This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that I recommend a piece by Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan. But her cover story in the current issue of the magazine about fraternities is filled with the kind of reporting that every parent, student, professor, and administrator should grasp as soon as possible.
Thanks to the fact that fraternities have been sued so many times in recent years for negligence, there is a rich and horrifying public record that allows us to look at what is really going on at these institutions. At the beginning, Flanagan documents injuries that would be comic were it not for their tragic consequences—people shooting bottle rockets into their rear ends—for instance. The number of people who fall off of roofs or out of windows in these fraternity houses is simply astounding—a virtual epidemic of drunken stupidity.
Though it is also true that these buildings are often unsafe—many of them have no fire sprinklers, let alone sturdy porch railings. What is really missing, of course, is adult supervision. College administrators often have very little control over what happens at fraternity houses and when they do try regulate, they are met with great opposition from the national umbrella organizations. And even, alas, groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which suggest that the college is violating its students right to free association.
The truth about the relationship between colleges and fraternities is much more insidious, as Flanagan explains:
If you raise the topic of fraternity alumni with a college president in a private moment, he or she will emit the weary sigh of the ancients. The group includes some of the most financially generous and institutionally helpful former students a school may have. But try to do some small thing to bring the contemporary fraternity scene in line with current campus priorities, and you will hear from them—loudly—before you even hit send on the e-mail.
Colleges have benefited in all sorts of ways from the largesse of fraternity alumni and even the fact that students living off campus means the college needn’t worry about providing more housing. But as Flanagan shows, they have made a deal with the devil. These fraternities have figured out ways of allowing their members to behave like complete jackasses at best or criminals at worst—while the organizations take almost no responsibility. Parents of young women, as always, should warn their daughters away from these institutions.
And parents of young men wanting to pledge should warn them too. “The interests of the national organization and the individual members cleave sharply,” Flanagan notes. Even if the boys themselves are not guilty of some horrible assault or offense, they can be liable for the actions leading up to it. “The financial consequences of fraternity membership can be devastating, and they devolve not on the 18-year-old ‘man’ but on his planning-for-retirement parents.”