“The Dark Powers of Fraternities” was published this morning by The Atlantic. The article is the culmination of a yearlong investigation into the systemic power of fraternities and the tragedies derived therein, and prominently (ignominiously) features our very own Wesleyan University and Beta Theta Pi. In brief, the article describes fraternity organizations’ thoroughly American heritage, their roles in transforming the nature of higher education from the priest-factories of yesteryear into the often-outrageous party scenes of the modern day, and the complex trade-lanes of power, litigation, fundraising, and tragedy that have allowed the fraternity infrastructures to survive and thrive among even the most progressive of Universities. The article gets many, many things right, and I thoroughly agree with the sentiment of the author—that colleges and universities are institutionally and structurally threatened by powerful organizations with outdated (and morally detestable) principles and priorities.
The article also gets a few minor points wrong, and misses a larger point: the cultural attitudes we—as Wesleyan students, as American collegians, literally as humans—accept and collectively promote bears as much responsibility for the horrors described as do unscrupulous power structures protecting that culture. In other words, I am responsible for the continuation of awful events like those brought to light in “The Dark Powers of Fraternities,” and so are you.
But first, a little bit about what is actually in the Atlantic article
because it’s long and you probably haven’t read it. For the sake of this article’s own length, I am only going to cover the Wesleyan-specific section in the back third of the article. Some of the older folks among the student body will recall the lawsuit filed against Wesleyan and Beta in October 2012, a case settled last year. The plaintiff had attended a party at Beta in October 2010, where she was sexually assaulted by a non-student (an event which the Atlantic article describes rather graphically, which readers may find triggering). Even older folks among the student body may remember that this particularly high-profile case of sexual assault, as well as several other similarly horrific events taking place at Beta, prompted a sudden change in the University’s ongoing battle with Beta.
The fraternity house had been officially unaffiliated and their house officially off-campus since 2005, creating a dangerous and expensive situation in which the University had no jurisdiction over the house and the brothers paid twice for dorms on campus and to live at the fraternity. The ongoing “battle,” which pitted a fiercely independent (how American! as The Atlantic notes) Beta Theta Pi against an increasingly disturbed University administration. As the Atlantic article correctly chronicles, all of this wrangling to bring Beta in line occurred with painful slowness (for all involved, really) through channels which rarely reached the community ear. Informally, it became a running joke, “Beta-gate,” among many members of the Wesleyan community.
Anyway, “Beta-gate” picked up quickly in early 2011, when the University declared a new and extremely broad residential policy. The new policy prompted substantial protest, though, if my memory serves (as one of the protest organizers), not in the way described in The Atlantic. As far as I am concerned, the great majority of protest—and protesters—cared very little about Beta. Contrary to the “Free Beta protests” discussed in The Atlantic, the name I recall was more like “Housing Policy protests.” Unfortunately, since “Beta-gate” was at the center of the controversy, the name and cause of Beta has become conflated with protests more accurately centered around the broad reach of the new housing policy. While I have no doubt that “Free Beta!” was shouted on campus around that time, as the article states, I have very substantial doubt that this was shouted by the majority of protesters or reflected their general sentiment (it certainly was not mine). The author’s seeming surprise, therefore, that the protests died immediately once President Roth restricted the new policy specifically to Beta, is perhaps unwarranted.
I digress. A lawsuit emerged, with a former student claiming negligence on the part of Beta and Wesleyan which led to her assault. The Atlantic piece focuses on the lack of an email warning students about the dangers of visiting an unaffiliated and off-campus fraternity house, after the University had sent one such email in March of 2010 but not a second email after the arrival of the new Class of 2014, and asserts that the absence of a second follow-up email prior to October 2010 was due to fear of further estranging important Beta-affiliated alumni. In my opinion, this is a projection. The email in March was sent in response to a particular situation (namely the lack of progress with Beta and continuing dangers there), and this situation had not changed by September. The Atlantic contends that the absence of a second email was a calculated and active decision; I am willing to extend the small benefit of doubt to say it was a matter of erroneous negligence rather than calculation, though no less tragic in its result.
Concerning the lawsuit itself, The Atlantic somehow failed to mention some extremely reprehensible tactics used by the lawyers of Beta Theta Pi, but offers thorough and necessary criticism of equally reprehensible tactics on the part of the University—namely, attempting to pass the blame for the assault onto the survivor. Wesleyan has given an official response to the Atlantic article, stating “We believe that it’s always wrong to blame survivors for their assault, and we reject the implications to the contrary in the article.” But, to be perfectly honest, I think the University’s response was rather weak and empty, written as it was by our newly-appointed Chief Diversity Officer—who was not around until November 2013, long after all of this had taken place.
The Atlantic author concludes with the unspoken question of whether fraternities can change. This is an important question, but also not quite the right question. The right question is, can we all change?
Sexual assaults and other hallmarks of the grim fraternity underbelly are perpetrated with crushing frequency. Sexual assault is perpetrated particularly frequently at fraternity houses, where assaulters can often find a home in a culture supportive of rape—the Atlantic piece included this appalling sentence, written by a fraternity brother in 1857: “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago” (just one reason why that sentence is disturbing). These attitudes are complimented by other aspects of Greek hooliganism, such as pledge hazing, ritually excessive drinking, destructive and sometimes lethal antics, and generally disrespect for others, all topics well-covered in the article. Beta is certainly not alone, nor even necessarily an outlier among Wesleyan’s Greek community (I distinctly recall walking by the Bayit one evening last semester, my otherwise-pleasant stroll accompanied by the sound of a half-dozen pledges peeing off of the Bayit roof onto the sidewalk while a brother bellowed “I am your pledge-master!” at them).
But sexual assault and the culture that tolerates and promotes it are not limited to Greeks. Wesleyan exists within a culture where it is acceptable to start grinding with a stranger on the dance floor without asking permission or even saying hello. We live in a culture with a very, very serious bystander problem (link may be triggering). We embrace a society in which this is popular, loved, promoted. We treat sex as a pre-meditated objective. We are wrong. So very, very wrong.
There are resources available to survivors, friends of survivors, or anybody looking to learn more. This page is a good place to start. That being said, you, dear reader, are the most important resource we have. Our community bears the responsibility to prevent sexual assault. The actions you take and the decisions you make—in your mind, at the party, with your partner(s), on behalf of your fraternity, in your heart—will determine the fate of each and every one of us. Don’t let me down.
Don’t let us down.