The University of Oregon is preparing for the crisis that is housing students on campus during a pandemic. Boasting thousands of tests per day, rigorous sanitation of dorms and campus buildings, and strict regulations for in-person instruction, the university pledges its allegiance to the students and teachers’ safety. No matter their precautions, though, we will not be safe so long as Fraternity life exists.
Just a month ago, the reckless behavior of "philanthropically driven" students dashed the University of Southern California’s chances of returning to in-person instruction after a frat party directly led to 40 positive tests for COVID-19. The same can be said for the University of Washington during spring term this year and the University of Georgia currently. Across the nation, Greek life cannot be controlled.
What else did universities expect of young, party-crazed kids? Fraternities have always been reckless ─ the university, though, should not be. UO has not yet padlocked the doors to Greek life, instead opting to place the responsibility on socially deprived students to control themselves.
It’s a recipe for disaster. And it exposes the twisted relationship between Greek life and the university. Universities have always allowed Greek life to self-regulate despite insurmountable evidence that it cannot be trusted to do so. Now, though, we’ve become aware of the harm that extends beyond the frats’ punch-riddled plaster walls.
COVID-19 barely scratches the surface of this troubling dynamic and its detrimental ripple effect. A simple Google search reveals an endless list of infractions committed by fraternities: sexual assault, death by alcohol poisoning, hazing and serving minors. Each time, the university publicly reprimands the frat at fault and calls for increased safety – perhaps an extra hour of learning about alcohol poisoning before freshman year – and bans the fraternity from having a pledge class for a term or even less. A truly devastating slap on the wrist.
Clearly, these punishments have not and will not induce change; pledge classes that follow fraternity bans do not model a reformed class but rather embody the same inverted moral compass that the preceding class was punished for. The nicknames given to frats like Sigma Alpha Epsilon, cleverly (and usefully) known as "Sexual Assault Expected," did not come out of one bad class; they come from years of cases that defines a nationwide organization.
This privileged dynamic that endangers campus during COVID-19 goes all the way back to the inception of Greek life. Kathleen Gillon’s research unmasks how Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776, was underscored by “formal and informal racist policies.” White men built a brotherhood allowing them to lavishly party while also institutionalizing their systematic advantages within higher education ─ all the while segregating Black individuals taking part in socialized benefits. Pledge class after class, Black exclusion allowed for White men to socially and economically mobilize upward, creating a steady stream of rich, White alumni.
The function of Greek life has not changed since its inception. Today, Greek life is very much the same White-dominated space. Fraternities are no longer the only institution; sororities profit from the same benefits, too. Even if a Person of Color is brave enough to attempt pledging and lucky enough to be granted acceptance, they are assimilated by Greek life’s White culture. After all, it was meant for no one but whites. Apart from the entry barrier that arises simply from one’s skin color, there is an astronomical fee just to live with a dozen other people in a room meant for one or two. By demanding such a high upfront cost, Greek life ensures its forefathers’ skin color is always the dominant one.
And the university has allowed it for centuries.
The UO allows sexual assault to be expected because Greek life attracts these rich, White dollar. Built on this inherently racist institution, the university’s most profitable alumni were predominately White men whose fraternity connections facilitated their success after graduation. As a result “colleges are afraid to take a hard line with fraternities because they depend on their wealthy alumni for donations,” Libby Nelson wrote for Vox. Rather than take drastic measures to protect students from the wealth of ways they could be harmed in a frat house, Nelson wrote that the university pursues regulations making itself “less liable for deaths and accidents.” Elizabeth Armstrong’s book “Paying for the Party” details the relationship further, exposing how universities purposely attract affluent, party-driven students, as they will cost the university the least and produce another generation of alumni donors. In return, Armstrong wrote, the university turns a blind eye to pervasive sexual assault, abysmal GPA averages, and commonplace underage drinking. To Armstrong, that translates to protecting Greek life rather than human life in the midst of a pandemic.
COVID-19 has brought Greek life to the forefront of the discussion regarding student safety on college campuses. Greeks’ inherent drive to party is the greatest threat to the university’s original purpose ─ education. By merely existing during the pandemic, they create a ripple effect that hurts those that are not a part of Greek life.
But this has always been the case; Greek life has been damaging the essence of higher education and its campus long before this pandemic began. To treat Greek life as a threat to the campus only during the pandemic will once again shunt its multi-century history of explicit and implicit racism, its rampant sexual assault and poisonous misconduct with alcohol back into the shadows where it was before the pandemic.
The burden, then, is on the administration. Though naive to imagine it possible to abolish any white institution in this white nation, COVID-19 must serve as its beginning. For far too long, the university has excused constant endangerment on campus for financial gain. The administration must, for once, live up to its principles and barricade the doors to Greek life. Without a new precedent of control, the current one, where sexism, racism, abuse and endangerment are excused and silenced, will prevail, emboldened.