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Is Greek Life On Its Way Out?

When the University of Texas at Arlington announced last month that it would prohibit its fraternities and sororities from holding social events on campus, it joined a growing list of colleges and universities that are taking action against their Greek organizations.

Over the last several years, a number of colleges and universities across the country have suspended Greek social events and conducted reviews of their fraternity and sorority systems. At a time when those organizations are attracting increased scrutiny from education officials, parents and lawmakers, is campus Greek life destined to be a thing of the past?

Probably not, says John Hechinger, author of the book True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities.

Historically, universities have found it difficult to rein in their Greek organizations, let alone ban them altogether, Hechinger says. University administrators have lost their jobs over failed attempts to punish fraternities. An outright ban on Greek organizations would also bring up a host of challenges, including finding housing for hundreds or thousands of students who would otherwise be living in chapter houses.

"Greek life is way more entrenched in colleges than most people understand," Hechinger says.

On April 1, UTA officials announced the university would direct its Greek organizations to suspend all social activities, citing "growing concerns related to the culture of the fraternity and sorority community at UTA." In a statement, officials said seven Greek organizations were found to be responsible for violations of the university's code of conduct in the last two years. University officials also received reports of other misconduct, including one alcohol violation that led to a student needing medical attention.

During the suspension, university officials plan to assemble a task force to study Greek life on campus and make recommendations by the end of summer about changes to the school's fraternity and sorority system.

In an open letter dated April 9, UTA President Vistasp Karbhari wrote that the suspension would give the university a chance to "pause and thoughtfully consider proactive actions on the basis of which we can better strengthen and grow Greek life."

Two weeks after the university announced the suspension, a female student told Arlington police that an acquaintance had sexually assaulted her at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house.

Todd Shelton, a spokesman for the North American Interfraternity Conference, says the organization, which represents fraternities across the country, is "a committed partner" with UTA as the university deals with the question of campus Greek life.

"We seek a path forward that enhances safety and accountability, while respecting the rights of students and chapters that live up to high fraternal standards," Shelton says.

Across the country, other campuses are making moves similar to the one UTA announced. Last month, State University of New York campuses in Buffalo and Albany suspended official Greek activities and launched reviews of Greek life on their campuses after a student at the Buffalo campus died during a suspected fraternity hazing. SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis said system Chancellor Kristina Johnson is considering a similar review at all 64 campuses in the university system.

At Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia, officials announced earlier this month that it would ban Greek organizations from campus altogether. The move came after the college's only two fraternities, Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon, voluntarily disbanded after leaked documents from meetings between 2013 and 2016 showed fraternity members joking about sexual misconduct and making reference to a "rape attic."

Hechinger, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, says it's rare and difficult for universities to do away with Greek organizations entirely. Nationwide, those organizations house thousands of college students, acting as the largest landlord for students apart from colleges and universities themselves. At big universities with vibrant Greek scenes, getting rid of them would mean making massive changes to campus housing plans.

Although outright bans would be difficult to pull off, Hechinger says universities have more tools today than in years past to take action against them when they commit misconduct. Cellphone videos and surveillance camera footage offer strong evidence that's hard for fraternity members to refute, he said.

That evidence makes it easier for university officials — and, in some cases, prosecutors — to punish students for bad behavior. When a cellphone video was posted online in 2015 showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant about not letting black students pledge, university officials quickly kicked the fraternity off campus. When Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza died last year after downing 18 drinks during a Beta Theta Pi fraternity initiation, prosecutors filed criminal charges against several fraternity members. Three members were sentenced to jail time in connection with Piazza's death, but a judge reduced those sentences to 45 days of house arrest last week.

As such incidents show up on national news, more and more families are pushing for prosecution and legislative change, Hechinger says. In Texas, a bill that would update the state's hazing law to include coercing a student to consume alcohol or a drug is making its way through the Legislature. In spite of those changes and years of bad publicity, Greek organizations are as popular as they've ever been, he says.

"Students want to join," he says. "They want to go to the parties. They want to have a place where they can, at least in theory, drink illegally. It's very popular."

Although the attention paid to bad behavior in Greek organizations may be growing, the behavior itself is hardly new, says Nicholas Syrett, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas. Much of it has been going on for a century or more.

Syrett, author of the book The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, says fraternities have their origins in the 1820s and 1830s at a time when colleges tended to be small and strictly regulated. Students had their course schedules dictated to them by the university, and they sat through a dry curriculum of study that included a large amount of Greek and Latin recitation. Fraternities weren't sanctioned by their universities in the early days, so they offered students a chance to feel like they were rebelling.

A few decades later, though, many university officials had themselves been fraternity members during their undergraduate days, Syrett says. Fraternities morphed from underground clubs to university-sanctioned organizations. That move allowed university officials to try to impose some rules on the organizations and force them to become more responsible.

Although their relationships with universities have changed, Syrett says some of the problems that existed in the early days of Greek organizations persist today. They use a nebulous set of admissions criteria that often don't line up with the values of the university,  and they have a host of offshoot problems like binge drinking, sexual assault and racial exclusivity.

"I think they're deeply problematic organizations," Syrett says.

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