Views Of College Greek Life, From Inside And Out
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is For The Record. Type the word fraternity into Google and you get dozens of stories about bad behavior, headlines like, "When Hazing Goes Very Wrong," or "The Dark Power Of Fraternities." The Greek system has long been the subject of national scrutiny for all kinds of reasons, discriminatory admissions, underage drinking or brutal hazing rituals. But the scandal last fall at the University of Virginia, brought on by a discredited Rolling Stone article, sharpened the critiques around one issue, sexual assault. Here's UVA president, Teresa Sullivan.
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TERESA SULLIVAN: UVA students and alumni are speaking up loudly and saying this will never be tolerated on our grounds. And yet, at the same time, it's been tough to hear from many alumni, some of them from decades ago, who've recounted their own negative experience and then wondered, sadly, if nothing has changed.
MARTIN: There have been recent scandals at other schools too, including Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A college party took a tragic turn this weekend after a Wesleyan sophomore fell from a third story window at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.
MARTIN: For The Record today, fraternities from the inside. At a time when fraternities are under such scrutiny, we're going to bring you two different perspectives on Greek life. First up...
SCOTT ELLMAN: My name is Scott Ellman. I am a senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. And I was a member of Chi Psi fraternity.
MARTIN: And in the beginning, he said it was great.
ELLMAN: It was a group of about nine or ten guys who were on my freshman hall who were really nice guys.
MARTIN: They were trying to start a new type of fraternity on campus, one focused less on partying and more on public service. But about a year into it, Scott said he started to see that ideal fall away.
ELLMAN: It was still very easy for people to go out and buy a 30 rack and have a beer pong tournament. But we weren't really doing the things that we all knew were more important. It just sort of felt like we were any other Greek organization on campus.
MARTIN: And one incident in particular stands out for him.
ELLMAN: It was some sort of official fraternity event. And the event had finished. We were hanging out in big couches. There was a whiteboard around. And someone casually, without thinking, got up and walked over to a whiteboard and just started writing down names of girls on campus and connecting girls through brothers in the fraternity, starting to make a web, like a hook-up chart, basically. And people started adding, you know, throwing in names. And the web expanded. And it happened so suddenly and so casually and matter-of-factly. I don't think anyone really even had a second thought about it. But it took me aback. I was surprised at what I was witnessing and party to.
MARTIN: Did you say anything?
ELLMAN: No. I wish I did say something. I didn't.
MARTIN: We contacted one of the other members of Scott Ellman's fraternity, who confirmed that this incident did occur as described. We also contacted the fraternity chapter president, who said in a statement that Scott's description of a so-called hook-up tree is a, quote, "inaccurate account of what occurred." Scott's school, Wesleyan, has had to deal with far more damaging allegations against fraternities. In 2012, a student sued the school after she said she was raped at a campus fraternity house. The school later settled in court. And then, last year, another woman filed suit against a different fraternity on campus, where she says she was raped. And then, of course, this past fall, all of the public attention was taken up by a different story.
BRIAN HEAD: My name is Brian Head. I'm a fourth year or a senior here. And I am in the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta, or FIJI. And I go to school at the University of Virginia.
MARTIN: UVA is still coming to grips with the allegations made in a discredited Rolling Stone magazine story about a female student allegedly gang-raped at a frat house. The magazine has since partially retracted the story. But Brian Head says the issue of sexual assault still looms large at UVA.
HEAD: People hear about something bad like this happening, and they want somebody to blame. And so we sort of try to - try to find a reason. And for a lot of people, that reason was Greek life is bad.
MARTIN: Brian Head is the president of a group at UVA called One in Four. And it aims to educate students on how to prevent sexual violence. Part of that, he says, is understanding the effect of language.
HEAD: It's something that I personally am trying to combat, like, when I see it around me, sort of not being OK with people saying the words, like, bitch or [bleep] or stuff like that or people sort of putting women down.
MARTIN: But he insists all these problems are not specific to Greek college culture.
HEAD: I don't think it's fair. It's something that happens at every school in the United States. It's something that happens in all sorts of different social circles. It's something that happens everywhere.
MARTIN: Unlike Brian Head, Scott Ellman didn't feel like he could change the system. So he left it. He quit his fraternity. His school, Wesleyan, has made some policy changes recently. The university mandated that all residential fraternities become coed in the next three years in an effort to, quote, "eliminate the gender-based power dynamics by which sexual assault is promoted within fraternities." According to the North American Interfraternity Conference, frats have a long history of being a force for good. In the last academic year, fraternities raised more than $20 million for charity and participated in 3.8 million community service hours. But Scott Ellman thinks the idea of all-male fraternity houses can be problematic.
ELLMAN: You have this situation where young men go through this process of pledging loyalty to each other. And they come out of it incredibly close. And then, for one brother to then - if he sees something that he understands and recognizes as wrong or inappropriate, it becomes incredibly difficult for that brother to then intervene and call his brother on something that he shouldn't be doing.
MARTIN: We asked Scott and Brian how they would advise a new student thinking about joining a fraternity. Here's Brian Head.
HEAD: I would say Greek life is what you make it. Greek life changed my life. It made me a better person. It made me more successful and more intelligent and harder working than I would have been otherwise. And I think that if they see some problems, that they are theirs for the changing.
MARTIN: And Scott Ellman's advice is this.
ELLMAN: I would just say, you know, don't lose yourself. And don't lose your voice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.