AJC’s Maureen Downey gets it wrong on campus Greek life

In Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, columnist Maureen Downey discussed the situation involving fraternity sex assault, hazing, and binge drinking scandals plaguing some colleges across the nation.  In this particular piece, the headline asks a simple question “Is it time to end Greek life on campus?”

Those who know me from back in my college days covering Greek shenanigans for my campus newspaper may be shocked to read this, but my answer is “no.”

Downey cites an article in Rolling Stone magazine about issues affecting Greek student life on American campus, and then a New York Times piece about frat members being more likely to commit rape.  Towards the end of the piece, Downey tilted a bit towards the defensive in her closing tone.

“Whenever I write about Greek life, irate posters insist they never saw rapes or binge drinking in their frats so these reports can’t be true and must be exaggerated.”

Before I go into my two cents on this matter, a little bit of disclosure:  while a student at Georgia Southwestern State University in the mid-1990s, I witnessed my fair share of binge drinking and debauchery at frat parties.  As a writer and, later, Editor for our campus newspaper, I was involved in covering and, later, giving the nod to running some not-so-flattering stories about the shenanigans involving two fraternities – naming the frats is unnecessary, it was two decades ago – did little to help my opinion of the Greek campus scene during that period of my life.  As a result, I was branded by many brothers as “anti-Greek.”

Despite that, I believe that Greek organizations serve a purpose, and we have to look at the root of the fraternity culture to see if there is any hope  of correcting it.  From everything read about these incidents, the culture fostering these situations appear to stem from traditions espoused by the local chapter, often enabled by a wink and a nod from the national governing body.   Both fraternities and their sorority partners have earned a reputation for drinking, drugs, sexual promiscuity and other less-than-flattering behavior.

A negative image that sticks around this long take decades to take root, and these students did themselves no favors with their own misguided behavior.  Campus Greek organizations, for better or worse, tend to often behave the way they do because of family legacies, benefactor connections, and a “good ol’ boy” culture.  In short, their campus chapters believe they are above the law.

Nevertheless, they also have existed for decades for a basic reason.  They offer a valuable product for prospective members; a feeling of family and belonging, the opportunity to learn leadership skills, the ability to serve their communities and learn about the hardships of others through charitable endeavors and, perhaps most important of all, establish a support system of contacts which can serve members well down the road in terms of career and life prospects.

Yes, there are bad apples in every bunch and, in the end, some organizations need to take a very long look in their respective mirrors, but to paint all fraternities as rapists, drunks, and entitled party animals misses the greater problem – a distinct lack of oversight at the campus, state and national level.  Even more so, it points to the quality of the family units from which these young men come, and the level of accountability they are held to.

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