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As Scandals Continue To Hit Fraternities, How Can Misconduct Be Prevented?


This month, there have been several scandals involving fraternities at American universities. Yesterday, officials at North Carolina State University announced they'd suspended a fraternity for a book of sexually and racially offensive materials. Earlier in the week, a fraternity at Penn State was suspended for maintaining a secret Facebook page with photos of naked, sometimes unconscious women. And recently, Oklahoma University closed down the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after its members were caught on tape singing a racist song. The fraternity's executive director, Blaine Ayers, announced a four-part initiative to address racial sensitivity this week.


BLAINE AYERS: To guide us in these efforts, we are appointing a national advisory committee on diversity and inclusion. This committee will include SAE undergraduates, alumni and outside subject matter experts.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN: Well, this is fraternity crisis management 101. It's - you know, I could've predicted the playbook on this, which is that you have a blue-ribbon commission or a new initiative or something that comes with consultants from the outside.

MCEVERS: That's Caitlin Flanagan. She's a writer at The Atlantic. She conducted a year-long investigation of the Greek system. And she says the response to recent incidents is one thing, but it ignores the fact that national fraternity organizations and university administrators should do much more to prevent this stuff from happening.

FLANAGAN: By design, fraternities are franchise operations with terrible quality control. The national organizations really don't want to have a lot of day-to-day input on what goes on in the individual chapters. The case for the defense on that is that they want the individual young men to learn how to run themselves and to self-govern. The case for the prosecution is that the national doesn't want its fingerprints on all of that if it comes to a case of civil liability or, you know, a lawsuit. So how much is the national responsible? We don't really know.

MCEVERS: I mean, right now, universities are under more scrutiny, of course, for the rate of sexual assaults that are occurring and, of course, the higher rate that are being reported. I mean, do you feel like we're on the verge here of some kind of shift about what's acceptable?

FLANAGAN: You know, I'm 53 years old. So I went to college over three decades ago. And my friends and I were talking about rape in those fraternity houses three decades ago, so I don't think we're at a turning point. There have been so many points in the last 30 years that felt as though we were at a turning point, and nothing has changed.

MCEVERS: However, you know, in these recent incidents this week, I mean, the misconduct was made public by a member of the fraternity, and, you know, a former member of the fraternity. So these are people from the inside who are coming forward. You know, what do you make of that?

FLANAGAN: There have always been whistleblowers. And what always happens is the school year's going to end in another couple of months. There'll be a period of quiescent on the campuses. Everyone will move on. Kids graduate. A new group shows up, and then we're back in the cycle again. So there's some sort of things built into the system, in terms of the rapid turnover of kids in individual fraternities, that stops real traction from gathering to shut them down if that's appropriate.

MCEVERS: I mean, we know too that racist behavior and sexual assaults, frankly, don't just happen at fraternities. I mean, are we just demonizing one entity when we should talk about the larger problem?

FLANAGAN: Well, when you look at fraternities, that's a place where the college is deeply allied with the fraternities. And it's my belief that if we could reform the fraternity movement and get rid of those sexual assaults, they would decrease overall. So I think there's a strong case to reforming the problem of sexual assaults in the fraternity houses.

MCEVERS: When you talk about reform the fraternity movement, I mean, do you talk - do you think that the solution is to get rid of them?

FLANAGAN: No. The solution, clearly, is to take alcohol out. Every single case I've ever seen, and that anyone ever has studied it has ever seen, a river of alcohol's running through it. One big national fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, made a monumental decision 12 years ago to move to alcohol-free housing. Everyone thought no one would pledge. Everyone thought it would close down. It's more popular than ever, and its amount of sexual assault, hazing, assault and battery, all the kinds of problems that usually crop up at fraternity houses, have dropped by 85 percent. And the dollar amount of the claims against the fraternity have dropped by 95 percent. So if you get alcohol out, you'll reform the system.

MCEVERS: Alright. Well, Caitlin Flanagan is a writer for The Atlantic. Thank you so much for being here.

FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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