April 10th, 2015

A video released in early March shows members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, chanting a racist proclamation that African-Americans would never be allowed to join the group. The video touched off a storm of condemnation and apologies, and it resulted in the banning of the fraternity from the school. Other fraternities were banned from other colleges within the next few weeks for racist and/or sexually exploitative behavior.

According to an NPR interview with opinions editor Emily Chappell, one of those fraternities, Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State University, was linked to private Facebook pages where pictures of naked women were posted, some of whom appeared to be passed out. This event caused Eric Barron, president of Penn State, to ask “if a re-evaluation of the entire fraternity system is required.”

Barron is not the only one asking these kinds of questions in light of all the media reports of bad fraternity behavior. The same thoughts have been expressed from an unlikely source: comedian and actor Will Ferrell. In an interview with the New York Times at SXSW last month, Ferrell stated that the incident at Oklahoma University “is a real argument for getting rid of the system altogether, in my opinion.” He made this statement even though he had been part of a fraternity in college and more recently played the comedic role of Frank “the Tank” in the 2003 movie "Old School," about older men who start a fraternity on a college campus. Ferrell pointed to the exclusionary aspects of fraternities, which, to his understanding, have been a change from the original aims of such groups. “Fraternities were started as academic societies,” he said, “that were supposed to have a philanthropic arm to them.”

History of fraternities

With some frats being banned from colleges and a call from some to dismantle the entire system, it might be beneficial to step back and examine the history that Will Ferrell cited in his interview. Where and when did college fraternities originate? How might reclaiming some of this history redeem the organizations?

According to an article featured on the San Jose State University website, “The first Greek letter organization [on an American college campus] was Phi Beta Kappa, which was founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.” It was a secret society because the meetings often included discussions about “taxation and freedom,” which were not allowed in those days. According to Phi Beta Kappa’s website, the first president of that fraternity, John Heath, “was determined to develop a student society that would be much more serious minded than its predecessors at the college, one devoted to the pursuit of liberal education and intellectual fellowship.”

The trappings that we often associate with fraternities were there at this beginning period, including secret rituals, mottoes and ideals that the group wished to spread to other colleges. Yale and Harvard established chapters of Phi Beta Kappa in 1780 and 1781, respectively. Similar organizations for women began to be established in the mid-19th century.

Benefits of fraternities on campus

The reasons why people join fraternities may have not changed much over the centuries, even if the perception of what fraternities do has changed. According to Patrick Daley’s book "The Fraternity Leader: The Complete Guide to Improving Your Chapter," quoted on the author’s website, The Fraternity Advisor, there are six reasons why males join fraternities. These are (1) to find acceptance, (2) to build their resumes, (3) to gain leadership experience, (4) to be with their friends, (5) to meet girls and (6) to attend parties.

These six reasons are the opinion of the author, of course, but they do provide a glimpse of at least some of the reasons someone would join a fraternity. There are other reasons why people might join that do not involve parties and girls. There are fraternities, for example, that are dedicated to community service. Alpha Phi Omega is one such organization.

If the recent scandals involving fraternities have caused some to question the benefit of these organizations, are there good reasons for keeping them around? Besides providing the positive outcomes for members described previously, what benefits are there for the entire campus community? First, graduation rates among fraternity members are 20 percent higher than those who do not join. Many fraternities require a certain number of hours of community service, and members participate in fundraisers for other nonprofit organizations.

Kelci Lynn Lucier, a college life expert for, compiled some of the benefits of joining a fraternity. Lucier says that one of the greatest benefits is “the chance to prove stereotypes wrong.” At a time when fraternities are getting lots of press for all the wrong reasons, now would be a good time to highlight some of the stereotype-busting behaviors Lucier describes.

Campus ministries and fraternities

On college campuses around the nation, there are other organizations that exist to serve some of the same needs listed as reasons why people join fraternities. Campus ministries from a variety of denominations exist to reach out to college students. In The United Methodist Church, these ministries are often housed at places called Wesley Foundations. 

There are some Greek organizations that are explicitly Christian. Alpha Gamma Omega fraternity, founded in 1927, is one such group. Sigma Phi Lambda is a sorority founded on the same principles. (Sororities consist of mostly female students, whereas fraternities consist of mostly male students.)

Some Christian ministries exist specifically to reach out to fraternities. Greek InterVarsity, under the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA umbrella, is an organization with the expressed mission of “[seeing] the lives of fraternity and sorority members transformed, the Greek systems on their campuses renewed and [seeing] leaders who will go on to change the world for the sake of the Kingdom emerge from these settings.”

Babies and bathwater

The original intentions in founding fraternities as places of intellectual dialogue and social fellowship are benign, surely, and the benefits of increased graduation completion, social service hours and fundraising that come along with fraternities now seem sufficient to ask if the baby ought to be thrown out with the bathwater. Do the alleged bad behaviors outweigh all of the good that these organizations might accomplish? Can the problems that are illuminated by the stories of scandals be minimized in the future? The light that is being shed on these issues and the scrutiny that has followed have caused some national fraternities to act and crack down on particularly nefarious houses. So, simply making sure the stories about the behaviors are told is an important step in eliminating them.

A recent article in Time, written by Eliza Gray, offers three ways that colleges might work to “fix” fraternities. The first suggestion is that fraternities take alcohol out of the equation. Gray says that national fraternity organizations might be in a better position to make this change than the schools themselves, and she cites the example of Phi Delta Theta, which “announced plans to ban alcohol in every chapter house across the country by 2000.” Though there were fears that this would keep the fraternity from growing, it actually has grown, and so has the average grade point average (GPA) of fraternity members. The only thing that has shrunk is their insurance premiums — by half!

The other two suggestions Gray lists are to increase adult supervision at the houses and to allow for integration — meaning, in this case, allowing women to join fraternities traditionally only allowing male pledges. She doesn’t explain why she feels this will cut down on bad behavior, but diversity is certainly an antidote to the homogeneity that led to the racist chanting at the University of Oklahoma. As described earlier, the Christian church can play a role in helping reform fraternities. Campus ministries can be intentional about reaching out to those groups, while also making sure students are aware of the ways that these ministries can meet some of the same needs that are met by joining fraternities. By modeling good behavior, campus ministries would go a long way toward forming safe and inclusive communities at our colleges and universities. 

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