IN writing this comment, I am like a guest who arrives at a party when it is already over. But our national fraternity nightmare is not over. Soon or late, we are going to wake up again to headlines announcing the death of another hazing victim.
I’ve been asked by many readers and friends why amidst the raging fraternity controversy over the death of Atio Castillo at the hands of a UST fraternity, and in the confused and fruitless search for an availing answer to the problem, I have kept my thoughts to myself.
I have kept silent, despite being troubled by the perplexing plight of UST College of Law dean, Nilo Divina, a fine lawyer and a one-time colleague in one project, who has been roasted over the coals because of the existence of the culprit-fraternity in his college during his watch, and who is now being threatened with disbarment on the urgings of a misguided Senate committee.
I have avoided the issue, because I do not, as a rule, wade into something I know little or nothing about, lest I drown in a bathtub, like the Indian female movie superstar who drowned in her bathtub recently.
I also withheld comment because I have been trying these past weeks to find out more about the fraternity problem and understand the cultish appeal of fraternities. I wanted especially to know how the most admired universities in the world, places like Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge have evidently managed to avoid the scourge of fraternities for much of their histories.
What’s happening in advanced societies
I can now report on my research, which impelled me to study not just the history of fraternity violence and misconduct in the country. I widened my study into more advanced societies, to see how they have managed their own fraternity problem, and succeeded in guarding their college and university system from being poisoned by the virulence of fraternity culture. I have necessarily turned to published studies and media reports, which have been extolled for the quality of their research, their insights and their conclusions.
I can report as vital contributors to my research the following studies and reports:
1. An epic investigative article in the Atlantic, “The Dark Power of Fraternities”, by Caitlin Flanagan, which is the product of a one- year investigation of fraternities in American college campuses, whose conclusions are stunning.
2. A series of articles by Bloomberg News that tallied more than 75 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, and which Bloomberg wrapped up with an editorial, “Abolish fraternities.”
3. A report in the Detroit Free Press, ”Harvard bows to political correctness,” published just this March, which reported on how Harvard, through a series of administrative decisions, seeks to ban all exclusive social clubs, including fraternities and sororities, by 2022, from its campus.
4. An article by Renee Graham, ”Colleges should ban fraternities” in another American paper.
Dark side of fraternities
The Flanagan article in the Atlantic is a must-read for any Filipino educator or public legislator who desires to have a deeper understanding of why fraternity culture has become so deeply rooted in our country today, and why it is prone to violence and misconduct.
Flanagan spent most of an entire year looking deeply into the questions posed by lawsuits against fraternities, and into the particular nature of fraternity life on the modern American campus. Much of what she found challenged her beliefs about the system, assumptions that she came to see as grossly outdated, not because the nature of fraternity life has changed so much, but rather because life in the contemporary university has gone through such a profound transformation in the past quarter century. She found the ways in which the fraternity system exerts its power—and maintains its longevity—in the face of the many potentially antagonistic priorities in contemporary higher education commanded her grudging respect.
She wrote: “Fraternity tradition at its most essential is rooted in a set of old, morally unassailable convictions, some of which—such as a young man’s right to the freedom of association—emanate from the Constitution itself. In contrast, much of the policy governing college campuses today is rooted in the loose soil of a set of political and social fashions that change with the season, and that tend not to hold up to any kind of penetrating challenge.
“And this is why—to answer the vexing question “why don’t colleges just get rid of their bad fraternities?”—the system, and its individual frats, have only grown in power and influence. Indeed, in many substantive ways, fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.”
You can say that what is true on the American campus, is not necessarily applicable to a Philippine campus. What a Filipino fraternity does is entirely its own doing.
But the entire fraternity tradition has been entirely imported from a foreign setting. It is in its own way like the mafia.
Harvard and political correctness
In an article in the Detroit Free Press, entitled, “Harvard bows to political correctness” (March 4, 2018), Jenna A. Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, reported that Harvard, like many elite universities, has become increasingly intolerant. “It has sought, through a series of administrative decisions, to substitute its own values for the individual moral consciences of its students and to punish those who stray from the university’s narrow dogma. Most recently, Harvard moved to ban all exclusive social clubs, including fraternities and sororities, by 2022.”
Despite Harvard’s promises that student rights are of primary importance on campus, the proposal would deprive students of their fundamental right to freedom of association.
Ultimately, Harvard’s decision to punish students who are members of such organizations, comes down to a difference of opinion about values.
Robinson concluded: “Harvard’s actions and policies have shown that the university values conformity over debate and narrow dogma over open inquiry. Harvard’s intolerance has caused it to abandon the most fundamental mission of education: the pursuit of truth.”
Colleges should ban fraternities
In another article, journalist Renee Graham discussed fraternity incidents at Florida State University and Penn State. He advanced a strong argument from his very title: “Suspending fraternities isn’t enough. Colleges should ban them.”
Graham reports that 2017 has been a lethal year for the fraternity system at several US colleges and universities. At Florida State University, the recent death of a fraternity pledge at a party has prompted the school’s president to indefinitely suspend its fraternities and sororities.
“For this suspension to end, there will need to be a new normal for Greek life on campus,” FSU president John Thrasher declared. He wants to “send a message that we’ve got a serious problem and we need to deal with it, and they’re part of the solution.”
Graham contends: “Here’s a better solution: permanently ban fraternities and sororities at all colleges and universities.”
He continued: “From hazing deaths to racist parties, fraternities and sororities are incubators of behavior ranging from objectionable to criminal. This year, three young men pledging fraternities at Florida State, Penn State, and Louisiana State have died, and not just from severe alcohol intoxication or injuries sustained while drunk. They are also victims of the depraved indifference of those they wanted to call their brothers.
“At Penn State, 12 hours passed before anyone at a frat house called 911 for Timothy Piazza, who, while drunk, stumbled down a flight of stairs. He died two days later. At LSU, Maxwell Gruver lay on a couch for nine hours, dying from alcohol-induced asphyxiation. In both cases, students face criminal charges. Andrew Coffey died at a campus fraternity party at FSU; authorities are still trying to determine his cause of death.
“This is the result of a feeling of entitlement, flagrant disobedience of the law and disregard for moral values that was then exacerbated by egregious acts of self-preservation…Again, this did not have to happen.”
Yet it continues to happen.
Graham concludes: “Despite bad press, universities have reasons to sustain these groups. They keep deep-pocketed donors, especially those who remain active members, happy and writing big checks.
“Still, such justifications pale in comparison with the threat fraternities and sororities pose to student safety. Nothing these organizations offer counterbalances the harm caused by their continued existence.”
Looking in wrong direction
The conclusion that I have drawn in my admittedly limited study and research is this: various colleges and universities abroad have succeeded in bringing fraternities under control, even in eliminating them altogether from their campuses. They have not turned to government for their removal. Their administrations have not been content with just suspending these clubs. They simply banned them on their campuses.
We are looking in the wrong direction when we turn to Congress to end fraternity violence and misconduct.
Legislation, I am convinced, is not the answer. The answer is in the hands of individual college and university administrations. Each administration must decide for itself what it will allow or will not allow on campus. It must define freedom of association in its best light and according to its conception of how an institution of learning can best serve the goal of education and training.