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book review

The dichotomy of fraternities

Jonathan Drew/ap file photo

In one of the many ironies surrounding them, the peculiarly American institution of the college fraternity is known as the Greek system. But that is only the beginning. Fraternities are pledged to chivalry and are the sites of sexual misconduct. They are established to nurture discriminating values and yet they have a tradition of discrimination.

In a nanosecond fraternity defenders will rise in a chorus of opposition, if not to this review then surely to the book that inspired it, “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities’’ by John Hechinger, a Bloomberg News journalist and a member of perhaps the nation’s leading family of journalists dedicated to covering American universities and collegiate culture.

And though Hechinger employs the title “True Gentlemen’’ mostly in irony — the phrase is from the creed of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, almost certainly the most powerful in the nation — he is not a crusader for the abolition of fraternities. Most of his book, to be sure, is a prosecutor’s case against the transgressions of fraternities — drunkenness, exclusion, sexual assault, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, mindless stupidity. But before he closes he produces something of a reform manifesto: Heal thyselves. Recruit adult alums to help. Make fraternities a lifelong commitment and commit them to performing good works. In short: Grow up.

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The organizations “can fight alcohol abuse and hazing, and fully welcome women and minorities as equals, even members — or they can double down on the familiar attitudes of a bygone era,’’ he writes. “If they want change, fraternity members themselves, with prodding from college administrators, must step up.”

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First, let’s step back. Fraternities are powerful institutions and lobby groups, as Harvard is discovering as it seeks to rein in final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Their members comprise two-fifths of the Senate, a quarter of the House, a third of the Supreme Court. They have millions of alumni and account for one in seven male undergraduates. In the period 2005-2013, SAE accounted for 10 deaths. The fraternity counts among its alumni Henry Paulson, T. Boone Pickens, and William Faulkner.

Overall, fraternities are major players in campus drinking. The College Alcohol Study of 1992-2007 found that 86 percent of men living in fraternities had indulged in binge drinking. More than 130 fraternity chapters have been disciplined in the past five years.

Hechinger provides a brisk history of the fraternity movement, noting that hazing preceded frats, and also dutifully noting that they were established to promote loyalty and character, along with a swift road to riches in finance and venture capital and sometimes to the campus disciplinary board adjudicating sexual misconduct. He also says, plainly: “There is an indisputable link between alcohol and the risk of sexual assault.”

Both on campus and between the hard covers of books, examinations of fraternity behavior have a dreary familiarity. Part of this ritual, along with the howls of disdain from campus Puritans, is the repeated citing of community service by fraternities. In my decade on the board of Dartmouth College, where fraternities are a sturdy part of the campus social scene and the inspiration of the classic frat film “Animal House,’’ the most memorable single sentence uttered by a fellow trustee came from a Fortune 500 executive, like me a onetime fraternity member. He said to a group struggling to defend their house: “Don’t waste our time by parading in front of us again the same two kids who tutor at Lebanon High School.”

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These institutions are remarkably resilient, in part because of their political influence, in part because of the financial support they provide to the institutions that, as a result, are hesitant to change, or eliminate, fraternities. “Fraternity and sorority alumni are more likely to give to their colleges and are larger lifetime donors than other graduates,” Hechinger reports. “Especially at cash-strapped public universities, colleges rely on their housing as quasi-official dorms and would have to come up with an expensive alternative.”

Moreover, universities pride themselves on openness and tolerance — two values often traduced on Fraternity Row — and thus have difficulty rebutting arguments that fraternities are the very definition of the right to free assembly. To say nothing about what Hechinger calls “the inalienable right to be drunk and stupid.”

Fraternities, which so often create victims, take comfort (and cultural shelter) in being victimized themselves, by what they regard as do-gooder bureaucrats, holier-than-thou progressives, and man-hating feminists. One fraternity supporter, a leading citizen of Wilmington, N.C., pleaded: “The chess club doesn’t have to go to sexual-assault training.”

Hechinger’s book will be vilified by fraternity supporters, but it deserves serious consideration, for while fraternities are at base undemocratic institutions their defense is based on democratic values. The collision between the two raises important questions. Maybe they should be the topic for the next fraternity meeting. It’s a powder keg for the keg set.

TRUE GENTLEMEN:

The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities

By John Hechinger

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PublicAffairs, 320 pp., $28

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.