Something’s Rotten

Banning fraternities would be one step toward combating racism and sexism on campus.

By Sarah Zimmerman

Campus fraternities have come under fire this year following a number of scandals involving stereotypically sexist and racist attitudes and actions. In response, the Viewpoints section, as it has oft done over the years, asks: Do we need fraternities on campus? Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) brothers still showed up in construction garb to a party on Cinco de Mayo, despite El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (M.E.Ch.A) de UChicago’s written request to “not perpetuate racist stereotypes” even before the party. Numerous fraternities have not upheld their own policies for “help[ing] end sexual violence on campus”, as outlined by the “Fraternities Committed to Safety” policy. Additionally, this failure to follow policies has failed to yield any real consequences for fraternity members. Effectively tasked with policing themselves, fraternities have shown little evidence of meaningful self-regulation, and, despite student activism, it appears as if nothing will change in the near future.

Complicating the matter is the fact that administrators have displayed a stunning lack of interest. Many have called for formal recognition of Greek letter societies in the hopes that if blatantly misogynistic or racist events were to happen, the whole organization would be held responsible. Such a common-sense disciplinary procedure is the case for any other Registered Student Organization. But, as Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen implies in a previously unpublished on-the-record conversation about sexual assault, this isn’t the case for fraternities. Acts of bias or violence are not perpetuated by the organization, but by an individual.

“[Greek recognition is] not something we have prioritized because we have [had] many years of this current system,” she said. “They're our students so we're going to work with them as our students.”

She additionally noted that she doesn’t see any real benefit of formally recognizing fraternities.

“I don’t see any evidence that universities where there’s a recognized Greek system that incidents of sexual assault [decrease],” she said.

She’s right, in that regard. There is a lack of substantive research on the matter, so it’s unclear whether recognizing fraternities would really have any tangible impact on the ways fraternities conduct themselves. This being acknowledged, Rasmussen’s refusal to even consider Greek life’s role in problems of sexual assault and bias on campus still is a troubling indicator that the administration has little interest in preventing sexual assaults from occurring in the first place.

“I’d rather focus on root causes and encouraging people to come forward, disclose and report,” she continued. “And, if appropriate, going through our disciplinary system. Because that’s how you address sexual assault.” 

The problem with this answer is that it’s only focused on addressing sexual assault after it has occurred. Addressing the reality of sexual assault is more than just offering survivors justice. It’s about instituting mechanisms in order to ensure that men and women on campus never become survivors in the first place.

Rasmussen claims to want to address the “root causes” of these campus problems, but forgets that fraternity culture is part of the problem. Fraternity brothers are 300 percent more likely to commit sexual assault, and women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to be assaulted. The university’s longstanding ambivalence to regulating fraternities only serves to perpetuate the myth that fraternities do not pose a danger to women on campus.

In writing an investigative report on the University’s problems with sexual assault and safety, I personally wasn’t surprised to hear so many alums point to campus fraternities as the real source of sexual violence against women.

After my conversation with Clover Carrol (A.B. ’75) about her experience of being fondled by a UChicago faculty member, she reached out over e-mail to talk about fraternity culture.

“I did recall one other thing about the U of C culture at that time,” she wrote. “I went to a frat party, loud music, moonshine in the punch bowl, etc. I ended up going upstairs to some guy's bedroom (it was consensual). On his door was a poster of a naked, sexy woman carved & labeled into cuts of meat. It shocked me at the time because it embodied an attitude of disdain and almost hatred for women that I hadn't encountered before.”

Another anonymous alum (A.B. ’95) remembers a similar hostility toward women. As a Vietnamese-American, she was surprised that at fraternity parties, she was “more sexualized as an Asian woman.”

Fraternity members interested in Asian women would commonly joke that they had “yellow fever.” When she asked her then-boyfriend, a brother, why fraternities continually objectified Asian students, he exploded.

“He got angry at me and slammed the door and pinned me up against the wall,” she said.

It can be argued that these events were perpetrated by individual brothers or that such events represent outdated attitudes that are hardly present on an ostensibly progressive campus like our own. It was only an individual who had that poster, it was only one person who violently attacked his girlfriend. A year ago, it was only a few individuals that used the N-word, or called Muslims terrorists, or said that “every girl is crazy to some degree.” And, just a few weeks ago, it was, according to FIJI President Clyde Anderson, only a “small number of brothers who wore construction themed attire” at the Cinco de Mayo party.

Even if that’s the case, all brothers are complicit in this type of abusive and problematic behavior. By allowing these unquestionably racist, sexist, and ableist comments and actions to continue unpunished, the entire fraternity is implicitly condoning them, giving brothers free reign to continue as they please. Some fraternities have removed individual members complicit of this type of behavior, but this is by and far an exception. To FIJI’s credit, it indefinitely suspended the brother who made a racial remark on the Facebook page before the Cinco de Mayo party. But, there were still multiple brothers who attended the party in construction gear, a racially insensitive act that still remains unpunished. And, as Delta Upsilon (DU) President Stephen Moreland said in an interview with the Maroon Editorial Board, specifically on sexual assault: “We’re not equipped to be people who are judging and evaluating cases.” Fraternity presidents are not looking to adjudicate over cases of sexual assault, even when it’s committed by their own brothers. They don’t want the responsibility of taking action, which only further shows that they are willing to passively condone this type of toxic behavior.  

Fraternity culture around the country, and here at the University of Chicago, has a long history of sexual and physical violence toward women and minorities. It is one of the greatest contributors to the “root cause” of college sexual assault and denying this fact only proves that the UChicago administration can’t be trusted to discipline fraternities in any capacity.

Banning all fraternities is a long-shot, especially on a campus with an administration as infamously reluctant as our own. There are undoubtedly upstanding members of campus fraternities who would find racist and sexist behavior of any kind abhorrent. Unfortunately, these good apples still belong to a rotten tree; ultimately, such a tree needs to be cut down before it can do any more damage.

Sarah Zimmerman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English and a Viewpoints editor.