Ten of the 14 fraternities in the University of Southern California’s Interfraternity Council cut ties with the institution this month, protesting stringent restrictions the university imposed in response to allegations of sexual violence at fraternity houses. The new rules, CBS Los Angeles reported, would include increasing security at fraternity parties, deferring rush to the spring semester, and receiving sexual-violence-prevention education through university workshops.
USC slammed the fraternities’ actions in a statement: “This decision seems to be driven by the desire to eliminate university oversight of their operations. The members are chafing at procedures and protocols designed to prevent sexual assault and drug abuse and deal with issues of mental health and underage drinking.” The university urged students not to join these fraternities or attend their events, which won’t be subject to the scrutiny university-affiliated groups receive.
The disaffiliated fraternities will no longer be able to use USC’s name or logo. They’ve created their own group: the University Park Interfraternity Council.
The situation at USC follows disaffiliations at the University of Colorado at Boulder, West Virginia University, and Duke University.
So-called “underground” fraternities raise a number of concerns for colleges. Being free from the rules that apply to other groups may facilitate dangerous alcohol and drug use, hazing, and sexual assault — problems that already abound in many fraternities. The risk of dangerous activity in underground fraternities also complicates calls for Greek-life abolition, because of the concern that dissolved groups would simply repopulate without their institution keeping watch.
The Chronicle asked Gentry McCreary, a consultant who works with fraternities and sororities on risk management and a former director of Greek affairs at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, what else colleges should know about this phenomenon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some reasons a fraternity might disaffiliate?
There are a couple. One has to do with sweeping, system-wide action. If there are one or two fraternities that have misbehaved or been in trouble for things, but we’re going to punish everyone, we’re going to do a system-wide shutdown. Those who are following the rules and behaving are being suspended along with everyone else. That certainly, depending on the nature of those shutdowns, can drive some people toward that decision.
Why are we seeing this now? What is motivating this phenomenon?
In the last five years, I think you’re seeing a lot more of it, and I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of trust between undergraduates, alumni, and the host institutions. There’s a lack of relationships there. Students and alumni don’t feel like they are getting the same level of support from their host institutions, and so it’s an easier decision for them to make. Just the basic logic, ‘With all the strings that are attached to the university recognition, what are we getting in terms of a return?’ I think a lot of groups have done the math and realize that in certain circumstances, walking is not that big of a deal.
Groups don’t want to walk away from university recognition, and they do it really as a last resort.
A place like USC is a perfect example. Duke’s another example. These are private institutions. These are institutions where the housing is near but not on campus. Whereas at a place like Alabama, that couldn’t happen because all of those houses are on university property. So a fraternity that’s in a house that’s on campus can’t say, “We’re going to be independent,” but then you’re going to move out of your house, right? That’s a totally different conversation. So there are certainly campuses where the lay of the land in terms of housing — public versus private —make it easier for groups to make that decision.
What risks does disaffiliation pose for Greek-letter organizations?
There are some concerns around health and safety. If a group walks away from university recognition, they’re no longer availing themselves of training opportunities around risk management, health, and safety the university might provide.
And then a lack of environmental control. When the university gets out of that business, when they’re no longer involved in controlling or managing or even influencing the environment in which students are engaging in some of these problematic behaviors, I can’t imagine a scenario in which that would make things more safe.
How should colleges deal with this phenomenon?
Partnership. Groups don’t want to walk away from university recognition, and they do it really as a last resort. At the end of the day, it really just comes down to relationships and goodwill. And that’s what we saw at USC, is that those relationships and goodwill deteriorated over a period of several months.
What recourse do colleges have when a fraternity disaffiliates?
They can make life hard on that group. They can say, for example, to parents at orientation, ‘Hey, these eight groups are not recognized by the university. We think they are more dangerous. We advise that you not allow your children to join these disaffiliated organizations.’ So you generally see some sort of PR effort aimed at educating prospective students and parents about the presence of any underground or unrecognized groups.
And then, obviously, those groups lose the ability to do certain things on campus. They can’t reserve space on campus. They don’t get to participate in the formal recruitment process that is hosted by the institution that the other groups are participating in.
Some have said that if colleges abolish Greek-letter organizations, they’ll just crop up underground. What does this mean for the Abolish Greek Life movement?
I’ve always felt like the Abolish Greek Life movement was pretty Pollyannaish. The whole idea is that universities should not recognize these groups. Students can still choose whether or not to associate with Greek-letter organizations. If, at the end of the day, all that’s occurring is that universities are withdrawing their recognition, then ultimately they’re choosing not to engage in and invest in student wellness, safety, et cetera. The idea that we can just ignore something and it will go away as a strategy for risk management seems to me to be a pretty poor strategy. It’s the head-in-the-sand approach. Embracing reform is a much more useful position in terms of actually making the experience better and making it safer.
Should we expect to see more of this? What should higher education take away from this?
I do see in my work at the national level a handful of national fraternities that are more and more willing to take this step, that just don’t see the value in university partnership and are more willing to go it alone without the university’s support. But I do think there are forces at play at the national level that are trying to get the word out there to campuses: ‘Here are the things that we need in terms of partnership. Here’s what we need in terms of due process when it comes to misconduct. These are the red lines that really can’t be crossed.’ And I do think people are paying attention to that because I think most campuses don’t want this problem. They don’t want independent IFCs. They don’t want to have an entire segment of the Greek community operating in the shadows.