Penn State president Eric Barron set off a firestorm in Happy Valley last month, following the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. The real question, Barron said, isn’t how to regulate fraternities; it’s whether we should have them at all.
He’s right. And the answer is as clear as the Nittany-Blue sky: no. It’s time for Penn State and other universities to close down fraternities, which embody some of the worst behaviors of American men.
It’s not just that fraternity members are more likely than other male students to commit sexual assault or indulge in binge drinking, which led to Piazza’s death and criminal charges against 18 of his Beta Theta Pi brothers. It’s that fraternities teach men that they must degrade women — and debase themselves — to cement their tough-guy bona fides.
Anyone who believes otherwise should read Nicholas Syrett’s 2009 history of fraternities, The Company He Keeps. Founded at the all-male colleges of the 19th century, these institutions originally served to distinguish well-to-do students from others. Men of “good breeding” joined the “best” (read: richest) fraternities, reflecting the growing class hierarchies outside the university gates.
In some ways, of course, fraternities still serve that function: ask anyone on campus, and they can direct you to the rich-kid houses. But with the admission of large numbers of female students in the early 20th-century, fraternities took on a new purpose: to differentiate men from women. ...