USC fraternity battle spotlights academia’s failings on abuse

Chapters’ severing of campus affiliation predicted to show US sector’s reluctance to challenge ‘Greek life’ abuses

August 26, 2022
Source: Getty

The University of Southern California is becoming a battleground over academia’s commitment to fighting fraternity abuses, with eight chapters among those being pressed to adopt reforms ending their campus affiliation then promptly signalling a desire to return.

USC is among numerous US universities that have long battled problems of sexual assault and alcohol and drug abuse within their fraternity systems, often suspending or shutting down chapters. But even with violent attacks, serious injuries and deaths an annual occurrence, institutions have been reluctant to forbid so-called Greek life entirely, given its enduring value in attracting students and alumni donations.

The eight chapters that ended their formal affiliation with USC – meaning they lose various rights including on-campus student recruitment activities and use of university branding – complained that the university was not addressing their behavioural problems in a mutually respectful manner.

The eight breakways – Beta Theta Pi, Kappa Alpha Order, Lambda Chi Alpha, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Mu, Sigma Chi, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Zeta Beta Tau – are among 39 fraternities and sororities that were recognised by USC.

The eight are affiliated with a national alliance known as the North American Interfraternity Conference, with 15 chapters at USC, all of which had all their right to hold events suspended last October after reports of druggings and sexual assaults. They were allowed a phased resumption this year tied to reforms that include participation in sexual assault awareness training.

The North American Interfraternity Conference has backed the decision by its eight members to surrender their USC affiliation, accusing the university of imposing “policies and processes that disincentivise sexual misconduct reporting”.

Yet it also appealed for a way for the eight to resume their USC recognition. “The NIC remains hopeful”, said a conference spokesman, Todd Shelton, “that a bridge to a successful partnership can be built through two-way listening and a constructive, solution-oriented dialogue to resolve the concerns at USC that have led to this point.”

In a statement, USC said: “This decision seems to be driven by the desire to eliminate university oversight of their operations. The members are chafing at procedures and protocols designed to prevent sexual assault and drug abuse and deal with issues of mental health and underage drinking.”

In the meantime, USC urged all of its students to avoid the eight rebellious fraternities, saying they are “following an unfortunate national trend by disaffiliating from the university”.

The eight fraternities also will continue to abide by commitments they have made on the health and safety of students and guests, Mr Shelton said.

An eventual reunion between USC and its fraternities seems almost inevitable given how much they depend on each other, said Douglas Fierberg, a lawyer who regularly brings lawsuits against fraternities nationwide over their abusive practices.

Fraternities need university marketing and branding to attract members, and universities need the extra housing capacity and the resulting alumni donations that fraternities can provide, Mr Fierberg said. The result of that “symbiotic” reliance, he said, is that behavioural problems and violence persist year after year.

“They are fundamentally dangerous, and have for decades resisted certain types of meaningful change,” Mr Fierberg said of US fraternities. The eight at USC are a rare case of the fraternities forgetting for a moment their tacit understanding, he said. “It’s like a spoiled child, yelling at mom and dad: ‘Please don’t make us behave, and if you do, I’m going to run away.’”

Universities also may threaten, but they will not actually regulate fraternities out of existence, and the USC rebels will eventually realise the cost to their recruitment, Mr Fierberg said. “They’ll learn that, and their numbers will show that, and they’ll be back,” he said.

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