In a 15,000-word essay for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan extensively examined how collegiate fraternities are able to survive in the face of controversies stemming from incidents of hazing, injuries and even deaths occurring on their premises. As Flanagan correctly points out, fraternities institutionally have successfully weathered controversies that may result in the suspension of individual chapters – it is worth noting that the fraternities this editorial addresses are general and social frats, not service, ethnic or religious fraternities. A student’s death may cast a shadow over one particular chapter of a fraternity but is negligible in considering the practices of fraternities at large.
Such consideration, however, is useless. Greek culture varies widely from school to school. Geneseo’s fraternities are markedly different from those of private schools or larger state schools, especially in the South, where membership in fraternities is much larger.
As a result, a student’s experience in a fraternity will never be consistent with that of a fraternity from a different school. This is especially true depending on the age of a fraternity, its traditions and its members.
The foundation of fraternities is one thing that does remain consistent, yet it is the least analyzed aspect despite offering the most convincing explanation for fraternities’ continued success.
Fraternities are built on a system of privilege. Much is made of the professional networking opportunities afforded to members of national fraternities and the amount of Fortune 500 companies owned by fraternity members. This speaks not to the moral character of fraternity men but to the institutions in place that fill fraternity houses across the United States with a homogenous population of white, middle or upper class men.
Students seeking membership are judged based on their consistency to the ideals of the fraternities they rush. As fraternities become established on a campus, they each take on their own distinct characteristics. Think Animal House: The Omegas are old-fashioned, conservative and ostensibly wealthy, while the Deltas are crass party animals. Brothers vote to determine admission to fraternities. Though the percentage of approval one must attain to receive a bid varies, the voting process is more or less consistent among all fraternities.
Invariably, fraternities become largely homogenous organizations. With the costly dues that are required to be paid for membership, students without disposable income who might otherwise be interested in joining are kept out. The result is a system of organizations predominately made up of white males from middle or upper class backgrounds.
This should shed some light on why so many fraternity men go on to enjoy successful careers in business and politics: It was their privileged background that gave them a leg up on the competition, not their membership in a fraternity.
It is that same privilege that has allowed fraternities to thrive in the face of criticism, rather than the comprehensive risk management practices Flanagan describes. Fraternities operate outside the court of public opinion because they exist for themselves and by themselves.
This is what ultimately sustains fraternities. Their immunity to external criticism prevents them from having to change at all. In fact, it behooves them not to change. The concept of fraternity life, regardless of its accuracy, is firmly entrenched in American culture and holds a positive appeal for a large portion of the college-going population. For America’s fraternities, resistance to change is not a blemish but a point of pride.
Kevin Frankel is a brother of Sigma Alpha Mu.