On the Positive Features of Drunken Idiots

I was invited to a dinner last night hosted by one of the umbrella organizations for fraternities on campus, with a stated goal of improving communication between faculty and frats. It ended up being kind of a weird crowd-- most of the non-students there were Deans of one sort or another; I think there was only one other regular faculty member there. I'm not sure quite how they drew up the invite list, but I suspect the two of us are probably among the most sympathetic faculty members-- I went to a school without frats, but the rugby club was functionally equivalent, and the other guy proudly introduces himself as a brother of one of the fraternities on campus (though he was in a chapter at a different school).

I think this was probably a step in a positive direction-- possibly prompted by the big splashy anti-frat article in the Atlantic not that long ago (the most shocking thing about which was that it took almost two weeks for somebody to forward it to the all-faculty email list). A pretty small step, though, because as I said, the regular faculty there were those most likely to be sympathetic-- the people who would need the most convincing weren't there. But I'm not sure the most anti-Greek faculty would ever go to something like this, so it's probably reasonable to start where they did.

I didn't end up getting into any deep issues of policy-- I was seated close to a couple of football players, and had sprained my thumb playing basketball earlier in the day, so we mostly talked about sports. Which was fine by me, as I don't have any significant power to change anything. I did ask one thing intended to get at an underlying issue, namely "What is it you get out of being in a frat that is different from being on the football team?"

As I said, my own education was at Williams, which famously eliminated fraternities back in the 60's, so I don't have much first-hand experience of Greek organizations. My long-standing impression, though, is that a variety of clubs and sports teams had more or less stepped into the particular social roles filled by frats at a lot of schools. The rugby club in particular was functionally equivalent to a frat in a lot of ways, despite our regular mockery of the concept: over-the-top parties, check; weirdly formalized rituals, check; general loutish behavior and bad attitudes, great big check. About the only thing missing was dedicated housing, but there were some off-campus houses that tended to be leased by members of the same groups every year. Similar things could be said about a bunch of other organizations, particularly the frisbee and water polo clubs, and the crew, football, hockey, and lacrosse teams. So my mental image of fraternities mostly maps onto sports teams. It was interesting to talk about the differences between the two for a bit, and what benefits each has to offer.

And that gets toward the critical point regarding communication between fraternities and faculty, which goes back to some comments in this typically perceptive post from Timothy Burke at Swarthmore about an attempt to launch a sorority there. As he points out, one of the key elements that's often missing from these debates is any real understanding of the other side, specifically what it is that students want that these organizations provide, and why they want it. This is the problem with suggestions like those in this piece from the Atlantic: "just boycott them" sounds great to people on the outside, but runs up against the fact that, by and large, the students who go to fraternity parties do so not because they're ignorant of other options but because they actively want to be in that sort of party environment. There's more than a little "deficit model" thinking in that piece, and it doesn't work any better in a student activities context than in a science communication one.

(And lest you feel inclined to write this off as weird aberrant behavior on the part of college students, note that this is much in demand more or less everywhere. Look up tourist information about any major city, and you'll find lists of hot bars and clubs. If you go to those what you'll find is basically a college party with $15 drinks: huge numbers of people packed shoulder to shoulder in a hot, loud room. This is something that lots and lots of people want, for some reason; it's just that very few of them are college faculty.)

(If you want a real "dark secret" of the relationship between colleges and Greek organizations, it lies in this area, but I don't want to go into that right now.)

So, had I been asked for direct advice to fraternities, what I would've suggested is that they need to do a better job of articulating the positive aspects of what they do, and what they get out of it. In the absence of that, faculty are free to define them in a negative way, in terms of the very worst aspects of the system (which, unfortunately, are more visible to outsiders).

But that's really easy to say, and harder to do. As I've said numerous times, though, I was a member of a group that was functionally equivalent to a fraternity in a lot of respects. And I wouldn't really trade that in for a different experience. But why is that? What positive things did I get out of that experience that make me value it? And how would I articulate it to somebody who had a different experience?

In the end, it mostly comes down to connections, both within and beyond the institution. From playing rugby, I have a connection to not only guys who I played with, but guys I never overlapped with at all. I used to regularly go back for rugby alumni games, so I know guys who graduated before I ever got to Williams, and others who didn't arrive until I was long gone. If I find myself in Williamstown on a random fall or spring Saturday with nothing to do, I could go down to the pitch and find a bunch of people who will be happy to let me hang out and bullshit with them (assuming there's a home game, anyway). To some extent, that even stretches outside the college-- at Science Online last year, I had a really good time talking with Josh Witten of the Finch and Pea, mostly about rugby.

Given the line of work I'm in, these aren't especially useful connections in a professional networking sort of sense, but in a lot of other businesses they could be. But even that social connection by itself is worth something. It was even more valuable while I was a student, in that it gave me a way to locate myself in a complicated and confusing social scene-- one of the biggest complaints people of my era (and probably before and after, but I know less about them...) have about Williams is that the social scene could be very clique-y, with lots of tight little social groups. I didn't feel that all that acutely-- I was sort of peripheral to a lot of different groups, and could usually find somebody to hang with in any random place I wound up-- but that was largely because I was solidly attached to a particular group. I could wander around a good deal, but at the end of the day, I was a rugby player, and that gave me an anchor. For students who are (mostly) away from home for the first time, that kind of social network can be indispensable.

("Well, sure, but wouldn't it be better to get rid of the cliquey social scene?" you might ask. In an abstract sense, sure, but good luck with that. That kind of situation is almost inevitable-- it's a self-organizing feature of humans in large groups. Even virtual communities tend to sort out into small tight groups, as demonstrated by a lot of the arguments in and around Science Online over the last year or two. If you can't prevent clique-y behavior among a distributed community of people who only need to turn off the computer to get away, there's an infinitesimal chance of being able to avoid it in a residential college in the middle of nowhere.)

These factors probably account for the oft-cited fact that students who were part of Greek organizations and sports teams donate more money as alumni. The social anchoring provided while there leads to a more generally positive experience, and having an organization that extends across many years leads to a connection beyond your immediate peer group. People whose primary connection during their time is a group of like-minded classmates might reasonably feel a greater loyalty to that small group of friends than to the institution as a whole.

Unfortunately for any attempt to accentuate the positive, there's a sense in which the drunken idiocy is an essential part of this process, in that it intensifies the bonding experience. This maps onto the sports team thing again-- you'll often hear ex-athletes talk about a bond between teammates and fellow competitors, and even people who were on different teams during their playing days will feel more connected to each other than many others. On a small local level, I have fairly strong connections to a number of students who never saw the inside of a physics classroom-- in the sense of being happy to see them if they show up on campus as alumni, and wanting to spend time catching up with them-- because they were regular players in our lunchtime basketball game. Even a fairly relaxed pick-up game is enough competitive context to make connections that are stronger than just sharing a campus for a few years.

Of course, the opportunities to make intense connections through official sports teams are very limited-- even a big-time football program has maybe a hundred spots, and most teams and clubs are way smaller. Frats and frat-like organizations are a way to spread that around a little more, particularly at really big schools where the fraction of students who can participate in sports is small (Williams used to tout a stat that over 50% of the student body were involved in some sort of intercollegiate athletics at either the varsity or club level; that's not going to happen at, say, Maryland). And unfortunately for decorum, "Hey, remember the time we did that really stupid thing and all could've died, but we didn't?" is a powerful bonding experience...

So, that's an attempt to articulate some of the positive features of being associated with a bunch of drunken idiots in college, which might help explain the enduring attraction of Greek organizations. Can you engineer other structures to provide those in a non-fraternity context? Sure, as demonstrated by the fact that Williams doesn't have frats, and I was still able to get a thousand-ish words out of this sort of thing. If you eliminate fraternities and sororities, other organizations will step up to fill a lot of the same role, over time-- all you really need is an intense shared experience and an organization that persists for enough years to have an alumni community. You can even generate this in a more properly academic context-- the other group I'm most connected to at Williams is the physics department, and if I'm in town on a weekday, I'll make a point of dropping by to visit my old professors. But that's even harder to scale up, and especially difficult to extend beyond a couple of class years.

That's why I think that fraternities or frat-like organizations are more or less inevitable in a college context, particularly at American residential colleges and universities. This is not to say that there aren't problematic features to the system, or things that could be done to ameliorate the worst aspects. (Though, contrary to that sensationalistic Atlantic article, my general impression is that things have gotten better, not worse, over the last twenty-odd years.) But if you look at the sorts of experiences college students want enough to seek out, and what they get from them, the situation is a lot more complicated than Greeks being inherently Bad.


More than most, this post needs a disclaimer, so here you go: The above is my own meandering personal expression of my own opinion, and should not be taken as representing any sort of official view or policy of any of the many professional organizations I am affiliated with, including but not limited to Union College, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, ScienceBlogs.com, National Geographic, etc..

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So, what did the football players say for themselves on what the frat provided that their team didn't?

They talked about it as a way of diversifying their social experience. While there are a lot of football players in that particular frat, they saw it as a different identity beyond being just a football player, and a channel for hanging out with guys they wouldn't see otherwise.

There are certainly problems with the fraternity system as implemented at many universities, but I'm not convinced that abolition solves those problems.

As the Flanagan article notes, many fraternity houses aren't up to code. Neither, in my experience, is a lot of the off-campus student rental stock. Both of these problems can be addressed if the municipal or county (depending on location) code inspectors do their jobs.

There's also plenty of reason to think that pushing fraternities off campus will simply drive most of this scene underground. That has already happened with drinking: since students can't legally obtain alcohol at bars, those who want to partake will find other ways to do so, out of sight. For now, fraternities provide some of that outlet; without the frats, this whole scene will be pushed into off-campus housing, where the university has no control over it.

There is a certain extent to which fraternities concentrate anti-social behaviors (misogyny, rape culture, etc.). But eliminating the frats won't get rid of these behaviors. The sort of guys who do this will find ways to get together.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Apr 2014 #permalink