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.)