OUR OPINION: Fraternities’ biggest challenge: Alcohol abuse
The word is “pledging.” And by focusing on it and banning the practice, the national fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon has taken a big step toward boosting the safety, image and maybe even rewards of Greek life, as author Susan Lipkins explains on this page.
But to make real progress, SAE — which has chapters on the campuses of both UND and North Dakota State University — and other fraternities and sororities almost certainly will have to concern themselves with two other words as well.
The first is “alcohol.” The second is “insurance.”
When real changes involving those two particulars happen, universities and the community will know that Greek organizations have embraced the spirit as well as the letter of reform.
Alcohol. Reporter Caitlin Flanagan spent a full year looking into college Greek life. The result is “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” the riveting cover story in this month’s The Atlantic magazine that may very well have tipped the scale at SAE’s national office and prompted the decision to ban pledging.
A few days ago, Flanagan wrote a Washington Post op-ed on her reaction to SAE’s move. Here’s part of what she said:
“The true culprit in fraternity malfeasance is alcohol abuse. Every one of the incidents described in my files — every single one — involves as its principal player titanic quantities of booze.
“Collegiate binge drinking is not confined to the fraternity house, obviously, but the two entities have a synergistic effect on one another. The result is the devastation that threatens the future of the storied system.”
Flanagan points to Phi Delta Theta, a fraternity that enacted a policy of alcohol-free housing in 2000 and has seen membership rise and insurance costs fall since then.
So, should every fraternity adopt that policy? Not necessarily. But adopting Phi Delt’s determination to combat an alcohol-dominated culture would, in the public’s eyes, go a very long way.
Insurance. One of the revelations in Flanagan’s story in The Atlantic is the way fraternities craft their insurance policies to avoid liability. Flanagan’s full explanation is too thorough and too richly developed to be done justice to here. But in a nutshell, she claims, many fraternities’ policies and insurance coverages shift the risk so that in the case of alcohol-related accidents, the injured student — not the local or national fraternity — winds up taking the blame, and the injured student’s parents wind up paying the bill.
As a personal-injury lawyer says in the story, the policies are “primarily designed to take the nationals’ fingerprints off the injury and deaths.”
Reforming these policies might push fraternities to take alcohol abuse more seriously. And as mentioned, that latter commitment would go a very long way.
Greek organizations do a tremendous amount of good, both in actual charitable contributions and in helping members gain lifetime friends. The trouble is that the organizations also are associated with more than 60 deaths since 2005 and some hundreds of burns, poisonings, crippling falls from balconies or second-story windows and other serious injuries.
And until those numbers start trending very sharply down, then in the public’s eyes, the deaths and injuries will continue to overshadow the good works.