Social Space & Social Responsibility in Fraternities

By The Herald News Team

As with many other colleges and universities, fraternities play a dominating role in social life at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and, as a side effect of their social role on campus, are frequently tied to instances of sexual assault.

The 2017 Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey found that of the 46 students who self-reported experiencing sexual assault during their time at HWS in spaces connected to the Colleges, 16 reported that their assault occurred in a fraternity house, either on or off campus. The survey only featured responses from about 25 percent of the student body, so it can only provide a glimpse into what is happening on campus.

When asked about the role of fraternities in sexual assaults, Title IX Coordinator Susan Lee said: “I think the question is: Is it the fraternity or is it the presence of alcohol or is the presence of large groups of people at parties? Or is it all of the three? But it’s a concern, absolutely.” Regardless of the source, fraternities sit on the front lines of the battle against sexual assault. However, with the high rate of sexual assaults happening in their spaces working against their attempts to right a negative perception it becomes unclear which side of the battle they actually fight on. In an interview with Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) President Steven Ives and Treasurer Jack Creatura, Creatura noted: “There is a negative perception of fraternities that comes from the national perception of fraternities, but once you get past that first interaction I think most people have a positive experience.” However, the system lacks a unified effort to address sexual assault connected to Greek Life.

In the past few years Greek Life at HWS has experienced a lot of turbulence with the addition of two fraternities, the introduction of a sorority for the first time in institution history, and a fraternity review completed in 2016.

In the wake of the national attention HWS received in the summer of 2014 following an article in The New York Times, critical of how the institution handled a case of sexual assault in which the three alleged assailants were cleared, fraternities received a more critical eye and more strict policies. Like the one third of the students who responded to the 2017 HEDS survey, the student whose case is described in the article reported being sexually assaulted in a fraternity house, as well as in the Barn.

As with other student leaders on campus, members of fraternities are expected to complete additional trainings facilitated by the Office of Title IX Compliance, including education on sexual assault prevention for all new members.

Several houses have organized additional educational sessions with Title IX to help combat sexual assault and harassment in their houses, but those are largely done on an individual level. These sessions have also moved beyond sexual assault to include issues surrounding toxic masculinity and misogyny in fraternities.

The 2016 Fraternity Review noted that Greek Life is perceived as a dominant force in social life at HWS, where fraternity houses act as the social hotspots. In an interview with the Herald, President Gregory Vincent pushed back on that characterization of social spaces, noting other spaces on campus such as the Barn and the push in the HWS Master Plan to increase social space on campus.

Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) President Steven Ives noted that fraternities are a less dominant part of social life following the crack down in the wake of The Times article on fraternities and the push of the social scene off campus to a thriving downtown bar scene.

Fraternities, however, struggle to develop self-governance and work as a unified body to address their issues. The IFC is the logical body for such organizing, but the 2016 Fraternity Review found that all houses agreed the IFC was ineffective and inconsistent as a governing body, and had no form of peer review or judicial board to give Greek men a means of holding each other accountable since the dissolution of the IFC’s Judicial Board in 2009. Ives hopes to improve the role of the IFC through coordinated events, such as Greek Week that promote organizational unity between houses. IFC treasurer Jack Creatura hopes that the IFC and representatives from each house can work to set an example for fraternity members that will work to remedy issues in individual fraternities.

They are allowed to maintain their dominance in the campus social life through large houses designed to be conducive to hosting social events, which are free from a change in housing that many theme houses face, as many fraternity houses are privately owned and leased back to the Colleges. While a theme house can change from year to year due to varying levels of interest, inactivity, or other issues, most fraternities are guaranteed prime campus housing without the risk of losing it unless they get removed from the campus community through a revocation of their charter. Fraternities also do not face the same oversight from the Office of Residential Education for who may live in a house. First, members of theme houses  must apply to ResEd for the privilege of living in a theme house, whereas fraternities select their members themselves with only the academic and disciplinary restrictions imposed on all greek men by the institution. Members of theme houses do not have full control over who lives in the house or what room they get, but fraternities make all those decisions in-house and inform ResEd.

The Colleges also try to create policy that allows groups equal power in social life on campus. “For the institution we’ve tried to develop policies to afford everybody – every group can host a party some place on campus, and they can host a party with alcohol, every house can host a party. But there’s only so much that policy can do to make that a reality,” said Robert Flowers, the Colleges’ Vice President for Campus Life. “Ultimately social life is about what students make it,” he concluded, to explain why fraternities have maintained so much control over social life on campus.

In the same interview, Flowers expressed a desire for more productive, real, conversations between fraternities and the administration. “That’s one of the places where I think we missed the boat too often, is that we don’t sit down and say, ‘Really what we need is the real conversation, and let’s be honest and not say things that you think I want to hear or that I think you want to hear. Let’s just be honest.’ Because once you do that you can get into a meaningful dialogue about how to best position the institution and Greek Life at the situation and move forward.”

Following The New York Times article, a conversation sprung up on campus regarding sexual assault and the role of fraternities in perpetuating a culture of sexual violence. Where The Times piece shed an ugly light on Hobart and William Smith, it prompted a conversation about how to improve. “This notion that we got everyone engaged in a conversation about sexual violence was wonderful – I hate how it happened, of course, but that we are able to make it happen was what was important. And it was so valuable for the community, and there was a palpable feel in that 2014-2015 year that there was a difference in how people were interacting with one another and what the conversation was and where it went.” The piece sparked a push for change on campus and the topic of fraternities was central to this conversation.

The IFC and individual houses have made strides in improving their structure and leadership programing, but efforts to achieve self-governance by fraternities are held back by a lack of engagement with the IFC by Greek men who are more focused on their own houses according to Ives.

The lack of self-governance means that a unified attempt to combat sexual assault in fraternities by fraternities is impossible. Yet, every house still suffers from the stigma and negative impacts from the bad actions of other members of the system.

Like the conversation on how to change the culture of sexual assault on campus, the conversation on how to improve fraternities has tapered out.

While some may see waning Greek Life at HWS, in discussions by the Fraternity Review Committee in 2016, Professor Hannah Dickinson told the Herald that there were concerns that fraternities would go underground and escape any sort of regulatory oversight by the school. Some Greek organizations no longer recognized by the school already have done this.

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