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Why the Fraternity Ban is a Red Herring

More Brotest

(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.

About Ethan Corey

Ethan Corey is a junior at Amherst College. Find him on Twitter at @ethanscorey or share your thoughts in the comments.

38 comments on “Why the Fraternity Ban is a Red Herring

  1. rk
    May 8, 2014

    “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”

    Yes.

  2. Ken
    May 8, 2014

    Id like to contest the notion that fraternities are “exclusively male.” There is precedent for women to join (Amherst) fraternities and rise to positions of power within those fraternities. This of cores only happens if she is willing to perform sex acts on her future “brothers.”

    • Anonymous
      May 8, 2014

      That’s messed up and terrible. If that’s what’s required, they spirit of being “exclusively male” is spot on.

    • Liya Rechtman
      May 8, 2014

      Hi Ken – that is not currently the case in Amherst fraternities, even though it has been at times in the past.

  3. Anonymous
    May 8, 2014

    If fraternities are truly a bastion of diversity, then the college has every right to enforce this ban, especially for students who are on financial aid. Since the school is paying for those students to attend Amherst, the school has every right to regulate their activities. This may not be the case for the few frat members who are not on financial aid, but those students on financial aid have to bend to the will of the college, since the college is paying their bill.

    • Justin Knoll
      May 8, 2014

      This is so elitist and discriminatory: affluent students can ignore the will of the college and need not be regulated? but poor students must kiss the feet of their prison guards? I also don’t understand the logic of your ‘if, then’ statement.

    • Seriously?
      May 8, 2014

      No, just….don’t.

    • Anonymous
      May 9, 2014

      WOW! “Since the school is paying for those students to attend Amherst, the school has every right to regulate their activities.” WOW!

    • Sharline Dominguez
      May 9, 2014

      Students on financial aid have to “bend to the will” of the college? What the hell are you smoking? Sadly, I used to think this during my naive freshman days, but this is absurd. Are you trying to make a connection between financial aid recipients and the dues they have to pay if they were in a frat? I’m just so confused at this point. Please clarify what you mean. As someone who is on financial aid, along with about half of the student body at Amherst, I take offense to this statement. I am not part of a frat and my extracurricular activities have never been “regulated” by Amherst because of my financial status lol.

    • Anonymous
      May 9, 2014

      This is actually so ignorant, it’s funny.

      • Sharline Dominguez
        May 9, 2014

        Lmao yeah I couldn’t take this statement seriously, and I still don’t. But I would love some kind of explanation.

    • Anonymous
      May 11, 2014

      Don’t respond to this. This is a troll if I ever saw one.

  4. Christian
    May 8, 2014

    “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…”

    Ethan, I wasn’t at the meeting, but I find it VERY hard to believe that President Martin would say something like “student input on the decision was irrelevant.” Even if that’s what she MEANT to say (which I’m sure she didn’t; she probably just misused her words because it sounds like the students in attendance just cornered her) it’s not okay to just put words in her mouth. Is this really what she said? Word by word? I’m curious to know. I just want to make sure you’re not sensationalizing the issue…

    • JKoo '12
      May 8, 2014

      Do you honestly think that student input would have changed a yes or no decision? There was no room for nuance in the decision: the status quo was already off the table, and the options were to reinstate or ban, plain and simple. No amount of student input would have changed the outcome.

      She didn’t need to say those words because it doesn’t change the fact that the Board would have done what it was going to do regardless of whatever stink frat members would have thrown over it. Whether Ethan reported her statements word for word or not, the spirit of her words (and those of the Trustees) is what is relevant here.

      Not that I think Amherst students will ever have the “right” to have a say in every decision that affects student life.

      • Anon
        May 8, 2014

        “Is that really what she said? Word by word?”

        Do you understand how quotation marks work, and what the lack thereof implies? He didn’t put those words in quote, so it doesn’t matter whether that’s what she said “word for word” so long as that’s what she said in substance — which it appears is the case.

    • Ethan Corey
      May 8, 2014

      Quotes from my notes (to be clear, this is what I wrote down at the time, not necessarily what she said word for word):

      “This is not a question that can be addressed except on the level of the Board”

      “this is not an issue we could decide by referendum”

      “The board has decided. The decision is final. There is no need for debate.”

      “I pride myself on being responsive to students, but that doesn’t mean we always agree.”

      I don’t know exactly what she said, but her point was clear: student opinion on the subject was not relevant to the Board’s decision.

  5. Fraternity Alum
    May 8, 2014

    Spot on, Ethan. The day of Amherst fraternities should, ideally, be in the past, but the nature of an unresponsive and almost authoritarian student life regime has perpetuated their purpose in the college’s alienating social scene. That doesn’t mean they should stay long-term (or even medium-term), but it would be a tragedy if students missed this opportunity to bring people together who have too frequently been on opposite ends of issues during the past few years. Accepting each other as allies may be difficult to say the least, but the most important outcomes are impossible without doing so. It is far past time to unite against an administration that views its students as, at best, ignorant brutes to be tightly controlled or, at worst, the enemy. Amherst should be addressing the void fraternities fill, not expanding that void by banning them alone for PR’s sake. I know the student body has ideas for how to go about that.

  6. ??
    May 8, 2014

    What I don’t understand is why anybody against fraternities should be protesting the board decision.. We’re all falling for the frat’s very strategic (and very smart) move to define this as a student-body issue, when really it’s just them protesting for their own existence.

    If the trustees decided, with zero student input, to divest from all fossil fuels, renovate Val, and allow drinking for everyone above 18, would I protest?

    Fuck no.

    The point of a board of trustee is that we’re trusting them to make decisions for the good of the college. If I think they make a decision that is good for the college, that I agree with, even without my input, why would I be angry and upset? Students like to imagine themselves as powerful, influential, and in general, to think too highly of themselves… Let’s face it: the board has all the power, and we have none. The board represents the long term interest of the college. We fucking don’t.. The board has a job to do, and they have not overstepped their authority; and so, if I agree with the decision, why would I protest?

    (Now, I understand why it would be necessary to protest if I disagreed with their decisions: whether about sexual respect, divestment, etc… But I’m assuming as a premise for my point that you disagree with fraternities)

    You suggest that they are trying to divide the student body now with this decision… but how would we have had the “chance to build alternative institutions that play 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,” which you suggest, without the Trustee’s decision? And how is the Trustee’s decision contrary to that aspiration to build such alternative institutions?

    The existence of frats presents a clear and definite obstacle to many of the things we’re looking to build on campus, e.g. “inclusive institutions.” Frats, by definition, are exclusive. Frats inherently promote behaviors and cultures that are contrary to the values of the college.

    Fraternities are not inevitable.

    We only think they are because we’ve all grown to accept their presence as granted, whether underground or in the open. Life as we know it will not end.

    • Anonymous
      May 8, 2014

      I agree with you 500%. Too bad a majority of the other students are too blinded to see the truth in this.

    • Anonymous
      May 8, 2014

      Preeeeeaaach. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    • !!
      May 8, 2014

      Enrique Dussel’s concept of the analogical hegemon (from his Twenty Theses on Politics) could be very useful for us. Sure, fraternities have been (at least institutionally) unsympathetic during the past two years (as is the petite bourgeois class in Dussel’s example). That doesn’t mean that we reject their support when the absurdity of the administration’s approach (completely ignoring student input unless it’s necessary for PR) suddenly becomes a cause for them. Unless you value getting rid of fraternities (which is inevitable) over magnifying student voices (an enormous challenge), it seems you’re making a strategic blunder. Tackle the most difficult issue first; then you can start risking alienating components of the hegemon.

      • ??
        May 9, 2014

        Hm.. good point. I had not thought about this. The frats are co-opting the slogan “student voice” selectively for their own cause, using the slogan to pull in the entire student body to fight for their own survival –why not take their move and turn it on them, co-opt their co-opting, and make this actually about student voice –knowing that the board won’t change its mind about the frat issue, but taking advantage of the frat’s current passion…

      • !!
        May 9, 2014

        Exactly right. Cynical as it may sound, I think this could be very effective. In fact, the AAS implosion could help. We make our demands – activists and frat bros alike – without mediation. The only acceptable solution is for the student life system to be totally flipped on it’s head. Then we start consolidating our position. Not sure how willing some segments of the activist community would be to take part in this, but it seems like quite the opportunity.

    • Anonymous
      May 10, 2014

      I completely agree as well. I lived through the hey day years of fraternities in the early ’80’s which was horrible. Although it sounds like their influence on campus life recently is minimal, I don’t think there’s any sound reason for their existence at Amherst College. That being said, from what I hear from my child who’s a current student, there’s a lot to be done to improve the social scene at the college; it sounds like the “social dorms” and the athletic culture has taken on the role that fraternities played in my years. There need to be ways to deal with the stratification of athletes and non-athletes, to give more resources to the arts and to diversify the extracurricular activities especially on the weekends.
      Amherst College has the resources financially and the intellectual capital to create an incredible place for the academic study and the social and psychological development of it’s students. It’s very disappointing to hear that what comes around goes around. I truly hope that the administration is going to foster positive growth and change in the social and extracurricular domain or I fear Amherst’s reputation may suffer greatly.

  7. Anonymous
    May 8, 2014

    “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.”

    Articulate and on-point. I couldn’t agree more, Ethan.

  8. current student
    May 8, 2014

    As someone who was at the meeting, I can attest to Biddy Martin saying this. I can also attest to how upset the student body is as a whole. There’s a reason this has made national news, there’s a reason there have been protests, and there’s a reason that people of all genders, all walks of life, all different levels of privilege, all home countries, all races, and all political views are upset. It’s about the fact that the trustees went above the heads of the students. It’s about the fact that the administration won’t hear the students. It’s about the fact that we are being silenced. That’s not the Amherst College I know.

    The rationale behind this is unclear. The Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee that the trustees appointed to investigate the matter concluded that there was no tie between fraternities at Amherst and sexual misconduct. Yet at the meeting it was stated that the ambiguity of the fraternities’ status at the college promotes sexual assault. Are you going to go back on the conclusion of the committee that you hired? The committee that you said had final word? Clearly banning fraternities will not fix the sexual misconduct problem at this school. It’s just a scapegoat, a way for the college to unjustly pin all of its problems on one group, a group that it previously stated is not the cause of the problem.

    Finally, this is done in an attempt to regulate the fraternities. To me, saying that fraternities don’t exist is not an effective method. The way to regulate fraternities is to welcome them but caution them, to allow them but advise them, to accept them but oversee them. Not to drive them even further underground into secrecy, where there is absolutely no regulation or oversight.

    The trustees have unjustly punished the students and the student body. The administration has failed to serve its students, as is its purpose. And the whole thing is plastered all over the media. Trustees of Amherst College, when will you listen? When will you see what your action has done? When will you understand that you are causing more harm than good?

    • Christian
      May 8, 2014

      “I can also attest to how upset the student body is as a whole.” — Please continue to speak on my behalf. Please tell me more about how super upset I am about this issue. Oh, I am SO livid. THE ENTIRE STUDENT BODY IS SO UPSET.

      Not.

      • Anonymous
        May 9, 2014

        Thank you, Christian! I am so tired of people pretending that the entire student body is up in arms about this. In fact, it is mainly the frat bros and some of their friends that are making such a stink about the decision. It annoys that people cannot see through the frat bros transparent attempt to move the debate away from frats and to “student voices.” As aways, you keep it real.

    • ..
      May 9, 2014

      Let’s be absolutely clear here: By prohibiting fraternities, the college is not turning a blind eye to underground fraternities. It is not naively saying “fraternities don’t exist.”

      “The way to regulate frats is to welcome them but caution them”…

      This rhetoric going around asserting that the only way to regulate fraternities is by bringing them into the open is deceptive. It presents a false dichotomy between “normalizing and regulating frats” and “frats going underground and doing crazy shit!!!” Frats say this, as if, once they are out in the open, they would welcome regulation that prohibits hazing, forced binge drinking, etc… As if once they are out in the open, they would stop doing crazy shit. As if once they are out in the open, there will be no secrecy.

      Yeah, right.

      You may accept this logic if you think it is never effective to prohibit anything at all (i.e. all drugs, even very very hard drugs, should be regulated, not prohibited).. But the prohibition of something, even when not 100% effective, sends a symbolic message. It is the withdrawal of something’s social license.

    • ..
      May 9, 2014

      Student body as a whole doesn’t care. The reason this has made national news, why there were reporters walking around campus, why there’s such a big ruckus about this, is because fraternities are 1.) very vocal, 2.) have a relatively large presence (relative to other activist groups) and 3.) are extremely extremely extremely effective in mobilizing and organizing.

      It is rather impressive, actually, how they have managed to spin this as something the whole campus is upset about. They even have stickers printed supporting their cause!

  9. Anonymous
    May 8, 2014

    “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.”

    I’d like to begin with the fact that you are right. There has been minimal support from fraternities on issues concerning students. This is because fraternities (as a whole) can’t support issues concerning students. That would constitute fraternity activity on campus (which is illegal per the Trustees’ Resolution of 1984). Individual members of fraternities have always protested missteps by the administration be it through the AAS, affinity groups, or committees with the support of their brothers. We need more concern from all corners of campus because every issue affects everyone.

    Those who think otherwise should know better than to make generalizations about a group on campus.

  10. The Dad Dude
    May 8, 2014

    An excellent analysis without naïve or pretense. Here’s what the students should leverage on: board understand two issues very well: Law suits and Money.

    If alumni respond by reduced donations (flamed by students on campus who complain that the “Fairest College” is not so fair, after all), and if a constitutional law suit is brought that drags the college name through the mud, then Trustees are going to pay attention.

    As an aside, Biddi’s inability to create a sense of inclusiveness is a shame, a sham and a mockery to the institutional tradition.

    • Anonymous
      May 8, 2014

      As a private college, Amherst has the right to pass legislation to govern our lives here. That’s why we pay them, and that’s why it’s a private college. There’s nothing unconstitutional about it. If you think this encroaches on one of your freedoms, then go to a public university.

      • Anonymous
        May 10, 2014

        “Amherst has the right to pass legislation to govern our lives here” because “Amherst College is a private college:.. LOGIC?? Knock knock… I feel ashamed by this comment. We pay the college in order to support its “right” to “govern our lives” here. Excuse me for a sec… can you say that again?

  11. Anonymous
    May 8, 2014

    When you’re making headlines in the news about being under federal investigation, something needs to happen to show you give a shit. That is what the ban is all about and why it doesn’t matter what the kids think. It was a PR move, and they expected student resistance, which can be spun as opening up a dialogue. So in participating in it

    And why does it even matter? Former frat members can simply create exact copies of their social organizations under the guise of some student club that looks like something else on paper, and who is to be the wiser? Or they can meet at midnight in an undisclosed location, dressed in black robes and wearing masks, playing at being members of their own secret society.

    So it doesn’t matter, but it looks good in the papers, so there you go.

    • Anonymous
      May 8, 2014

      But herein lies one (of the many) problems with the trustees decision: what defines a “fraternity or sorority like organization?” Are exact copies of these “social organizations” a “fraternity or sorority like organization?” The trustees have not made it clear what this definition will be, and President Martin said yesterday that it would likely not be clarified until the first case is brought to the Disciplinary Board. This is a very irresponsible way to be dealing with people’s place at this school.

  12. alum
    May 8, 2014

    I am increasingly perplexed, as I read articles critical of the administration’s actions regarding student social life, why there seems to be no mention of productive student activity to innovate their own social life solutions and structures. It is as though students expect the College to provide a social life, or to fix it if it is broken. Indeed, the College should address the issue in the ways that it can and are appropriate, and it has taken a number of steps, and surely will continue to do so in the future — but each step is often criticized by students in isolation, as if it is not part of a process, a process that students could take proactive steps on their own to move forward. No one is preventing students from having their own meetings on the subject, the focus of which need not all be about what to ask the College to do or not do for them.

  13. Anonymous
    May 9, 2014

    Does anyone imagine the Trustees didn’t do their legal homework?

    The US Supreme Court first upheld a fraternity ban back in 1915, and they have re-affirmed that decision many times. When Colby College took disciplinary action against students who participated in frats in spite of the ban, the students tried to sue and lost in court.

    http://www.stetson.edu/law/conferences/highered/archive/2008/Freedom_of_Association.pdf

    Students and faculty claiming that the Trustees have violated anyone’s right to free assembly don’t have a case.

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