Colleges and Fraternities
How Union College, Viet Nam, Changes in the Legal Drinking Age, Animal House and Large Jury Verdicts Shaped a Relationship

In writing their 1/7/14 editorial, the Bloomberg writers concluded that fraternities should be abolished.  In doing so they appear to be the following the advice of Dartmouth and SigEp alumnus Dr. Seuss: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”  But when attempting to assess the host of benefits and challenges that fraternities and Greek organizations bring to their host colleges, nothing is simple.

A lengthy, less-than-flattering article recently appeared in The Atlantic about the history of the fraternity system and its evolving relationship with colleges.  For those interested in the entire article a link is provided at the end of this piece.  In order to understand the complicated dynamics of the college-fraternity relationship, a brief history lesson is in order.  Parts of the following borrow heavily from The Atlantic article.

The original mission of colleges in this country was to train young men for the ministry.  The environment was authoritative with early morning prayer vigils, days filled with classes and evenings of study.   The concept of fun and social life played no role in the college experience. 

This dour existence began to change in 1825.  At Union College in Schenectady, New York, a group of students formed a secret club they called the Kappa Alpha Society.  They asserted that their right to do so was rooted in a young man’s right to freedom of association, a provision enshrined in the Constitution.   Their startling idea was that for the nation’s 4,600 college students some level of pleasure could and should be part of their college days. 

Fraternities were loathed by the authority figures on campus. But to the members, independence was precisely the point. They would decide how they would spend their free time, and they would do so away from the prying eyes of college administrators.

The popularity of fraternities waxed and waned through the years. A low point came in the 1960s – 1970s when suspicion of authority and organized groups made membership less attractive.  It was during this period, however, that a different notion of responsibility began to take hold. 

In the 1960s 18+ male students were old enough to be drafted and put their lives at risk in Viet Nam.  If they were forced to carry that “adult” responsibility, why did they need chaperones to guide them through their college years?  They didn’t need an alma “mater” or “pater” for that matter. The result was that colleges began to treat students as adult consumers.  Regulations (parietals) governing when students of opposite sexes could visit each other in their dormitories largely disappeared.  For a period of time in the 1970’s the nation’s legal drinking age was lowered to age 18.  The question about who assumes the risk of college life became more complicated.

The doldrums for fraternities continued through the 1970’s.  Many closed while others dwindled in membership.  While some may call it coincidental to a trend that was already in motion, others credit Hollywood for the resurgence in popularity.  The 1978 hit movie Animal House combined the best and the worst that fraternities offered their members and host universities.  Partying for its own sake was acceptable as students were less preoccupied with shaping events in Southeast Asia or ousting unpopular presidents.  The notion that fraternities were the place to have fun was reborn.

In 1984 campus life was complicated by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.  Although decisions about the legal age limit for drinking were typically made by the states, essential federal highway improvement dollars were available only to those states that adopted 21 as their legal drinking age.  That ushered in a dramatic change in campus social life.  Previously, legal college drinking was done under relatively supervised circumstances at local bars and college-sponsored events.  With 75% of a typical college’s population under age 21, this was no longer possible.  Of necessity, drinking and many of the most popular social gatherings migrated to private houses not controlled by the colleges. 

This resurging popularity of fraternities coincided with a mid-1980’s legal shift that bedevils colleges and fraternities to this day.  This began the era of huge jury verdict awards accompanied by the notion that a plaintiff can acknowledge partial responsibility for the actions that caused his injury but still recover damages from defendants.  It might not matter that the student was underage while drinking or drinking excessively; those who had a hand in providing the environment where the drinking or the accident took place, or who knew or should have known about a dangerous situation, could be liable.

Premiums for fraternity liability policies soared.  Providers of policies ranked fraternities as their sixth worst risk, just ahead of toxic waste removal companies.  National fraternity organizations stepped in to assume the task of either providing or finding insurance coverage for their chapters.  The nationals had the delicate task of providing legal protection for the normal operations of their member chapters while at the same time cracking down on the bad behavior of isolated chapters and individual members.

Fraternities and other Greek letter organizations provide a vital service to their colleges that is often overlooked by the latter day abolitionists.  Many colleges are dependent on fraternities to provide and maintain housing that supplements what the college has available.  By some calculations as many as one eighth of residential  students at private colleges spend part of their college years residing in fraternity-operated housing.  If all Greek letter organizations closed their doors, a campus housing crisis would quickly follow.

Although of lesser importance at Dartmouth, fraternities are key marketing partners of their host colleges when they compete for the annual pool of high school seniors.  In addition to wanting an excellent education, most students aspire to an enjoyable social life during their college years.  Many colleges have been content to largely delegate the organization of social activities to the Greek letter organizations.

So, if Bloomberg’s simple solution was wrong, what is the answer?  How can fraternities justify their existence at a time when many in the news media hold them primarily responsible for the bad behavior on today’s college campuses?  Can they continue to provide that enhanced social experience the students at Union College were seeking in 1825 and at the same time rein in the excesses that stain their reputation?  While excessive drinking and hazing are “old” problems, the incidence of sexual assault is a serious new challenge.  How should that be addressed?

In this and future newsletters you will read about the efforts of SigEp on both the National and Local level to implement programs that will positively impact the undergraduate brothers.  We’ll review the Balanced Man Program, initiated at the NH Alpha (Dartmouth) chapter whose goal is to develop the character and leadership in the young men who join SigEp.  We will talk about the Alumni Volunteer Corp (AVC) whose mission is to oversee the affairs of the SigEp Hanover chapter and develop policies that will enhance the most positive aspects of the fraternity experience while attempting to eliminate behavior that is unacceptable and dangerous.  We will also bring to your attention the many laudable acts of volunteer work, academic achievement, and expanded social opportunities the Hanover chapter provides.

The popularity of Greek letter organizations is at an all-time high at Dartmouth.  Almost 70% of eligible students – both male and female – belong to one.  There is no question that they enhance the richness of the student experience.  But there is also no question that they have to change.  Most college administrations will no longer tolerate bad actors.   Some remain ambivalent about getting involved in regulating private organizations on their campuses and the ensuing howls of protests from contributing alumni.  But in addition to believing it is the right thing to do, the ambiguous nature of the liability question is forcing their hands. 

Fraternities can and should remain true to their original raison d’etre, to provide an enhanced social experience to their members.  In order to survive and thrive, however, they have to do more.  Please join us in nurturing the best that SigEp has to offer.

The Atlantic article

Bloomberg editorial

by David Clark '76