions for that future presence,” Barron said. “It also brings us to a point where we must ask if a re-evaluation of the fraternity system is required. Some members of the University senior leadership believe it is, and we are considering our options.”

Some colleges have gone to extremes to address the problems, the AP reports. Colby and Bowdoin colleges in Maine banned fraternities in the 1980s and '90s. Last fall, Wesleyan University in Connecticut ordered fraternities to go coed within three years. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, which helped inspire the film "Animal House," recently banned hard liquor and is overhauling its housing system.

Revelations about offensive – and potentially criminal – campus behavior have generated a public debate over fraternities and their place in the broader society at a time when the benefits of greater diversity, respect and inclusiveness are being recognized, indeed celebrated.

“Fraternities achieve their prestige through their ability to exclude prospective members based on a hazy set of criteria that bear little resemblance to those that the colleges themselves use to determine whether students are admitted,” writes Nicholas Syrett, associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the author of “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities,” on the Daily Beast. “And yet colleges and universities continue to countenance this kind of exclusion, also regularly looking the other way when fraternities violate codes of conduct in relation to alcohol, hazing, and sexual assault.”

Also on the Daily Beast, progressive activist Sally Kohn argues for a wider view of responsibility for offensive fraternity conduct.

“Certainly, fraternities seem to be cesspools of racism and misogyny in many cases on many campuses, but the simple fact is that they’re just intensified Petri dishes for that which infects our culture more broadly” she writes. “And focusing just on fraternities – or any other singular site or incident – lets our broader society (that is, the rest of us) off the hook.”

That seems evident in recurring incidents of white law enforcement officers mistreating – sometimes killing – people of color, including allegations this week that alcohol control officers roughed up a young black student at the University of Virginia.

The US Army – arguably one of the most racially integrated segments of American society – is investigating reports that an Army unit in Alaska took part in what it called “Racial Thursdays,” a weekly event in which troops were allowed and in some cases encouraged to make racial slurs, as Monitor Pentagon reporter Anna Mulrine reported.

In Austin, Texas, meanwhile, owners and employees at several businesses were rattled when they found stickers saying "exclusively for white people" placed on their windows. Later, controversial Austin lawyer Adam Reposa claimed responsibility on Facebook and in a YouTube video, saying it was all a protest against gentrification.

But for now, the focus is on trouble at a growing number of college and university fraternities.

Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, a group formed in October to prevent sexual assaults, said fraternities and universities can drastically reduce problems by targeting campus "social influencers” – fraternity presidents, athletes and other campus leaders -- who set the tone for their organizations.

"I don't think it's an impossible task at all,” she told the AP. “I don't want to sell young people short. I think they are capable of making good choices and moving away from these types of behaviors."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.