Looking Ahead: The Possible Future of Fraternities
As more and more university students enroll in US universities, the percentage that actually become fraternity members is waning. The cost of tuition is rapidly increasing, making the payment of fraternity dues less desirable. Since fraternity houses operate like a business corporation, they will need to find news ways to attract recruits for pledging or risk a loss in revenue. Fraternities are also suffering from the legal costs of alcohol or hazing-related lawsuits. Insurance rates are skyrocketing for them as well. Ultimately, fraternities may have to reevaluate the type of bonds that they promote.
In Chapter Five, it was noted that many fraternity members have obtained some of the highest offices in United States. As a class, fraternity members are in positions of privilege an power in the United States. However, each social privilege is attached to specific responsibilities. It is a privilege for fraternities to organize and govern themselves at the universities which still allow them to exist. In the brotherhood that is created, they bear responsibility to the campus environment. When the resulting bond leads to hazing or sexual assault, that is a problem. When fraternity members can bond in a fist fight with a rival, but cannot organize to share a philanthropy with that same house then that, too is a problem. Likewise, if a fraternity can unite to throw a huge party, but cannot find the cohesion to support its members in academics then that bond has failed. When a fraternity house forgets that it is accountable to the university environment, it can result in another strike against the fraternity image.
In the past year, the list of negative fraternity images continued to grow. For example, eight residential fraternities are closed down at Hamilton College in New York after two and a half years of closed discussion. All 18 fraternities at the University of Colorado self-impose a ban on alcohol after a rape conviction and a freshman’s drinking death (Rush 16). The OSU president of Theta Chi, Robert Wells, was arrested for suspicion of assault and criminal mischief after a pizza delivery man was treated for facial cuts and bruises (Barometer 10/4/96). Former president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Kylee Justin Brooks, was charged with first degree sodomy in relation to an alleged rape with took place on University of Oregon property (The Emerald 5/14/96).
At Louisiana State University, a university chancellor and his special assistant resigned after 49 out of the 54 minority scholarships were awarded to white students. An investigation revealed that Lambda Chi Alpha members had received many of these awards due to their affiliation with at least one of the administrator (The Oregonian 11/2/96). In the lack of fraternity dialogue, these actions will speak alone for their group. One possible fraternity future is that its members will choose to ignore such acts and public opinion about them will become increasingly negative.
A different future possibility is that fraternity members will begin to speak about such acts, but will do so blaming the public for stereotyping them. In the short-term, this strategy might strengthen the fraternal bond due to perceived injustice. However, it is unlikely to lead to long-term gains in public opinion. Given that fraternity membership is declining at OSU, both by numbers and by percentage of total student body, such a course of action is not in fraternity interest. Likewise, shifting university demographics will also have impact on fraternities at the national scale.
As more non-members enter universities, the power of fraternities might be met with great opposition. The privileged fraternity position is being contested today as fraternities lose power in the university environment. It is not enough to claim that they are misunderstood as a group because many fraternity stereotypes are confirmed in actions such as those reported above. If fraternities are to change their public image, they must replace negative reports with positive action.
A third future possible to fraternity members is that they might improve their image by changing the male bonding structure that they have constructed for themselves. They can learn to establish bonds not predicated on power.
Fraternity rivalry might be countered with experiments in inter-house philanthropy. Rituals might be altered so that they no longer promote division and physical aggression. University relations can be made more inclusive to non-members in various out-reach programs. Fraternities could welcome different campus groups into house meetings to discuss topics such as sexual assault. The national chapters and alumni might involve themselves in this process and demonstrates their commitment to change. By taking such actions, the negative images of fraternities can be replace with something more positive.
There is a dilemma in taking the above course of action. Where do fraternity members look for a different male bonding paradigm? Can academic theories help them in this exploration? The theories included in Chapter Three prove problematic. For example, Lionel Tiger might comfort those who believe that male bonding is part of male nature and not something that can be changed. However, in modern society the same patterns no longer apply. Men usually do not hunt for food, they shop for it. Therefore, human survival no longer depends on male bonding, and it is debatable if it ever did. Moreover, Tiger’s theory contains and implied threat: refuse to bond and you will not get any meant. If a man stands outside of the bonding system, he loses his protection from other men. Tiger’s theory analyzes male bonding but it offers little insight on how to change it.
In relation to this, feminist research also fails to provide a vision for change. Male bonding is based on the rituals that serve to oppress women. Even if men do not participate in these rituals, they are part of the same male bond which Susan Brownmiller describes. In Tiger’s theory men are trapped in our hunting past, in Brownmiller’s theory men can not escape from patriarchy. In both cases, these theories offer little positive vision or hope to move toward. Furthermore, it might proved difficult for fraternity members to find positive examples of male bonding that they can learn from. If self-inquiry includes learning about the German nationalist “männerbünde,” then what members do with that information could result in negative consequence.
In my third outline of possible fraternity futures, I provide several steps that could be taken to improve fraternity male bonding. In this description, my idealistic standpoint comes from the benefit of outsider status. Since I am not a fraternity member, I am not fully acquainted with the limitations within their system. Surely, I underestimate the difficulty involved in changing the fraternity structure on such a large scale. It might be impossible for fraternity members to change the power dynamic contained in their male bond. There might not even be strong enough desire by fraternity members to change the status quo. Therefore, the most likely fraternity future is one filled with more conflicts. The fraternity system will continue to defined itself from negative publicity brought on by sexual assault, hazing, violent behavior, and alcohol and drug abuse. These conflicts will be viewed in legal battles across the United States.
Like it or not, fraternity members will need to deal with their declining power at many universities. The university social order is being created, contested, and changed. The negotiated outcome might not work to the benefit of fraternities. In some cases, the university’s best interest might be to abolish fraternities. With this in mind, fraternity members need to explore new designs for change. A place to start is with more dialogue about male bonding in fraternities. Fraternity members must re-examine how they negotiate power, construct identity, and create a structured relationship – both among themselves and among non-members.