Why Penn State Should Get Rid of Itself for Good

At this point, I'm basically hoping someone writes an article convincing me that fraternities and sororities need to be abolished.

I'm at this point because after every tragedy involving Greek life at American colleges and universities, it's as predictable that someone will draft up a think piece calling for the end of fraternities as it is that a thunder-clap follows a lightning strike.

That's why I wasn't surprised when a friend of mine recently shared an article with me that boldly calls for eliminating fraternities in response to the terrible tragedy at Penn State that took Timothy Piazza's life. Professor Lisa Wade of Occidental College writes a historically nuanced and emotionally persuasive piece calling for an end to the entire American Greek Life system as a means to avoid the all too frequent deaths that occur on college campuses as a result of negligent fraternity and sorority behavior. Reading her take, and knowing the grim details of Piazza's final moments, it's hard not to feel compelled by her argument. I feel that.

To be transparent: I am a member of a fraternity. I value my fraternity experience. The experience I had as an undergraduate member is too detailed to go into here, suffice it to say my experience was overwhelmingly positive. I realize this isn't always the case for everyone. I'm not sure whether or not Lisa Wade ever joined Greek life. Wade is an accomplished and well-published professor of sociology, and my qualm here is not with her understanding of social dynamics, but with the wide brush stroke with which her article condemns a society far broader than her think piece's anecdotes include. To be specific, my qualm is with her implicit argument that since historically White social fraternities can't get their shit together, it is right and necessary that all Greek organizations—including historically Black, Latino, Indian, Asian, Indigenous, Native American, and multicultural fraternities AND sororities—must also cease to exist because young White men do bad things in groups.

My qualm is with the implicit dismissal of the values and initiatives those organizations take on, and often execute far better than their White counterparts. I'm talking about philanthropy, charity, and service—real community engagement and impact, not lukewarm resume-boosting "service" that is a pervasive problem in many college Greek systems. I'm talking about the inherent community building, civic-mindedness that was ingrained in the values of the first Black Greek-lettered organizations in response to their exclusion from the existing White fraternities and sororities of the time.

My qualm is with the omission of the struggle of non-White people for entry into historically White fraternities in Wade's rebuke of the fraternity movement, and the subsequent establishment of Black organizations, the most famous of which being the Divine Nine (Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, Alpha Phi Alpha, Phi Beta Sigma, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta) who seem to merit no room at the table of Wade's swift dismissal. To be fair, the Divine Nine have issues as well, but neither their issues nor their merits are brought into conversation. They are incidental defendants to a case and courtroom they're given no access to in Wade's piece.

My qualm is with the bizarre comparison Wade makes of the abolition of fraternities to the abolition of slavery, based upon nothing more than the origins of the former beginning contemporaneously with the demise of the latter. My qualm is with the haze of White Saviorism that Wade's comparison leaves me with when I finish reading it, as if the issue of toxic masculinity (which is what really lies at the heart of this problem, in my opinion) is simply "solved away" with fraternities the same way racial inequality was "solved away" with the Civil War...as if to ignore the reside of the latter we still deal with in this equation. How the violent, State-backed suppression of Black and Brown people gets put on even footing with fraternities is baffling to me.

My qualm is with the seemingly intentionally nefarious reading of the purpose of fraternities, as if they came into being exclusively to cause problems, and the lack of the scholarly gesture to at least balance the real and terrible problem of fraternity violence and negligence with the stated missions and values of the Greek community. That would at least be a fair, honest, and frankly more interesting critique of Greek life. That would at least get me somewhere close to sympathetic to the abolishment argument. I understand completely how a non-Greek person could look at the values of any fraternity, weigh those against the perils of hazing, and still come out in favor of abolishing them—but at least in this case that person would understand that the institution's stated purpose and the actions of its members are incongruous. At least they could have the opportunity to look at the micro and macro levels of the problem together. At least they'd be more fully informed.

My qualm is with the nuclear option (to borrow a current buzzword) of eliminating fraternities altogether as an easy out from the harder and more pressing work of addressing the root causes of why young men in groups routinely put themselves and each other in harm's way. The conversation to be had, with real weight to it, is the unwillingness, inability, or intentional negligence of college men to uphold the simple virtues and principles to which they pledge themselves upon joining college social fraternities. The aims and ideals of these organizations are no less honorable than the Boy Scouts of America or one's church congregation. In fact, the aims of fraternities are largely born of implicitly religious background, or similar but secularized values. However for Wade, there's no room in her conversation for this.

Abolishing fraternities without simultaneously abolishing toxic masculinity is as enlightened as picking a weed out of your yard and proclaiming your lawn cured while your breath blows dandelion seeds all over it. If history teaches anything, it's that men with power, wealth, and status will always find spaces and means to cause harm. Men will go great lengths and risk anything around them to do this. If you disagree, pick up any history book anywhere. If the answer is eradicating the institutions where abuses occur, we should also eradicate: bands, sports teams, police, churches, the military, banks, and The United States of America. All of these cause unjustified harm to men and women routinely. Let us at least be honest enough with ourselves to apply the standard evenly here.

I realize how callous it may seem to stand up for fraternities in the aftermath of a young man's death, and I want to be explicitly clear that I make no excuses for what Beta Theta Pi did to (and did not do for) Timothy Piazza. What happened to him was murderous and neglectful, it was a tragedy, it was a nightmare come true for his family. Any chapter that does this should be closed permanently and never reopened; any fraternal organization whose chapters consistently do things like this should be barred from colleges. This is something serious Greek members readily advocate. If a fraternity wants to operate on a campus, it should not be in the business of killing people—that is a low and extraordinarily reasonable bar that ought to be held fast against the American fraternity movement by members and non-members alike.

The title of this blog post is a tongue-in-cheek take on Wade's article title (my apologies to any Nittany Lions for whom I may have caused anxiety) but why not take Wade's advice at face value? Why not eliminate the apparatuses of this callous, senseless violence? Why not abolish Penn State if such a tragedy can occur there? Why should it not be called upon to abolish itself? After all, it's an isolated university surrounded by a town full of bars and alcohol, happens to be one of the most prominent sports powerhouses in the collegiate world, is the site of the sexual abuse scandals of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno, and somehow Wade isn't bringing these aspects of that institution to bear?

The reason I continue to be involved in my fraternity and the larger fraternity movement is because I believe such organizations have the power and capacity to positively better people's lives; because I am passionate about the development of stronger and better attributes of masculinity than previous generations have given us; because the work of developing better fraternity men and better men in society in general are synonymous pursuits. I am under no illusion that this is not a tremendously uphill battle—nor am I under any illusion that this work is resolved by the mere dissolving of one site of masculinity's shortcomings. I believe Professor Wade is right about some of the early, and foundationally problematic aspects of fraternities. I believe she missed the mark by simultaneously excluding and implicating non-White organizations in the condemnation of behavior routinely seen in historically and predominantly White college fraternities. I believe a better and fuller conversation was missed as a result.

If my bias seems obvious, it is no less so than Wade's in her piece. The truth probably lies somewhere between both of our takes. It is hard to say. Until we can say, however, I remain unconvinced that getting rid of fraternities is some obvious and overdue panacea for a much larger epidemic.

Cameron BarnettComment