Shut them down. Shut ’em all down.

The one thing that I learned from college fraternities is that I am a boring drunk.

1976 started out as a terrible year for me. I was attending my first year of college at DePauw University in Indiana — which was a miracle in itself. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to any college, it wasn’t part of the family tradition, and it was expected that I’d get a job and help out (I was the oldest of six, so there was a chain of younger Myers’s who would need assistance). Instead, I got high SAT scores and the offer of a free ride at a small liberal arts college.

I did very well, getting straight A’s and lots of attention from the faculty. I had a literature professor who loved my papers and called me into his office to tell me I ought to be an English major. I was well-prepped in German and was told my readings and analysis of Rilke were sublime and I should seek full immersion in the language. My soul was in danger! I was a scientist, damn it, and the liberal arts were seducing me!

I could have drunk deep from that Pierian spring, but instead, my father began his long slow descent into poor health. He suffered a series of small heart attacks at long intervals that gradually gnawed away at that great heart and would eventually kill him in 1993, but we all saw the doom coming. I also missed the ocean and mountains and home was calling me back, and I was desperate for more science.

So I transferred to the University of Washington, first as an oceanography major, which later evolved into a zoology major. I got a fairly sweet deal from the UW, but not quite as good as what I had in Indiana, so I would spend the next three years working two part-time jobs at a time to cover the difference, and my summers were spent in unrelenting drudgery: I worked at a wholesale nursery, with acres and acres of pots of kinnickinnick and other common landscaping staples, and they all needed constant weeding. So that’s what I would do: start at one corner, go up and down row after row, yanking up unsightly weeds, and when I reached the end, a fresh crop of new weeds would be coming up back where I’d begun.

So that was my dismal summer of 1976: sick father, a sad departure from a good university, an upheaval in my life, and weeding.

And then the fraternities came calling. They wanted me to come party.

I guess the University of Washington shared my information with the fraternity system (I might well have checked a box giving them permission to do so — I filled out a lot of forms that year), and what they saw was a new student with a high GPA, high SATs, and a focus on math and science, and they wanted me. Well, that is, they wanted someone to bring up the house grade point average, and they were scouting for ringers they could salt the house with to hide the abysmal academics of the other brothers. They eventually wouldn’t want ME in particular, because, as I said, I would learn that I’m a very boring drunk, and I would also learn that being a fraternity member in good standing would require a state of near-constant sozzlement, punctuated with episodes of falling-down puking picklation.

I attended a weekend party at a frat house in Seattle. It was an escape from drudgery, I thought, and a good way to get back into the academic world…hah. It was memorable.

First, there was the tour of the house. It was nice. On the second floor, there was a window facing an equivalent window on the next-door sorority, where women would put on masks and dance naked to titillate the brothers, while the men would reciprocate by flashing their genitals. Even before cell phone cameras and the Internet, there was a lively tradition of dick pics and ‘show yer tits’.

On the roof, they had an elaborate rig of surgical tubing that they could use to slingshot water ballons across fraternity row. They assured me that the cops would never figure out where they were coming from. I didn’t try to test that assumption.

The waning hours of the afternoon were spent on the massive front deck, where they had a keg of beer and deck chairs. The fun of the day was to spend your time drinking beer and cat-calling the women walking by. Oh, and talking football. In my hopes for good conversation, the weedy plant pots of Taki Nagasawa’s nursery were calling to me.

The highlight of the evening was Casino Night. They had a roullete wheel, craps table, poker games, etc., and they gave us new prospective members a fistful of chips and a plastic cup and turned us loose. If that cup were empty, they’d fill it for you with rum and coke, a delicious drink I’d never tasted before, and which I unknowingly drank to excess (note: I was 19, and the frat knowingly gave me a bottomless cup of hard liquor). Apparently, they had dates arranged for us, too, but when the alcohol hit my brain, it did not turn me into the life of the party. When I felt wobbly, I sat down in the corner. When my speech was slurred, I shut up. So I spent the night sitting away from everyone else, avoiding conversation, and nursing a half-empty plastic cup.

And that was my experience with university fraternities. I did not repeat it. I did not fit in, and they seemed like a mechanism to insulate themselves from actually learning anything and instead spend their time reinforcing each other’s adolescent stupidities.

The Larry Wilmore Show has it exactly right when they have an actor respond to the recent incident in which an Oklahoma fraternity chanted There will never be a nigger SAE: the excuse is that fraternities aren’t about exclusion, A fraternity is about including people who are exactly like you. And, I’d add, giving them permission to indulge in the kind of behavior mommy and daddy would never allow.

They are the antithesis of what a university should be about: new ideas, diverse people, maturing from childhood to productive adulthood.

But let’s give a bit of space to the usual excuses.

College fraternities—by which term of art I refer to the formerly all-white, now nominally integrated men’s “general” or “social” fraternities, and not the several other types of fraternities on American campuses (religious, ethnic, academic)—are as old, almost, as the republic. In a sense, they are older: they emanated in part from the Freemasons, of which George Washington himself was a member. When arguments are made in their favor, they are arguments in defense of a foundational experience for millions of American young men, and of a system that helped build American higher education as we know it. Fraternities also provide their members with matchless leadership training. While the system has produced its share of poets, aesthetes, and Henry James scholars, it is far more famous for its success in the powerhouse fraternity fields of business, law, and politics. An astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities. Many more thousands of American men count their fraternal experience—and the friendships made within it—as among the most valuable in their lives. The organizations raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, contribute millions of hours in community service, and seek to steer young men toward lives of service and honorable action. They also have a long, dark history of violence against their own members and visitors to their houses, which makes them in many respects at odds with the core mission of college itself.

They are a product of tradition, a tradition which has evolved to now exist as a tool for young men of means to associate with other men of means and perpetuate the old boys’ network in ways that will allow them to propagate the same biases and wealth for another generation. As that article points out, they’ve also managed to entwine themselves into university administrator’s penny-pinching sensibilities: they provide student housing that the university does not have to pay for. What a deal!

But of course fraternities are not just strongholds of cliquish bigotry. They also perpetuate sexism and abuse.

Fraternity brothers are three times more likely than their nonaffiliated peers to commit rape, a 2007 study found. Greek houses are often the primary purveyors of alcohol on campus, which is involved in 89 percent of collegiate sexual assaults. Women are not guests at fraternity events but, as one Georgia Tech fraternity deems them, “rapebait.” An intelligent, accomplished young woman becomes a “girl” whose own will can easily be disregarded or subverted. Or, to borrow from the chant of a Yale fraternity, “No means yes, yes means anal.” And it is just as clear that fraternities exercise their “dark power” (to borrow a phrase from Caitlin Flanagan’s masterful plunge into the Greek abyss) over administrators who are supposed to monitor them. Of the 95 colleges being investigated by the federal government for the mishandling of sexual assault complaints, all but about a half-dozen boast an active Greek system.

Now there’s nothing a university can do if a group of young men decide to rent a house off-campus and live together. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what they can do is stop nominally endorsing them. They should make it clear that riotous living is not part of the university’s mission, and that calling yourself by a series of Greek letters does not make you a classical scholar or a member of an academic community — too often, it just means you’re part of a brotherhood of assholes. It should not be presented as a perk of attending that university.

Maybe instead, universities should distance themselves in embarrassment from the leech-like cluster of party palaces that attach themselves to the campus. And there are little changes that they could make.

Like maybe the University of Washington should not share the addresses and academic status of incoming students with fraternities and sororities, as if they are a legitimate branch of campus housing. But maybe they don’t do that anymore — it was almost 40 years ago, after all.

But almost 40 years ago, and from the recent news, nothing at all has changed on the fraternity side.

(Also, lest I leave the impression that 1976 was a year without joy, that was also the summer I called up a high school acquaintance and asked her out on a date which eventually led to marriage and family and a happy lifetime together. It turns out that talking to a woman respectfully was a far more productive choice than going to a party with a mob of boys.)


  1. Usernames! (ᵔᴥᵔ) says

    It turns out that talking to a woman respectfully was a far more productive choice …
    — PZ

    A fact that the Elliot Rodgers of the world seem unable or unwilling to grasp.

  2. rietpluim says

    Nice article, thank you! I hate to think how many of the Western world’s leaders come from fraternities. It explains a lot though.

  3. anym says

    #2, rietplum

    I hate to think how many of the Western world’s leaders come from fraternities

    Outside of North America, fraternities have significantly less impact, and generally aren’t quite the same as the organizations discussed in the OP. I suspect that quite a few countries don’t have anything like them at all. There are plenty of groups that facilitate drunken, boorish assholes of course (sports clubs are the usual culprits) but they’re not institutions in the same way.

  4. says

    Frats aren’t even the kind of big deal in Canada they are in the US. They exist at many universities, but don’t get the same kind of attention.

  5. leerudolph says

    they provide student housing that the university does not have to pay for

    Oh, the university pays for it, all right. In all kinds of ways.

  6. says

    @4: My undergrad alma (Queens University at Kingston), in fact, banned “Greek letter societies” some 90 years ago. Can’t say anyone’s missed them (and it hasn’t stopped the place from being a bastion of establishment privilege, either).

  7. rietpluim says

    @anym #3 I honestly couldn’t tell, but I’m less optimistic than you are. Where I live, some students corpses are about as bad as the fraternities PZ writes about. Less openly racist or misogynist, but still the white, straight, old boys’ network where mindless alignment is considered a virtue. Though they do not reflect the reality of students organizations, they do deliver a lot CEO’s, CFO’s, diplomats, ministers etc.

  8. Dunc says

    I hate to think how many of the Western world’s leaders come from fraternities.

    AFAIK, fraternities as such simply don’t exist outside of North America. We in the UK do, however, have somewhat similar institutions is the shape of dining and sporting clubs like the Bullingdon Club, and various other organs of the Establishment such as elite public (i.e. private) schools. And then, of course, there’s the Masons… But at least they keep their activities quiet.

  9. twas brillig (stevem) says

    i’ll get to my meager “frat story” in a bit, yet I’ll share my ’76 reminiscence first. [beware] ’76 was my highschool graduation, shortly after being accepted to The ‘Tute (ie MIT). And after grad, did lighting for a local Theatre Company performing 1776. During the daytime, for my summer job, worked for a moving company, relocating the massive docs warehouse of a big Insurance company. I worked as the receiving staff to put all the files back into their new file cabinets in the new warehouse. End of summer, entered ‘Tute and discovered the very first week of entrance, before Reg(istration)day, is RushWeek. Unlike most colleges/universities, the very first week is when the frats gots to recruits its newest plebes, cuz the ‘Tute has insufficient dorm space and depends on frats to provide the necessary extra beds for the incoming frosh. I visited a few of the slightly jock-oriented frats (not a jock haven, the ‘Tute) but was immediately enamored of the Nerd Frat (i.e. nerdier nerds than the usual ‘Tute nerds). At the end of Rush, I was not accepted for induction to the nerds-of-nerds Frat (but my high school buddy was; we were the only two grads that year to be accepted by the tute) And I had to submit my name for dorm assignment, and was fortunate to be assigned to the best dorm evah (or so I like to believe). yada yada yada…
    –back to frat topic -=>
    I was amazed the even a frat of nerds would keep files of past Problem Sets(i.e. homewark assignments) and solutions, quizzes and answers, and semifinals and final exams with solutions; claimed to be “for study purposes only” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Not to mention the fratGPA focus. Not much concern about individual purpose, only individual perf. that degrades the frat’s average perf. There is something beneficial to the “brotherhood” nature of a frat system, yet I still think it goes a little too far. I had great experience moving off-campus and forming a little, independent living group, without the FRAT bureaucracy involvement. The extended-family feeling of such an experience is just as good as any fratbrotherhoodship [or so I tell myself]. Animal House is still THE classic takedown of the frat system by parodizing it to the extreme. I agree, it is time to let the archaic frat system go. away. forever.. burn, it. down. to. ashes. It terms of academics, it is very counterproductive. Very productive at creating charlatans and weasels. Do uni’s really want weasels as Alumni? I think not. Goodbye Frats, Do let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

  10. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Even better: if Fraternities are shut down, people may eventually stop assuming I mean one when I say “Tau Beta Pi.” >.>

  11. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    One of the reasons I am glad my daughter went to the branch campuses of UW (started in Tacoma then moved to the Bothell branch as Tacoma didn’t have her biology major). I’m not concerned about her getting tangled up in the Greek system, as she has no interest in behaving like a drunken prat, but of the fallout from those who do belong to it. I can’t believe my baby is graduating in June… sniffle.

  12. says

    twas brillig @11: Way OT: What course were you in? My wife (who is occasionally seen posting in these parts as Theo Bromine) was in Course VI from ’76-’80. So if you happen to recall a Canadian gal with long black hair…..

  13. screechymonkey says

    At my undergraduate school, fraternities were present but very much a subculture; they didn’t dominate the social scene by any means, but if one of your friends or neighbors joined one you could pretty safely assume you wouldn’t be seeing much of each other any more. They also had non-trivial membership dues, so many of us referred to Greek life as “buying friends in bulk.”

    More generally, fraternities (and sororities) seem to be for the type of person who wants to quickly identify a subgroup of people and say “you are all my friends, and we will look out for each other and cover for each other and whatever else is necessary, and everyone on the outside comes second.” For some people that comes very naturally. And there really can be an advantage to doing that — instantly acquiring loyalties and connections and just “folks to hang out with on a Saturday night,” which can otherwise be scary for people coming on to a big campus. Of course, the downside is that, as incidents like this show, you could end up allying yourself with some very unworthy people.

    It’s not something I could have done even if I’d wanted to because I make friends slowly. I could never get into the idea that a group of folks were going to be my friends just because we played on the same sports team, or whatever. I mean, I’m happy to have a beer with all sorts of folks, but I’m not going to declare someone my friend and make big proclamations of loyalty until I know what kind of person they are, and that takes time.

  14. PaulBC says

    At my undergraduate school, fraternities were present but very much a subculture; they didn’t dominate the social scene by any means

    This was also my experience at a huge state university about 30 years back. “Greeks” were out there and quite visible, but they were still only a small fraction of the student population. I wouldn’t say that any group dominated the social scene. That’s the advantage of size. It might be very different at a smaller school.

    (I liked PZ’s story, but I thought the interesting part was how he was almost lost to science. The Sorrows of a Young Pharyngula would be a very different blog.)

  15. twas brillig (stevem) says

    re Eamon @14:

    Course VI from ’76-’80.

    What a coinkidink!!!! That was EXACTLY the Course I was in!! Sorry, I don’t recall a Canuck with long black hair. Course 6 rulez, Theo!!

  16. scott says

    I was MIT 90-94 and the system wasn’t much different than twas brillig @11 describes ten years earlier. Certainly they all kept ‘bibles’ of problem sets and tests. This was just before some highly-publicized alcohol-related deaths, so the system hadn’t seen a lot of change yet. It’s still true that MIT absolutely needs the fraternities for housing, even with new dorm construction.

    I was utterly uninterested in frats so I didn’t spend any time there in rush week other than occasionally mooching their snacks. (A few MIT frats are on campus but most are across the river in Boston*.) But there are some “independent living groups” that function effectively as fraternities but indulge in none of the culture. I think all but one are co-ed (that one is women-only) and they all had a very progressive, communal, social-justice vibe. All of my friends in those groups really liked them. So I’d hate to see the idea of the independent living group going away, but still ‘frat culture’ needs to be squashed like a bug.

    * This was sold, somehow, as a good thing- “it’s far off campus so you feel like you’re getting away from it all”. One February midnight walk home across the Charles is enough to disabuse anyone of *that* nonsense.

  17. says

    No, Bill Kristol, one thing is not like the other. No, rap music is not to blame for frat boys who sing racist chants. Several conservative commentators have come up with the “rap music” excuse, and here’s is just one of them:

    Conservative commentator Bill Kristol said on Wednesday morning that white University of Oklahoma frat members who were recently caught on video singing a racist chant were parroting the language they had learned from rap music.

    “When popular culture becomes a cesspool, a lot of corporations profit off it, and then people are surprised that some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they’ve been hearing,” […]

    He made the comments after co-host Mika Brzezinski, who is also white, criticized the rapper Waka Flocka Flame, who is black, for canceling a concert at the university despite using the N-word in his own songs.

    “If you look at every single song, I guess you’d call it, that he’s written, it’s a bunch of garbage, full of N-words, full of F-bombs,” Brzezinski said. “It’s wrong. And he shouldn’t be disgusted with them; he should be disgusted with himself.”

  18. says

    Well, this is a bridge too far, or a leap that just can’t be made. Apparently, the racist chants are all Dan Savage’s fault.

    The anti-gay Family Research Council is continuing its war with Dan Savage, the columnist and creator of the anti-bullying It Gets Better Project, this time by linking Savage to the video of University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing a racist chant. […]

    Blackwell told guest host Peter Sprigg, another FRC senior fellow, that it wasn’t a coincidence that the chant came “at a time when you have one of our nemeses, Dan Savage, who is now having his life story being portrayed on a new sitcom on ABC, you know, here’s a guy that’s responsible for the coarsening of civil discussion and conversation being celebrated, at a time when there are knuckleheads who are still spewing from their lips the sort of nonsense that we’ve heard from these fraternity members.”


    So it’s all the fault of those damn, coarse, gays … again. /sarcasm

  19. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Scott @18:

    during those walks across the Charles, did you count Smoots? Think it, “ironic”, that the Bridge is “Harvard Bridge”, while Harvard U is nowhere near it. I recall we always thought the Bridge was named “Harvard” by MIT because MIT did not want to be associated with such a cr*ppy bridge.
    ahhhh, … good times …

  20. ragdish says

    But one can only dream of the awesome inclusive U of M Morris PZ Myers sororfraternity or fratersorority of nerds. A group that champions diversity and would have no barriers in accepting all the geeky Kent Dorfmans. It would be a place where the Blutarskys would have hopes of getting their GPA well above 0.0. And it would be a bulwark against the neighboring creationist frat houses that flog their pledges as they repeat “thank you sir may I have another!”. One can only dream….but wait! It’s real! It’s called Freethought Blogs!

  21. boygenius says

    I joined because I was a party boy, didn’t want to live in the dorms, and NDSU didn’t allow freshmen to live off-campus unless they entered the Greek system.

    Looking back, it was a good education in how power corrupts, how duplicitous people can be, and how a vow of loyalty is only as worthy as the hand that pledges it. I lost my naiveté about taking people at face value during my time at the ΑΤΩ house. A more memorable and significant event than the “loss” of my virginity.

    Short version:

    Saturday: Long standing chapter rule. $50 fine if you get caught smoking pot in the house.

    Sunday: Executive chapter has a meeting and increases pot fine to $150, without putting it to a vote of the active chapter. This goes against parliamentary procedure.

    Monday: At the weekly meeting of the active chapter, myself and one other brother are singled out for imposition of the new pot fine. Yea or nay vote. I looked around the room and saw at least 8 other people that had smoked pot in the house – WITH ME – voting yea. I moved out that weekend.

    (Short version omits all the backstabbing, politics, and power struggles that led to this final outcome. Little boys trying to play grown-up don’t like following grown-up rules any more than grown-ups seem to like following them.)

    I don’t recall seeing any rapey or overtly racist behavior while I was an active member, and my own petty reason for ditching was… petty, but that said: Shut ’em all down. It’s no big loss.

  22. says

    Frats/sororities are such an alien concept to me, being Australian. Some universities do provide student housing here and there, but it’s mostly used by overseas students; most local students live off-campus, with family or friends, and commute (where it exists, student housing is often off-campus as well). There are certainly no grand houses on uni property available for groups of bros to live in for free – if there are such buildings they’re invariably used for actual uni stuff like lab or admin space.

    I’ve always assumed the pop-culture representations of frats we see in films and TV were based in truth but exaggerated: the endless partying, abusive hazing rituals, frequent instances of assault and rape, property destruction, Bluto! However the more I hear about the real-life behaviour of frats the more I become convinced that they contribute very little of value to their schools – or their members, for that matter – and should either be closely supervised if they’re to survive, or just shut down per the OP.

  23. Rey Fox says

    Animal House is still THE classic takedown of the frat system by parodizing it to the extreme.

    That must be why that movie is so unpopular on college campuses, and nobody ever seeks to emulate the characters or wear their T-shirts.

  24. says

    Rey Fox @26:

    That must be why that movie is so unpopular on college campuses, and nobody ever seeks to emulate the characters or wear their T-shirts.

    Celebrating the movie doesn’t mean one “gets it”.

  25. scott says

    @21 twas brillig – I hardly ever walked over the bridge but I’d definitely count smoots when traveling that way. I do have the same recollection about Harvard Bridge’s name- nobody wanted a badly-designed bridge named for MIT. I never cared enough at the time to find out what was so wrong with it though. Anyway, we usually just called it “the bridge”.

  26. David Marjanović says

    I guess the University of Washington shared my information with the fraternity system

    *massive culture shock*

  27. nathanaelnerode says

    “by which term of art I refer to the formerly all-white, now nominally integrated men’s “general” or “social” fraternities, and not the several other types of fraternities on American campuses (religious, ethnic, academic)”

    Yeah, definite point here. I know of several ancient college fraternities which have, AFAICT, suppressed “frat culture” or never had it. Most are usually “academic” or “professional” fraternities with a specific focus, specifically to contrast themselves with the typical “social” fraternities. (There are other problems with the clubbiness of such organizations, but they seem to be no worse than other forms of the old boy network.) Some are pure social organizations still.

    Important point: *all* of them are co-ed, and generally about 50/50. I don’t think there are any all-male organizations with a decent reputation left. Sex segregation seems to have very bad results.