Fraternities are under siege, at Stanford and around the country, as administrators scramble to address sexual assault (and stem the tide of general bad publicity that seems to flow perpetually from Greek houses). Following an Atlantic exposé of a sexual assault at Wesleyan, the school ordered its fraternities to admit women or be shut down. Amherst College, which had come under fire after a student said she was raped in a dorm and treated with callous disregard by the administration, permanently banned Greek life last Spring. And just two days ago, the University of Virginia suspended all fraternities in the wake of a shocking Rolling Stone article on an alleged 2012 gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi.
This fall, the “Great Frat Crackdown” came to Stanford. Provost John Etchemendy sent a letter to fraternity and sorority leaders announcing strict new regulations, including collective sanctions for Greek houses in response to violations by individual members. According to The Stanford Daily, Etchemendy wrote: “Just as individuals who misbehave can lose the privilege of living on campus, a fraternity or sorority that allows bad behavior on the part of its members or in its house, can lose the privilege of on-campus housing.”
The changes have already started to have an impact. Some fraternities have blocked freshmen from getting into certain parties (presumably because they are at a higher risk for alcohol related transports) and fraternity brothers tell me they can feel the administration’s leash tightening (Sigma Alpha Epsilon is already on probation).
As we enter an era of highly regulated Greek life, I want to make two predictions — one optimistic, one cautionary — about how campus politics and social life will respond.
First, the crackdown will do more to reduce the rate of campus rape than any initiative attempted so far. That’s not necessarily saying much: I think the university’s other efforts, like “affirmative consent” and improvised campus tribunals, are largely unproductive and unfair. Still, the new policy — which provides that one sexual assault by a fraternity member will lead to a loss of housing privileges for the entire fraternity — is likely to make a real difference.
There is strong empirical evidence, and no shortage of anecdotes, showing that fraternity members commit a disproportionate number of sexual assaults. By distributing the consequences for such crimes across the entire house, the University has created a powerful incentive for fraternities to keep their brothers in line. Fraternities might complain that they are being unfairly singled out for collective punishment, but the fact is that under current policy all campus groups can be held responsible for transgressions by individual members.
Pragmatic, independent experts (not just ideological, anti-due process activists) believe that reining in Greek excesses is critical to reducing sexual assault. Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld recently argued, “Attending fraternity parties makes women measurably more likely to be sexually assaulted. If colleges are serious about reducing rapes, they need to break the links among alcohol, all-male clubs and campus party life.” Etchemendy’s new rules are a promising step in that direction.
Now for my cautionary prediction: Stanford administrators are likely to take advantage of the new rules — and the unprecedented level of anti-frat sentiment on campus — to punish fraternity members for engaging in First Amendment protected speech because it is politically unpopular (or simply inconvenient for the University’s public relations efforts).
The new policy defines “intolerant or disrespectful comments” as a punishable offense, effectively giving the University carte blanche to police the speech of students who live in Greek houses. Stanford is already exercising this power: According to multiple sources in the Greek community, Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s probation arose, in part, out of allegedly misogynistic jokes pledges told at the house.
Fraternities have always been easy targets for the speech police. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I interned last summer), wrote in his book Unlearning Liberty: “If any group can be accused of engaging in speech that purposefully offends for the sake of offending, it is our nation’s fraternities. Fraternities consistently produce some of the least sympathetic cases for campus free speech advocates.” But the fact that speech gives offense is all the more reason to protect it. The new policy could further worsen Stanford’s (already inhospitable) climate for expressing unpopular views.
I hope administrators enforce the new rules prudently and objectively, so as to successfully weaken the link between Greek life and sexual assault without needlessly chilling speech in the process. This will be complicated by the fact that many of the most outspoken anti-sexual assault activists have unfortunately shown themselves to be indifferent toward the First Amendment. Still, the fraternity crackdown has the potential to be a force for good on campus — as long as administrators remember that their job is to make students safe from sexual assault, not safe from offense.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.