Rein in greek life’s political influence now

The University of Minnesota’s greek community wields more authority than we should tolerate.

Jasper Johnson

Last week, the University of Minnesota announced that it will soon allow a suspended fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, to return to campus. The group was suspended last year after episodes of hazing and a serious incident involving alcohol overdose. 
 
 
The University shortened SAE’s period of suspension shortly after the fraternity took legal action against what it characterized as the school’s defamation of its reputation.
 
 
Since the announcement that it will return to campus, SAE has dropped the lawsuit. 
 
 
After the news broke that its suspension would end, SAE claimed, “The chapter was given a penalty unprecedented for other campus organizations.” 
 
 
This statement completely missed the mark about how lenient the administration has been to SAE and fraternities in general.
 
 
On a national level, SAE has a reputation — and it’s a poor one. Its chapters have been embroiled in various scandals, including those related to racism, hazing and sexual misconduct. 
 
 
As much as people like to point to scandals involving fraternities and claim that they’re isolated events which don’t represent any broader cultural phenomenon, it seems to me that some of the broader greek community’s social elements can be toxic. 
 
 
For example, fraternities often rely on norm establishment and social cohesion in order to function. How do you get a group of random people to connect to one another or form distinctions between one fraternity and all the rest? 
 
 
Too often, forms of hazing serve to bond pledge classes. Subjecting all members to the same (unpleasant) experiences promotes camaraderie, and perpetuating the meaningless distinctions between fraternities hinges on creating homogenous group personas. 
 
 
What also concerns me about fraternities is the ability for a powerful organization like SAE to exert economic and social leverage over universities nationwide. When they’re so well-funded and widely supported on a national level, fraternities are capable of wielding disproportionate influence over the decisions that school administrations make. 
 
 
We ought to rethink the relationship between greek life and the University. It’s hard for me to characterize an organization that threatens lawsuits against the school as something that maintains an amicable relationship with its host institution, much less as something that benefits the general public. 
 
 
Speaking more broadly, schools nationwide need to do their best to shrug off the influence of fraternities in policy-making and rule-enforcement. 
 
 
The University has laid down some conditions for SAE’s return — requiring it to remain alcohol-free, for example — but these strike me as superficial public relations moves that fail to address the underlying reasons why problems arise in the first place. 
 
 
If schools want to treat the causes rather than the symptoms of misconduct in fraternities, they would do well to start by re-evaluating the financial and social privileges they allow these organizations’ members to enjoy. 
 
 
Jasper Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected].