Is an Off-Campus Fraternity Ban Actually Enforceable?

The Amherst College Board of Trustees has decided that effective July 1st, 2014, all student participation in fraternities, sororities, or any similar organizations, whether on campus or off, will be considered a violation of the Honor Code. Regardless of whether you support fraternities or not, you should probably be concerned about this new policy.

It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties inherent in enforcing the new policy off-campus. After all, proving group membership in underground social organizations has historically posed a significant and frequently mishandled challenge to administrative organizations. Underground fraternities aren’t necessarily connected to their national networks, and a member roster, assuming one even exists, is not something the administration can simply get its hands on. It’s clear that successful identification of current fraternity members will have to rely largely on speculation and hearsay. It’s not like the administration can bring a group of guys in on suspicion of conspicuously appearing to be friends. I worry that in trying to successfully identify and punish fraternity members, the administration will find itself arguing, “well, we just know.” The kind of evidence needed to prove off-campus fraternity or fraternity-like membership doesn’t seem to be within the administration’s practical (and probably legal) reach.

Similar concerns apply to regulation of off-campus social events: how will the administration decide what makes an off-site gathering too fratty to be acceptable? I’m struggling to imagine clear guidelines that would prohibit fraternity activity without broadly banning all unofficial off-campus social events. Again, I figure that the administration will have no choice but to resort to stereotypes of what fraternity activity looks like, relying too heavily on a “we know it when we see it” model of Honor Code enforcement.

Really, the question of off-campus prohibition of a specific kind of social group raises a range of difficult questions. Most immediately, meaningfully defining the difference between “fraternity-like organizations” and acceptable on and off-campus social groups will undoubtedly be a serious challenge. The policy also has implications for off-campus housing: will students living in groups off-campus be required to undergo some kind of administrative investigation? If a fraternity or fraternity-like organization hosts an off-campus event that is deemed in violation of the Honor Code, will all students in attendance face punishment? What’s stopping a fraternity from setting up a shell group on-campus and quietly running itself the same way it always has?

It goes without saying that fraternity supporters are upset by this most recent development. Many feel that the Board of Trustees’ decision unfairly publicly scapegoats a single kind of social group while saying nothing of on-campus groups, clubs, teams, and organizations that also have the potential to engage in unacceptable behavior. Many of these sanctioned on-campus groups, the argument goes, can and do behave just like fraternities. And while it’s obvious why these people would be concerned with the new policy, it strikes me that people who are anti-fraternity should also be alarmed.

When you consider the serious problems of enforcement that I’ve detailed here, it becomes clear that the more likely result of this new policy will simply be the disappearance of the physical evidence of fraternities on campus – I’m thinking here of things like Tom Jones t-shirts or the “ΔΚΕ” graffiti scratched into tables on 3rd-floor Frost. In other words, underground fraternities will continue to exist, but they’ll simply become even more underground. Hazing, binge drinking, and sexual misconduct – the issues that frequently concern students who are anti-fraternity – will simply become less detectable. As an example, what happens to reporting of violent hazing and sexual assault when we make any connection to fraternities a suspendible offense? Sure, we offer amnesty to reporting individuals, but could the new fear of getting all parties present at an event, fraternity member or otherwise, in serious trouble become yet another barrier to reporting on this campus? In short, if you’re worried about what frats do, you should be even more worried when that stuff becomes invisible. Prohibition only drives the problem further from sight. The assumption that a total ban on fraternities and fraternity-like organizations will be an effective means of solving the problems they bring rests on the assumption that the administration can effectively prevent any further secret activity. Anyone who lives on this campus knows how reckless that assumption is. Turning frats into secret societies isn’t the solution we need.

The Board of Trustees was right in saying that the ambiguous state of fraternities at Amherst is fundamentally untenable. Their proposed solution, however, isn’t going to help.