No, It’s Not Time to Abolish Fraternities

The recent headlines are awful. But they don't represent the enormous majority of fraternities and sororities that do great things in this country..

It was a bright spring day in New York City. And the doorman was just minding his own business, watching the traffic go by on Park Avenue. My mission was to steal his hat.

John was my accomplice. We had a plan. I hid around the corner of the building while John casually strode toward the doorman, purposely looking lost. John had a map in his hand. He stopped the doorman and asked for directions.  And when the doorman looked at the map with John … I sprang into action. I ran down the block and before he knew what was happening I snatched his hat off his head and galloped away. John took off in the other direction. 10 minutes later and 10 blocks away, John and I re-grouped to gleefully inspect our treasure.  We got the hat.

Yes, we were pledging a fraternity. And, like today’s fraternity and sorority members, we were college-aged idiots.

Looking back at the times I spent in my fraternity, I wince at some of the stupid stuff we did. The unhealthy liquids we drank. The excessive drinking that only college students know how to do. The silly pranks we played on other fraternities and the things we were made to do (i.e. finding our way back at 2 a.m. from a cemetery across town after being “kidnapped,” singing songs in the library during finals week, stealing hats from unsuspecting doormen) in order to be in good favor with the “brotherhood.” I know, it all sounds ridiculous. And it was.

But here’s the thing: 30 years later, I’m still in touch with the guys in my fraternity. I was never the most devoted member. And I’ve missed the great majority of events the fraternity has had over the years. But I get the emails. And the guys I still talk to and see are the guys that I cared about most. And for everyone else — they’re there. Some of them I haven’t seen since I graduated but know that I could still call on them if I needed. Even 30 years later. That’s  because of the experiences we shared and the silly things we did back in college. Being a member of a fraternity or sorority means having “brothers” and “sisters” for life. For some people that’s not important at all. For others it’s very important.

And now, in the wake of recent incidents at the University of Oklahoma and Penn State there’s a call to abolish fraternities. “The American fraternity has no place in the 21st century,” writes the author of a book about fraternities (who clearly did not have a good experience at his fraternity). “It’s time to abolish fraternities,” says another blogger. “Disband the club,” storms a British newspaper. “We’re pretty freaked out by you. Good luck with all of that hate and insecurity,” warns a Philly Mag writer.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at University of Oklahoma and Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho should be disbanded and its offending members (who are over 18 and consensual adults) should be prosecuted. Let’s not get into the details. They are assholes. What they did or are alleged to have done was horrible. And that goes for any other fraternity members who are racist, sexist, abusive or break the law. I have a daughter. I’m Jewish. These kids (and their ridiculous, ignorant house mother and likely their parents) should be held accountable for their behavior.

But please … let’s not carried away.

The enormous majority of fraternities and sororities in this country do good. You know that giant charity marathon (THON) at Penn State that’s raised tens of millions for childhood cancer? That’s put on by the university’s Panhellenic Council, a group of fraternities. In fact, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Greek life website there are 123 fraternities and sororities with over 9 million members and the country’s Greek system is the largest network of volunteers in the U.S. with members donating over 10 million hours of volunteer service each year. More students graduate college when they belong to a fraternity or sorority than not, according to the site, and a huge number of political and business leaders come from a fraternity background. For the great majority of kids, fraternities are merely a place to live, eat, socialize, study, collaborate and share the college experience with close friends. They are fun.

But everyone … just calm down. Yes, what the fraternities at the University of Oklahoma and Penn State did were really, really bad. But does that mean millions of kids and alumni who enjoy and benefit from an organization have to suffer because a tiny portion of people did something bad? Are there not bigger issues to worry about? Let the national chapters (who have deservedly faced withering criticism) address the problems, as the leaders of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are. There is no question that fraternities and sororities should be better supervised and regulated — these are still young, stupid college kids and I know this because I’ve got three of my own. I know for a fact that fraternities can be a very positive thing in a person’s life. And I’ve got the doorman’s hat to prove it.

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