Fraternity reputations stained by stereotypes

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January 29, 2008

1:39 AM

Two things about stereotypes we all know to be true: they are unfair and they happen anyway. But sometimes we can learn just as much from the way those stereotypes are generated as we can from the half-truths they represent.

p. One community at the College is having its ugliest stereotypes reinforced this week and, unfair though it might be, it creates an opportunity of introspection for that increasingly troubled group. I’m speaking of the College’s network of 16 fraternities, which used to count senior William McClain among its most esteemed members until he was arrested Jan. 18 for embezzling several thousand dollars from a student-run charity.

p. McClain, former vice president of Beta Theta Pi, is another in a series of embarrassing blows to the reputation of the College’s fraternities. Every week, The Flat Hat’s Police Beat fills with reports from fraternity housing: vandalism, theft and disorderly conduct seem ubiquitous. A deeper, more troubling trend emerges in the bigger scandals.

p. There have been assaults, large-scale drug busts and the seemingly annual College tradition of a fraternity brother leaving campus due to accusations of rape. There were two incidents in the same memorable night back in April, when human excrement appeared on the crowded Theta Delta Chi dance floor. Soon after, a Phi Kappa Tau brother was caught shouting homophobic slurs at a large group outside of TDX.

p. For the non-Greek majority, these stories define the fraternity system. But the truth, as is always the case, is more complex than the stereotype.

p. Fraternities, by their own choosing, are heavily oriented toward partying. Their self-designed role in the college community is to provide weekend entertainment in the form of dancing, music and a lot of cheap beer. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing — my freshman year would have been much duller without it. But the cramped, uncomfortable fraternity housing — along with the sometimes overbearing emphasis on getting fall-down drunk — made me, and many of my classmates, move on after freshman year. Most students attend fewer fraternity parties once they make friends who have off-campus apartments and stop going altogether once they are old enough for the Delis.

p. Even upperclassmen within the fraternities tend to move out, deactivate or find new social outlets. The few who remain involved and dedicated through their senior year are viewed by the majority as a little strange. Maybe this is an unfair stereotype, but fraternities aren’t doing much to combat it. Older fraternity brothers seem to appear in a lot of unflattering news stories — embezzling money and denying accusations of sexual assault to name a couple. These few bad apples may not be representative of the whole, but they represent fraternities anyway.

p. It would be false to cite people like McClain as evidence for the growing suspicion around campus that fraternities produce the worst of the student body. However, it would be sadly accurate to call that an understandable misperception. Fraternities do get a bad rap. But until they give the rest of the student body a reason to take them seriously, to regard them as contributing something more than a social outlet for freshmen, their reputation will not improve.

p. Fraternities must seriously rethink what they look for in their members. Anyone immoral enough to steal money from a service group should never have been admitted to a fraternity, let alone elected vice president. While it would be unreasonable to expect his fraternity to foresee embezzlement, Beta Theta Pi clearly used the wrong set of standards in selecting McClain as a member and officer. People do not become this despicably corrupt overnight, and Beta Theta Pi chose to overlook his poor character in favor of other attributes. If I had to guess, I would venture that McClain is probably sociable and fun at parties. Both good qualities, to be sure, but qualities that the fraternity system — and not just McClain’s — has overemphasized to its own peril.

p. As McClain himself told The Flat Hat in a September article on fraternity rush, “We … mix a casual and friendly atmosphere with the important and serious principles we hold dear and expect to find in our potential new boys.”

p. McClain had obviously not given much thought to defining those principles, and I worry that he is not alone among fraternity leaders. Those officers who still have a chance to improve the role of fraternities in the College community should take this as an opportunity to consider very carefully what principles they hold most important and what their past misjudgments have wrought.
Max Fisher is a senior at the College.

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