MOST of the world thinks of the Greek system as one where reckless voters elect wild parties, binge on debt and really annoy their neighbours. Americans use the term to describe something similar: a system where reckless students throw wild parties, binge on vodka and really annoy their neighbours.
Like actual Greeks, members of college fraternities and sororities have had a miserable year. Fraternities, which are usually all-men, have made headlines for hazing, boozing, racism and allegations of rape. This has spurred some universities to consider curbing or even banning them.
Take the University of Virginia, where a Rolling Stone article describing a horrific gang rape at a fraternity house set off a firestorm last year. The piece was later discredited, but other students came forward to say that they had been raped at frat parties. So the university banned fraternities until January, when it announced new restrictions on how they serve alcohol. National sorority organisations told their all-female members to avoid fraternity houses on a recent night of big parties—an order that was widely ignored.
In just the past few months several universities have grappled with sexual misconduct in fraternities. One is Brown University in Rhode Island, where men at a fraternity house are said to have served punch spiked with a date-rape drug. In response, the school banned alcohol at most parties. Across the country nearly 100 universities are under investigation by the Department of Education for mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct.
Despite the furore, American campuses are safer than other places where young people congregate: female students are less likely to be raped than their non-student peers. Still, complaints on campus have risen. And in 2007 the Justice Department found that women who regularly attended fraternity parties were more likely to be sexually assaulted than women who did not. Other studies have shown that fraternity members are more likely to commit rape than the average student. They also drink more, a contributing factor in many assaults. Sorority members are more at risk than other female students, the Justice Department says, probably because they are “more likely to drink and to associate with fraternity men”.
The vast majority of fraternity members are not rapists. But as dispensers of alcohol, often to under-age drinkers, they court trouble. Over 40% of students admit to binge-drinking at least once a month. (In your correspondent’s old fraternity, the rate was much higher.) To curb booze-fuelled misbehaviour, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire recently banned hard liquor on campus. The college, which inspired “Animal House”, a movie celebrating raucous fraternity life, may yet go further. If the Greek system does not engage in “meaningful, lasting reform”, it could be ended, warned Phil Hanlon, Dartmouth’s president.
Despite their problems, fraternities have no shortage of prospective members. The number of students initiated each year has risen by 45% since 2006. They are lured by the parties, the camaraderie and the alumni networks, which open doors in later life. A startling number are prepared to undergo painful or humiliating hazing rituals to join. Last year a pledge (aspiring initiate) of Pi Kappa Phi at California State University, Northridge died during an 18-mile hike—with no shoes and little water.
Some fraternities are trying to fix things. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest, has done away with pledging rituals. Some colleges have produced creative solutions. Last year Wesleyan University in Connecticut ordered on-campus fraternities to admit women. Other ideas have been mooted, like allowing sororities, which often ban alcohol in their houses, to throw parties, thus giving women more control over what they imbibe.
Universities may find it tough to crack down hard. Fraternities boast a long list of powerful alumni that includes two living former presidents, over 25% of Congress, and 15% of Fortune 100 CEOs. This suggests the clubs play some role in building character—and ensures they will not be disappearing soon.