In 1863, the third president of Amherst asked his fellow college presidents what they thought of this new thing called a “fraternity.” The overwhelming consensus was alarm. They described fraternities as a “plague” and “un-American.” They “sow dissensions and produce factions,” said one president. “They have led to greater unkindness and ill feeling than almost anything else in college,” said a second. “Nothing but evil results,” said another.
Young rich men invented “social” fraternities to isolate themselves from their middle-class peers, thumb their nose at the religious values of their professors and wrest control away from the administrators who set their schedules, curricula and objectives. They came to prominence during a period of widespread and largely forgotten campus violence. At a time when militias were commonly called in to tamp down riots led by students armed with pistols and flame, the young rich men to whom fraternities appealed were nothing short of a menace.
Until the mid-1800s, and in some cases until the turn of the century, university presidents tried valiantly to close fraternities down. Brown, Princeton and Union, for example, banned “secret societies” and expelled students who attended unauthorized meetings. Their efforts would fail.
Fraternity men consolidated power by placing their own members in every conceivable position of authority on campus. Describing the 1860s, a Yale graduate argued that fraternity men were said to manage “the entire system of college politics.” A 1900 account from Northwestern reported that fraternity men conspired to ensure that only they received scholarships, leadership positions, and awards.
In their free time, fraternity men entertained themselves the same way they do today: with parties that bordered on perilous. Fraternity men invented the prototypical collegiate party that we now associate with higher education more generally. It isn’t enough to have a good time; they want their partying to smack of revolt.
Hence the latest in a long, sad saga of young people being gravely injured or killed at or after fraternity parties: Timothy Piazza, 19 years old, a pledge at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi, fell twice down the stairs after being instructed to drink what a forensic pathologist called a “life-threatening” amount of alcohol. Surveillance footage shows brothers carrying him, turning him over, pouring liquid on his face and slapping him. A massive bruise blooms on his torso. They put a backpack on him to make sure he lies on his side and doesn’t choke on his own vomit. Someone Snapchats his lifeless body.
At 10:48 a.m. the next day — twelve hours and one minute after he first appeared unconscious on film — they call 911. Only then did they spring into action, concocting a plan to destroy and withhold evidence. Now 18 of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers and the fraternity itself are facing 850 criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter.
In the aftermath of Piazza’s death, Penn State’s president wrote a heart-wrenching open letter. He detailed the facts about Greek life: excessive drinking, high rates of sexual assault, hazardous initiation rites and fatal accidents. He also listed the well-intended and genuine efforts by Penn State to change Greek culture — efforts that don’t seem to be working — and wondered if the right answer is abolition.
Let me be clear: Abolition is the only answer. All social fraternities — alongside the sycophantic sorority life that they exploit — must go. They must go permanently and forever, at Penn State and everywhere else. Reform is simply not possible.
In fact, Beta Theta Pi was a reformed fraternity. It was considered, in fact, a “model” fraternity, one that “reflected a national perspective on best practices.” It had strict behavioral guidelines, a no-alcohol policy, live-in adult supervision and video surveillance. But the investigation discovered that the fraternity engaged in sexually humiliating hazing and regularly threw parties where alcohol was served, spending $1,200 on booze in the days before the fateful party. Beta Theta Pi defied Penn State’s efforts at reform — revolted, even — and it cost Piazza his life.
Reform is not possible because the old-line, historically white social fraternities have been synonymous with risk-taking and defiance from their very inception. They are a brotherhood born in mutiny and forged in the fire of rebellion. These fraternities have drink, danger and debauchery in their blood — right alongside secrecy and self-protection.
They cannot reform.
To capitulate to the reasonable demands of outsiders would be to fundamentally change their culture, their role on campus, their very reason for existing. Avoiding risk and obeying common sense safety guidelines would undermine their fundamental character, the specific nature of their identity that is most vital to who they are. Becoming kinder, safer places would do such violence to their legacy that it would mean altering their organizations beyond recognition.
When I visit colleges to discuss my book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, I advocate for their abolition. Eyes widen, mouths begin to form the word “no.” “It’s impossible,” they say, their faces a testament to the power fraternity men still wield. Fraternities may no longer decide who’s in the yearbook, but they still exert control. The proof is in the knee-jerk insistence that they are too formidable to fight.
But we must push through this sense of impossibility. What happened to Timothy Piazza was a predictable tragedy, and there will be more unless we end Greek life for good. I make no claims that it will be easy. Fraternities have dominated campuses, defied authorities and rebuffed efforts at suppression for nearly 200 years. But in that time we have ended slavery, given women the vote and put men on the moon. Of course we can get rid of fraternities. College presidents, administrators and trustees just have to muster the will to do it. As for the rest of us, we need to keep pressure on them to do so, and keep counting the bodies until they act.