This is how fraternities end: In September, students at Wesleyan University received a 4 a.m. email alerting them that a fellow student had been seriously injured at a fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, after falling off the third floor. A few days later, the college announced that the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house was now off-limits to current students. This was just six months after the university president had informed students that another of the residential fraternities on campus, Psi Epsilon, was being sued following a sexual assault on campus that occurred the previous spring. A few days after Beta Theta Pi was made off-limits, the university announced that fraternities would need to become co-educational within three years or they would be shut down.
From a distance, it seems like the very existence of fraternities and sororities is bedrock to the American conception of college. And yet, the chain of events unspooling has been replicated at campuses across the nation, with sexual assaults, drunken injuries, and other destructive behavior putting colleges and fraternities themselves at huge risk for litigation, encouraging administrators to look at options for eliminating the Greek system once and for all. Like the preordained death of the National Football League, where fallout from concussion research might imperil the league, the demise of fraternities will come not with one decisive blow, but rather through a thousand lawsuits.
Across the nation, Greek Life is no longer the axis on which undergraduate partying spins. According to a 2013 UCLA survey of incoming college freshmen, interest in joining a fraternity has dropped to 15%, and half of students who enter college thinking they will join a fraternity lose interest during their first year. Between the rising costs of tuition and the added expense of fraternity dues, it doesn’t appear as though fraternity membership will be making much of a rebound in the coming years. In the past decade, large universities with once-massive fraternity cultures have cracked down on Greek life, with Arizona State University tearing down its vaunted “fraternity row” last year. In the past two months alone, following incidences of alleged sexual assault, racism, and abuse, different fraternities have been suspended at the University of Virginia, Clemson University, the University of Pennsylvania, and at least six other major schools. The staggering amount of suspensions alone points to a trend that demands scrutiny and reform, with outright banishment (as in the case of Wesleyan) not eliminated from the discussion. But in most instances, universities and colleges suspend fraternities only for a short time, before instituting measures that seek to reform the fraternities instead of eliminating them. After a pledge died in September during what appeared to be a form of hazing, Clemson University reopened the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity just two weeks later, having made the fraternity reform its alcohol policy.
Supporters of fraternities, like Pete Smithhisler, the president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, believes that they play a vital role in the lives of young men. “There’s a fraternity out there for every type of man, and members get a family away from home, which can keep them grounded while at college,” Smithhisler said. “Members also get leadership skills that they can use to interact with a diverse community and opportunities to connect with alumni and shadow them at their jobs or get help with internships.”
Obviously, the benefits of fraternity membership are clear for post-graduate prospects -- a 2013 Bloomberg investigation showed how fraternity members could get Wall Street internships by simply performing secret fraternity handshakes. But for Wesleyan student Will Croughan, the end of fraternities marks a total change in his attitude toward campus life. “I’m on the football team, and I feel at home at the fraternity,” he told Maxim. “At a school like Wesleyan, there’s not a lot of diversity, so athletes don’t feel like a lot of the student body… I wouldn’t have come to Wesleyan if they didn’t have fraternities.”
As fraternity membership has declined, interest in theme houses and cooperative living has risen, with more students seeking out like-minded co-eds in situations that either actively save them money or don’t add to their already crushing debt-burden. And it’s not as if these housing options are any less party-centric than the standard-bearers of Greek life would have you believe (it also bears noting that the Harvard Lampoon, which has done more for frat culture than anything else, is disseminated from a college without fraternities).
“Coop parties are pretty fun, there really weren’t a lot of rules,” said Michael Waldrep, a recent member of Cloyne co-op in Berkeley, a house that’s operated as part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, where students can live in housing that’s affordable and loosely regulated. “We used to have a bottle-breaking wall out in the yard. We painted a bullseye on it, and it was someone’s chore to sweep up the glass. But mostly living in a coop, this beautiful 100 year old house with a magnificent back yard that we kind of treated like shit, is where I figured out how to be myself.”
Many of the qualities that fraternities offer can also be found elsewhere, with a lot more normalized co-ed interaction. Sofie Karasek, a student at UC-Berkeley who founded an organization that works to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus, cites the segregation of fraternities and sororities as a sign of their increasing obsolescence.
“Ultimately, the Greek system is going to be phased out, solely because it’s so gendered,” said Karasek. “Women in sororities in some schools aren’t even allowed to drink.”
Karasek hopes that in the future, campuses will have a more public dialogue about substances and partying. “People are so taboo about discussing drugs or alcohol at fraternities, that in the absence of them you end up having open, honest conversations about drinking, sexuality, and respect.”
After moving out of the dorms her freshman year, UC-Berkeley senior Mohana Kute briefly considered joining a sorority, but was turned on to the idea of cooperative living by a friend.
“I love living in a co-ed environment, and by definition you can’t have that in a Greek system,” Kute told Maxim. “It has been a really great leadership experience for me, getting to cook and clean together, learn how to deal with finances. I’ve met so many different types of people and made a lot of friends. ”
If there is one thing we learned from the sexual revolution, it’s that open discussions are a social lubricant -- as awkward as they may sound in the abstract. And it’s not as if parties stop on college campuses the second you leave a fraternity, anyway.
Fraternity members can take heart in the development of non-fraternity social interaction over the past twenty years. In fact, it seems that much of the work fraternities originally set out to do -- make college more fun and promote life-long bonds, have now become so embedded in the college experience, that they simply might no longer be completely necessary as institutions. Over the next decade, fraternities will be made to go co-ed or dissolve, or promise to enforce stricter alcohol policies and eliminate hazing entirely. They must reform or they could find themselves booted off of campus -- with nary a dean to prank or pledge to paddle. They changed college forever, but might soon find themselves no longer welcome.
Photos by Everett Collection