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West Virginia University has suspended frats and sororities. Here's why it won't stick.

The Phi Kappa Theta fraternity at San Diego State University, where the fratnerity president died of an overdose in 2012.
The Phi Kappa Theta fraternity at San Diego State University, where the fratnerity president died of an overdose in 2012.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

This school year is only a few months old, and already several colleges have banned fraternity and sorority activities — at least briefly — after tragedies.

West Virginia University, which announced today it would suspended all fraternity and sorority activity after an 18-year-old was sent to intensive care from a fraternity house, is only the latest. Clemson University suspended fraternity activity for two weeks in September after the death of a pledge. A similar ban is in place at Emory University. Johns Hopkins University has banned open parties at fraternities for the rest of the semester.

Some of the bans are self-imposed by colleges' interfraternity councils, and some come directly from the university. Still, it's a safe bet that Greek life will bounce back for two reasons: it's remarkably hard to eliminate dangerous college partying, and colleges are as dependent on fraternities and sororities as Greek organizations are on colleges.

The two reasons it's hard to get rid of Greek life

Colleges can stop recognizing a fraternity or sorority or kick it off campus, a drastic step. But in many cases, the group can continue renting an off-campus house and hosting parties, and colleges will have even less control than they did before. Caitlin Flanagan told what happened when Wesleyan University tried to force its fraternities to go co-ed or move off-campus, and one opted for the latter:

Beta was able to have its cake and eat it too: its members continued to live and party in the house much as they previously had, renting dorm rooms on campus but living at the fraternity, with the full knowledge of the university. This put Wesleyan in a difficult spot; the house remained a popular location for undergraduate revelry, yet the school's private security force, Public Safety (or PSafe), had lost its authority to monitor behavior there. Meanwhile, fraternity alumni registered their disapproval of the new housing policy in time-honored fashion: "I will reluctantly shift my Wesleyan contributions to the Beta house, to do my part to provide students with the opportunities I was afforded during my time at Wesleyan," wrote a Beta alum from the class of 1964 to the university's then-president, Douglas Bennet.

At least when fraternities are on campus, colleges have some kind of leverage over them.

Colleges also need Greek organizations — for recruiting students and for retaining alumni as donors. As Flanagan writes, disciplining Greek organizations can spark a donor backlash. That's why even when the majority of college faculty would rather see a campus without fraternities and sororities, as the Faculty Senate voted at Dartmouth earlier this month, it's unlikely those votes will have any sway. Greek life is tenacious — and at WVU, as at Emory and Clemson and Johns Hopkins, it will inevitably return once the cooling-off period is over.

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