T.J. Sullivan

I believe in fraternities

AtlanticGuest blog by Sam Davidson

The article in this month’s The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan has more bark than bite. The cover headline, “The Fraternity Problem” may have had some guessing that Flanagan would call for the abolishment of all Greek societies and the disbursement of their remaining assets to the nearest charity. But, in her very fair treatment of the current fraternity and sorority system, Flanagan’s chief target isn’t a specific chapter or fraternity; her main beef is with institutionalism.

She goes after national bodies, local chapters, universities, college kids, litigators and media equally. In fact, when reading it, I felt exasperated that in many cases where fraternities are at the center of terrible instances, there is no clear pathway to blame, responsibility, and sadly, prevention.

The article mentions much of the good that fraternities provide to the world, namely leadership training, philanthropy, and community – three great reasons I very much support America’s Greek community as we know it on campuses and as I personally know it as a proud alumnus. But the article also shows how powerful bodies tend to grow more powerful through legal maneuvering and shrewd business strategy.

Most of the undergraduates I know will never see this article. In fact, most of the undergraduates I know don’t come close to exhibiting the behavior that the article details, calling attention to a handful of worst case scenarios that are void of courageous leadership.

And this is why I believe in fraternities.

I don’t only believe in fraternities because I’m a positive product of the system, shaped by friends and brothers to form part of who I am today. I believe in them because in my travels and speeches, I’ve found the willing leadership needed to keep fraternity and sorority life a positive and transformative experience for so many.

I believe in fraternities as an instrumental and transformative social experience for young men and women.

I believe in fraternities as a chance for someone to find his or her passionate cause that they may contribute to over a lifetime.

I believe in fraternities as an excellent arbiter of leadership training and inspiration.

I believe in fraternities as a vital connection between alumni and their school.

I believe in fraternities as a link between a student’s first days at school and his or her final ones, a place to become shaped into who they dream of being with the guidance of peers, tradition, hope, and adults who have come before them.

But I also believe that for fraternities to be all of these things, courageous and committed leadership is needed at every level. For me, Flanagan’s article was a call to a deeper form of leadership as much as it was an analysis of what’s gone wrong over the last 40 years.

I believe that fraternities should make sure houses that bear letters on the outside are up to fire sprinkler and building codes, regardless of in whose name the deed rests.

I believe that fraternity men and sorority women must look after members (initiated and not yet), peers, and guests when they visit a house. This may be seen as a hassle and detract from the convivial atmosphere a party hopes to create, but leadership doesn’t take parties off.

I believe that colleges and institutions must hold chapters and members – and national bodies and alumni – accountable to embodying their deeply held values. And when those values are violated, schools must make sure that all students – not just members – are kept safe, even if it means the loss of valuable financial contributions.

I believe that if fraternities claim to do good, they must be good – for everyone. Initiated members are not the exclusive recipients of the positive effects a fraternity can have.

I believe the time is now for courageous and bold leadership that doesn’t bend to the whims of a strong but uniformed wind. Leadership is needed that sets agendas and doesn’t react to them.

I closed this issue of The Atlantic with the same positive outlook of fraternities and sororities that I had before I read it. But I was left with a nagging question: who will lead?

I believe that fraternities will.

I believe that fraternities can be reformed from within if leadership is willing to live in that tension between what is right and what is popular. I believe that, like other institutions such as churches, governments, and corporations, fraternities can move beyond the careless actions of a few and the negligence of bureaucracy in order to chart a course towards somewhere better.

I believe in fraternities. So do millions of other men and women. But the time for reaction is over. The time for action has come.

And so I pose to you the haunting question that the article inspired in me:

Who will lead?


sam-280x280-1Sam Davidson is a member of Pi Kappa Phi, a CAMPUSPEAK speaker, and founder of Batch, an exciting new company taking Nashville and other cities by storm.

4 Responses to “I believe in fraternities”

  1. Natalie Shaak says:

    You stated that “Most of the undergraduates I know will never see this article. In fact, most of the undergraduates I know don’t come close to exhibiting the behavior that the article details, calling attention to a handful of worst case scenarios that are void of courageous leadership.”

    However, I will also challenge that most undergraduate cannot explain the danger or risk in their behavior (even on a less dangerous scenarios than shared in the article) or the history of or value of their fraternal experience as well as the author of the Atlantic article did either.

    It’s not good to just say this is a small portion of our community doing this and that we are about certain things. I agree with you that someone needs to step up and lead this charge. Unfortunately I don’t see national organizations or campus professionals doing that or being effective. In order for undergraduate members to lead the change (remember fraternities were founded by students and lead by them for many years before national offices and campus Greek advisors), they have to get back to the why. Why they exist. Why they joined. Why they should continue? If we can get a majority to focus on that (or get rid of those who don’t), then they can lead the change that has to happen. But until they can truly see where we have been and the issues we have (as the Atlantic article nicely displays for us, especially the history piece), they cannot truly lead change.

    The real question is what are “leaders” (campus staff and HQ and national volunteers) doing to help them see this? Right now we are keeping mistakes under raps and spending time calling out the media for their coverage of us. It is about time we stop pointing fingers outward and starting looking inward.

  2. Daniel says:

    I appreciate the positive spin by guest blogger Sam Davidson and the other commentator so far. There is no doubt that Greek organizations provide positive contributions to both campus and surrounding communities through the tangible examples provided by author Caitlin Flanagan in her Atlantic article. Here is my two cents as a fellow Greek and campus-based professional who advises fraternities and sororities on a daily basis. Fundamentally, are students are good people, by and large and they want to do good works. They just get caught up and do stupid things from time to time and when those things happen, we (I, chapters, advisors, alums, national HQ staff) deal with it and proactively work to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes again.

    That being said, Sam’s words merely preach to the choir of the converted. They will fall on deaf ears. Those that will read this blog and the article from The Atlantic already get it. I’m not sure if pep talks, rainbows and unicorns is what is needed. Until national organizations become more concerned about who enters the system rather than worrying about their bottom line, we will continue to face these issues that were identified in the article published in The Atlantic. We must look at ourselves in the mirrors and question our business model, front to back; right to left; top to bottom. Additionally, some campuses create a more hostile environment for Greeks to live in than other campuses and those institutions need to take a look at themselves and assess their own rationale for why they do what they do.

    We, as Greeks have to answer the question of and be held accountable to institutions of higher education asking themselves the same question: Is membership in a fraternity or sorority the cause or effect of individual member behavior (as it relates to risk management disasters, sexual assault, hazing occurrences, and egregious alcohol offenses)? In other words are we recruiting bad students who will behave badly thereby shooting ourselves in the foot or are we providing an environment where bad behavior thrives and we simply bring it out in individuals?

    My solution or answer to how to address this is to continue to do what I do…be a mentor and advisor. I recognize where students are in their development, challenge them to be better, do more, and to steal a quote from my own National organization, to become the greatest version of themselves. In doing so, I work hand in hand with HQ staff, advisors, and alumni. But, I also firmly believe in a somewhat Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Our country seems to be so obsessed with the principle of the free market place and the exercise of capitalism, and wonder if we should not apply those principles to organizations a bit more harshly? Sometimes the best restorative justice moment might come after you’ve truly hit rock bottom and have been stripped of everything you hold near and dear.

    Live up to your values; demonstrate how you fulfill the educational mission of the institution who you are a guest at on each respective campus; provide documentation that shows your contributions to community, or face removal. The good news – by and large greek organizations on campuses do this for Greek Life offices and to their HQ’s. Except, I’m not sure how great we all do in trimming the fat when the rubber meets the road.

    As with most things – time will tell.

  3. rlaggren says:

    I graduated from Wesleyan 1973; though I’m not particularly representive of their alumni, I did live in a “smaller” frat for three years (which was basicly the outliers den). I don’t have direct knowledge of “the darkside” of the big houses, but from the behavior in mine and chatting and visiting around a bit on party nights, the article seems accurate enough. The only quibble would be the painting of the brothers with one broad brush implying most were part of one great manic fubar machine. I’d say not “most”. Definitely less than half…

    So. Looks like a big problem.

    > most students… good

    Sure. Also ignorant (socially), full of hormones and separated from their former control and support system first time ever. Generally speaking, of course. There are probably 2%-3% extreme exceptions to the above rule in each class – born, bred and trained sophisticates and alphas. But that’s not who we’re talking about. And anyway, “bad apples…”, remember?

    Authority, what authority says and does, matters. Reference the famous pysch experiment where the participants were led to electrically torture and apparently kill another person because men in white coats said it was OK. Or the experiment where subjects stopped correctly reporting which line drawn on a sheet of paper was longer when 4 or 5 peers (shills) told them all the lines were the same length. Human beings respond to many inputs, probably the least of which is rationality.

    Point: It looks to me like the national leadership has the authority and bears the responsibility and has the power to change this scenario. The authority most immediate to young pledges is their older brothers. The authorioty closest to senior brothers is the chapter prez and the national board. The houses are de facto if not de jure in the position of loco parentis. The more so because all the recruitment advertising basically claims that position – if not to the students, to all others. And house “rules” clearly imply that.

    I believe when one sees something one bears the responsibility of responding to it. When one also has the power for effective response – well, best get to it. Assuming the houses are essentially as called out by the OP above.

    FWIW I read one post on the topic elsewhere that claimed the absence of alchohol had reduced incidents 85% and reduced the seriousness of the remaining incidents 95%. Don’t know where those figures came from but anything remotely close ought to make the subject worth looking at from simply a material POV.


  4. Trent abshire says:

    Hi I am Trent Abshire currently a greek member at the University of lafayette at Louisiana and this article gave me quite the spirit that not many others have done. It was very well written and It was not the normal article that you read about when fraternities and sororities are discussed. It showed hope for the future and was not just bashing everything that most greek organizations stand for. It also made me think when asked the question “Who will lead”. It inspired me to do better in my organization and I will strive to eradicate the bad articles and hope for more articles like this one

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