As I sat down to write this post, an image of an iconic sports cover kept flashing into my head. It was simple and stark… green background and white lettering. All it said was “Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football.” This inspired the title of my post, which summarizes my opinion of the action my alma mater, the University of Virginia, should take regarding the recent controversy. I’ve largely waited until now to give my take on the matter, in order to ensure that I would give a well-thought-out opinion that wasn’t fired off in anger right after hearing the news.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, a Rolling Stone article recently described the experience of “Jackie,” a third-year student at UVA who alleged that she was gang-raped at a fraternity party at Phi Kappa Psi’s house during her first year. Worse still, the scene she described seemed to be some sort of twisted initiation for the brothers, which can only mean that she is not the first girl this has happened to. Worse still, her “friends” that accompanied her to the party urged her not to report this act, for fear that none of them would be let into a fraternity party ever again. Jackie reported her assault to Dean Nicole Eramo, who gave her resources to both deal with the problem and hold the men accountable. She ended up not reporting the assault to police.
I took issue with a few claims in the article that seemed to sensationalize and mischaracterize life at Virginia. For instance, it makes the claim that fraternity parties are the only social outlet for first-year students to make friends. While most of the evidence I have for this claim is anecdotal (I went to one frat party in five years and was by no means a hermit), I can tell you that it isn’t the case. Secondly, the use of several passages from the song “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill” throughout the article served to further sensationalize the story. The article claimed that it was our fight song, and only recently banned from being played at football games. It cited passages from the lyrics that seemed to legitimize and glorify rape. This song is not our fight song. We have two fight songs: The Good Ol’Song and The Cavalier Song. I doubt I could find many people outside of the Glee Club that could tell you what the lyrics to “Rugby Road” are, and it was never sung at football games. While I’m glad the song has been retired, it was an unfair characterization of UVA students, creating the impression that we all sing about raping women on a regular basis.
But those points are secondary to the main problem the article illuminates. The fraternities at the University of Virginia have bred a culture in which rape is an accepted part of the experience. Rape’s humiliating and degrading effects are considered secondary to the base pleasures of the men who perpetuate it. Once this problem came to the forefront, UVA President Teresa Sullivan suspended all fraternity activities for the rest of the year. While the suspension doesn’t impact fraternity activities much, it does serve as a symbolic gesture. It shows the University is listening and is a first step toward reversing the problem of sexual assault on Grounds. But the next step should be to ban fraternities permanently.
The more I thought about ways to fix Greek organizations on Grounds and end the rape culture that seems to permeate many of them, I kept coming back to one question… but why? Why exactly should we let this system exist? What good does it really do for the UVA community? The more I thought about that, the more I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. Fraternities may have started out as noble organizations. Phi Kappa Psi itself was originally conceived as a service organization. Alpha Tau Omega was founded to heal wounds left from the Civil War. But that message seems to have been corrupted by the desire for free booze and cheap sex.
We’ve kept the fraternity system going despite the terrible things that seem to arise out of them. And that isn’t limited to rape. In 1982, a fatal car crash during the Easters Weekend celebration killed many members of the Sigma Chi fraternity. At this point, Easters had largely devolved into an alcohol-fueled hedonism-fest that consisted of, among other things, naked mud pits. And rape isn’t a new problem among fraternities either. Many UVA students and grads are familiar with the story of Liz Securro, who was gang-raped at a frat party in 1984. The Rolling Stone article cites incidents from 1993, 2002, and 2004 in which the University did not respond well to sexual assault allegations.
Let me be clear, however: I am in no way seeking to paint fraternity men with a broad brush. I’m sure many of them would never dream of raping anyone. In addition, there are a few honor and service fraternities that uphold the value of service to the community. I am not suggesting that these should be banned, only the mainstream frats. It’s clear that any positive or philanthropic activities of mainstream fraternities are far outweighed by their negative aspects. Surely UVA’s many charitable organizations (such as Madison House or Pancakes for Parkinson’s) could pick up the slack for what little the fraternities do. Any social benefits fraternities contribute could be gained in any of the hundreds of organizations on Grounds. Many universities abroad have thriving social scenes, and no Greek system. And I find the tradition argument for keeping frats around pretty weak. Sure, they teach our boys that women are their playthings, but we should keep them around because they’ve always been around, right? Wrong.
Rape on college campuses is a problem. A huge problem. On many more campuses than just UVA’s. But UVA can take this terrible allegation and turn it into an opportunity. An opportunity to be a leader in the national conversation we are having on this issue. An opportunity to show women everywhere that we are committed to ending this scourge once and for all. This responsibility extends to the sexual misconduct board and police forces. But it needs to start with the elimination of a Greek system that ultimately does more harm than good.