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Colleges depend on Greek life. That’s why it’s so hard to control.

Protestors outside the Kappa Delta Rho house at Penn State.
Protestors outside the Kappa Delta Rho house at Penn State.
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS via 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.

Fraternities have lately seemed determined to live up to their worst stereotypes: sexist, racist, and out of control.

At Dartmouth, the fraternity that partially inspired Animal House was accused of branding the skin of new members. Members of Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State are under police investigation for allegedly maintaining a private Facebook group featuring photos of naked, passed-out women. A member of Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of South Carolina was found dead. At North Carolina State, members of Pi Kappa Phi filled a notebook with jokes about rape and lynching, then left it at an off-campus restaurant. Students were sent to the hospital with alcohol poisoning after fraternity parties at Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin.

And that's just in the past 10 days.

Many college leaders seem sincerely appalled by the excesses of their students and determined to do something about it. But in many ways, college presidents' hands are tied. And this is what makes Greek life, even when it gets bad, so difficult to tame: colleges are just as dependent on fraternities as fraternities are on them.

Campus Greek life might be a monster — but it's a monster colleges created

Sigma Chi Colorado College 1895

By 1895, Sigma Chi had a fraternity house at Colorado College. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

The conventional wisdom is that colleges are afraid to take a hard line with fraternities because they depend on their wealthy alumni for donations.

That's probably true: former fraternity members are disproportionately represented among the wealthy and powerful. But the interdependence between fraternities and colleges is deeper than that, and goes back at least a century.

When fraternities were first established — and some are nearly as old as American higher education — they were secret societies in an adversarial relationship with colleges, who didn't approve of their existence.

By the turn of the 20th century, though, it was clear that fraternities weren't going away. And as they became more entrenched, building houses directly on or adjacent to campuses, they were also doing colleges a favor. Colleges no longer had to house students or supervise them; the fraternity was doing it for them.

"The wiser among college officials are encouraging the development of fraternity life in every way possible," Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities, a guide to the already flourishing societies, instructed in 1920.

As Caitlin Flanagan wrote in her investigation of fraternity culture and lawsuits for the Atlantic in 2014, this dynamic hasn't changed:

Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).

And things have to get bad — really bad, like singing-about-racism bad — for fraternities to get kicked out of their on-campus houses or to lose affiliation with their universities.

The basic bargain is "don’t kill anybody, and we’ll renew your contract," says Alan DeSantis, a professor of communication at the University of Kentucky who in 2007 wrote a book, Inside Greek U, about fraternity and sorority life. "If the universities were really committed to kind of this mission … of enlightenment and changing lives and diversity and questioning, you think there would be something, somewhere, that says, 'You have to do more.'"

Instead, colleges pursue regulations that make them less liable legally for deaths and accidents — such as forbidding fraternities from hosting parties with alcohol on campus — but might not be any better for their students, who end up going off-campus instead.

"People point to athletics as being broken, as well, but one thing we do is we take care of and nurture our student athletes," says DeSantis, who was in a fraternity in college, has served as a fraternity adviser, and says Greek life can be a positive experience for students. "We would never put these guys in a house and say, 'All right, you're 18 years old, you have all the freedom in the world, go crazy and we won’t kick you out of your house or out of the university as long as you don’t kill anybody.'"

Colleges put Greek life at the center of their social experience

Partying, partying, yeah. (Shutterstock)

It's not just the housing. A major part of how colleges market themselves is as a social experience — and on many campuses, fraternities and sororities are key to providing that experience.

Once you start looking for it, it's easy to see how tightly Greek life is integrated into the university. Many colleges have a division within the student affairs office dedicated to overseeing fraternities and sororities, resources that often aren't available for students in other groups. Student government has seats set aside for members of Greek organizations, but not for members of other clubs, even if members of fraternities and sororities can win elections in other ways.

"The college campuses designed their festivities and cultural events around Greek life and make Greek life the center of them," says Matthew Hughey, a professor at the University of Connecticut who has studied the role of race and racism in Greek life. "And it’s why the student affairs offices pay them an inordinate amount of attention."

At least, that's the case for historically white sororities and fraternities — a group founded to be "the elite of the elite," Hughey says, and groups that have remained overwhelmingly white. On the other hand, black, Hispanic, and Asian Greek organizations are typically treated like other clubs — not given full-time oversight, assistance, or campus housing.

"They don’t put Greek life — all of Greek life — on the same level as other student organizations and equalize it," Hughey says. Instead, administrators know how important the Greek social scene can be, not just for their relationships with alumni but for the college's reputation: "They keep relying on Greek life to play that central role and white Greek life to play that central role in campus culture."

Hughey and DeSantis are among the few university professors who have studied Greek life in depth. And while they don't agree on all aspects — Hughey sees historically white fraternities and sororities as existing to perpetuate wealth and power, while DeSantis argues in favor of the social experience they can provide — they agree that colleges should do more to control what happens on campus, and to ensure that student groups affiliated with the university uphold the college's mission.

The problem is that even slightly deemphasizing Greek life, by treating the groups like any other campus club, is a controversial prospect. DeSantis is a faculty adviser for Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Kentucky. And he argues that colleges need to start holding fraternities to a higher standard.

Has a college president ever called up one of the few academics to study campus Greek culture and ask for what they should do? They have not, he says. And he's not sure he blames them. Changing the fraught but interdependent relationship between universities and fraternities is a tall order: "If I were a university president, I’m not sure I would want to tackle this issue."

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