Why the Fraternity Ban is a Red Herring

(Ethan Corey)– Yesterday, I attended the meeting with President Biddy Martin organized by the AAS to discuss the Board of Trustees’ recent decision to prohibit students from being members of fraternities, sororities or fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations. To put it bluntly, it was a shit show (although not as bad as the emergency Senate meeting last night).

On the one hand, you had a bunch of students who were baffled and angry about the Board’s decision who wanted to know why student voices were excluded from the Board’s discussion. On the other, you had a panel of administrators led by Biddy seeking to justify the Board’s decision. Predictably, the students in attendance didn’t really care about the justification for the Board’s decision, and Biddy didn’t really care that students disagreed with the Board’s decision. The unstoppable force of student outrage collided with the immovable object of administrative indifference.

For those who could not attend the meeting (which was poorly publicized and scheduled last-minute), here’s a brief summary: Biddy explained that the Board’s decision came in response to the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee’s recommendation that the Board clarify the status of off-campus fraternities. The Board could not tolerate the status quo, in which fraternities existed outside of the jurisdiction of the College, so it had to choose between bringing off-campus fraternities under the College’s control and banning fraternity membership outright. Because the Board did not want to overturn the 1984 resolution that prohibited fraternity activities on campus, it chose the latter and banned fraternity membership altogether.

Students at the meeting asked for clarification on a number of aspects of the decision (e.g. What constitutes a fraternity-like organization? What will happen to students who join UMass fraternities or sororities? How will the College enforce the prohibition?), but most comments focused on expressing their dissatisfaction with the Trustees’ decision. From what I could tell, not a single student in favor of the Trustees’ decision (which is different from opposing the existence of fraternities on campus) was in attendance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The atmosphere of the meeting was definitely not congenial to any form of dissent from the audience.

The highlight of the meeting came when a student gave an impassioned speech in which he argued that fraternities embodied many of the things the College wants to instill in the student-body—diversity (most fraternity members at Amherst are students of color, and fraternities are need-blind), supportiveness and mentorship, and an inclusive social life that bridges the athlete/non-athlete divide—which the students in attendance affirmed with vigorous applause.

Of course, as Biddy made clear, none of that really matters. During the meeting, she said that the Board’s decision was final and that student input on the decision was irrelevant because the question could not be addressed except at the level of the Board and student opinion was split on the matter.

And in one sense, she’s right. As The Student’s editorial on the decision noted, banning fraternities outright was the only really viable option. The status quo led to significant problems with a lack of oversight and regulation, and recognizing fraternities would have been a step backwards. The only possible future for fraternities at Amherst is abolition.

But to focus on whether or not fraternities were a positive or negative fixture on campus is to miss the crux of the issue. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the existence of fraternities at the College, you’re not getting what you want. The problems many students attribute to fraternities—their exclusivity, connections with straight white male privilege and rape culture, and lack of regulation or oversight—are all problems that exist with numerous other groups on campus, such as (some) varsity athletic teams and even a capella groups. Additionally, the ills ascribed to fraternities all stem from a root problem of a sexist, patriarchal culture that excludes and silences women; banning fraternities still fails to substantively address this problem.

Moreover, fraternities exist because they offer the (exclusively male) students who join them benefits that they can’t easily get through other institutions on campus: a sense of community, mentorship, and support that is so often lacking for students of all races, genders, and classes on campus. While I don’t want to romanticize fraternities’ often troublesome role on campus, eliminating them without creating new, more inclusive institutions to fill the void won’t solve anything.

Biddy and the Trustees have tried to divide the student body by turning supporters of fraternities against the opponents of fraternities in order to deflect anger away from the Board. We can’t let them succeed. Whether you’re for or against the continued existence of fraternities at the College, we all want the same thing: a college that gives its students the ability to have a safe and enjoyable social life in whatever manner they choose. Instead of arguing among each other, we should be demanding that right from the Board and the administration, who have both consistently ignored or brushed off student opinion on issues as diverse as coal divestment, sexual respect, the Office of Student Affairs, and incidents of racially targeted hate crimes on or near campus.

Of course, the fraternity members and their supporters currently protesting on the Val quad are a bit late to the party, since students have been active around these issues for years with minimal support from fraternities. Selectively complaining about the lack of student input (or really the lack of student control) over student affairs gives off the impression of being in bad faith.

Confronting the fraternity question could have been a productive opportunity to work with students to create a shared vision of social life on campus that meets the needs and desires of all students. We could have used this chance to build alternative institutions that played many of the same roles (community, mentorship, support, fun parties) without the exclusivity and secrecy or potential for hazing and dangerous activities of off-campus fraternities. Instead, the Trustees chose to make a unilateral decision, causing the student body to tear itself apart with a stupid debate about outdated institutions that won’t actually lead to any action.