Why Frat Scandals at Penn State and Elsewhere Actually Matter
It was awful when we discovered that a Penn State fraternity had allegedly been posting pictures of nude, unconscious college women on a secret Facebook page. It became worse when one member offered up an in-all-seriousness “boys will be boys” defense of the monstrous act. But you know what really sucks about the “Facebook frat” scandal?
It’s this: The men of Kappa Delta Rho are, in all likelihood, our future leaders.
Consider this series of fun facts that appeared in The Atlantic a year ago. Fraternity men make up …
• 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910.
• 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900.
• 18 U.S. presidents since 1877 for 69 percent.
• 120 of the Forbes 500 CEOs on the 2003 list, including 10 of the Top 30.
• 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives, historically.
• 71 percent of the men who have appeared in “Who’s Who in America.”
Now, only a few of the frat boys who went on to become very important men were members of Kappa Delta Rho, but the point holds: Greek life isn’t appealing just because it offers a ready-made bunch of bros and keggers to make the college experience more fun — it also signifies an early entry into America’s elites. You join a fraternity (or sorority) to meet people, and make connections that can serve you well all the way through to your retirement years. Frat houses, it turns out, are just gated communities with training wheels.
And that’s what makes the incident at Penn State so gross. It’s what makes the racist frat at the University of Oklahoma so dispiriting. Or the Beyoncé doll Christmas card at Penn so frustrating. Or a million “gangsta” parties at a million oughta–know–better Greek get-togethers so aggravating. We know that rapey sexism and racism both exist, and we never seem to run out of examples of either. But we’d like to believe better of the persons who, in all likelihood, are going to shepherd our society someday.
Instead, we find out that our elites are soaking themselves in society’s worst impulses, deliberately socializing themselves to be indifferent and even hostile to the rights of people who don’t belong the club of square-jawed white guys. And every single time they get called out for it, we’re told we’re taking things too seriously — that it’s all just a joke.
I don’t propose dismantling the fraternity system entirely, despite recent talk of doing just that. Greek life is probably too well-entrenched and well-connected at this point to ever undergo a wholesale breakdown throughout American academia. That’s one of the advantages of privilege, after all, and even if somebody wanted to try, the whole system would thrive on an underground, handshake basis.
But neither do Greeks have to be given pride of place in the campus ecosystem, nor affirmed in their insularity. Frat houses located on campus should be emptied out — if the gang wants to find a house to share off-campus, that’s their business — and students sent out to live among the general population. A little slumming might improve the product.
Today’s fraternity brothers and sorority sisters are tomorrow’s leaders. It’s not fun to contemplate. But that means it’s also never too early to start demanding accountability. The time to start is now.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.