April 13, 2023

KUBINEC | Frats Are a Problem — But Don’t Abolish Them

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I have to imagine that one of Martha Pollack’s most headache-inducing activities (aside from crushing Ryan Lombardi in bridge) is figuring out what to do about fraternities. 

I’m glad I’m not Martha Pollack because I’ve long been of two minds on fraternity abolition. Sexual assault is an enduring problem in the fraternity party world. Even at safer parties, I think the way women are commoditized by brothers deciding who can enter frat parties is disappointing at a school long committed to gender equality. I’m still angered by Phi Kappa Psi’s response to Antonio Tsialas’ death my freshman year — closing ranks, lawyering up and denying Tsialas’ family the dignity of knowing the details surrounding his death (not to mention that, as far as I can tell, everyone involved in the dirty rush event still received their Cornell diploma). Sometimes the system seems irredeemable. 

But advocates for Greek life abolition rarely talk about what comes next, tacitly assuming social life will remain the same while abusive behavior between students magically disappears. I’m convinced of neither point — I think our problems with men run deeper than fraternities, and despite its numerous flaws, I think Greek life creates a social fabric that we would be more fractured and isolated without. But to make this all more concrete, what happens to colleges in the years following fraternity abolition?

Williams College has disallowed fraternities since the 1960s. Today, three large houses sit on Hoxsey Street, just a few steps from the sleepy Massachusetts campus. Leases for the big houses go quickly, and the only social groups cohesive enough to land them are sports teams. These pseudo-frat houses throw open-door parties on Friday nights, and Williams students will shuffle over to whichever house is “throwing on Hoxsey.”

Andrew Nachamkin is a junior at Williams who described to me a social scene where students can struggle to maintain friendships. The majority of friend groups that stay intact tend to come from organizations gathered around a common cause. 

“When I think about all the people I know living in groups, a huge percentage of them are either in sports teams together or acapella groups together or affinity groups together,” Nachamkin said. 

When thinking about frat abolition, we need to consider what sort of environment would spring up in the aftermath. Post-frat Cornell would see the diminished party scene and fractured social life based around shared characteristics present at Williams. If you can’t sing or swim and don’t feel affinity for affinity groups, where can you go to find deep friendships? 

I don’t think our weirdly brutal club scene would fill the gap. God help us if coffee chats and mandatory G-Body meetings become our primary social engagements. 

To be fair, Williams’ enrollment is smaller than in our Agriculture school — what about fraternity abolition at more comparable colleges?

Stanford graduate Ginerva Davis explored west coast Cornell’s shift away from a quirky strain of Greek life to a bureaucratized social scene in a beautifully-written article this summer. Davis chronicles Stanford’s stripping-down of Greek life and dystopian renaming of houses with random numbers and letters. 

Cornell seems to be edging in this direction with its massive expansion of mandatory dorm housing and semesterly sanctions on Greek life. This isn’t necessarily bad. Cornell isn’t exercising control over Greek life for grinch-like reasons; it’s doing so because the University has a duty to protect its students from violence. The worst fraternities should be removed, and members of Greek life who commit crimes should be expelled. But dismantling the fraternity system presents a separate host of problems. 

Fraternity abolition in the name of safety backfired at Stanford, writes Davis, who describes the creep of depression and loneliness at the once-lively school. She recalls overhearing a student speculate that it would take people between four and seven days to find him if he died in his room. Plus, students still binge drink, just in smaller and sadder groups. 

A fraternity ban, which tends to accompany a sorority ban, would pull the rug out from under some of the most cohesive social groups at Cornell — a school that consistently scores in the “moderately high” category of the UCLA loneliness scale. The suite-style Cornell dorms segment students into isolated groups and, for the most part, fail to create meaningful communities. Forcing students into fractured and sterilized social arrangements — as happened at Stanford — would feed the depression and loneliness that countless Cornellians struggle with, a battle we would wage alone inside our dorms. 

Anthony Bradley, professor of religion, theology, and ethics at the King’s College, makes the case for Greek life in his new book Heroic Fraternities. Bradley looks at the isolation, depression and despair facing young men in America today and argues that rightly structured frats forge deep friendships, create fun and produce men of character. He says the voyeuristic frat film genre has made the worst fraternities on the fringes appear mainstream. 

Most fraternities aren’t abusive. Aidan Ackerman ‘23 told me he always felt safe opening up about his mental health struggles with his Cornell fraternity brothers — and eventually found a community where he could flourish. 

“I have a group of men who share my desire for self-actualization and who are willing to support me on the journey,” Ackerman said. 

As for the worst few, Bradley presents data showing abusive college kids are still abusive without frats — citing the unchanged rates of sexual assault at multiple schools that phased out fraternities. Post-frat Cornell would see de facto fraternity parties likely thrown by sports teams that would be more difficult for Cornell to monitor — and attended by the same bad apples as before. To once again invoke my favorite Martha Pollack-ism: This is unfortunately the hand we’ve been dealt.

The other side of fraternity abolition is not Cornell minus sexual assault; it’s Cornell with the same vices but a lonelier student body and less and less binding us together save for the desire to earn a lot of money after graduation. 

This week, some students hosted a picnic on Libe slope with the prompt invite a friend you admire but don’t see often. When my admired-but-rarely-seen friend and I showed up, I realized that all the people I knew at the get-together were part of Greek life. Greek life at its best creates excitement around social entrepreneurship — a sort of engine that makes social life vibrant and interesting and organizes a redhead run on St. Patrick’s Day. 

I turned away from the gathering for a second, looking up towards the scattering of students lounging above us on the slope, playing music from speakers and trading gossip. I thought about how strange and unpredictable and beautiful human connection is, and how cautious we should be to preserve it. 

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.