Feel-good public relation stunts harm fraternities

In the wake of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter leaking two videos involving a housemother and SAE members chanting racist slurs in March, the national chapter and school immediately shut down the fraternity. The individuals involved made public apologies, but the incident ended with SAE no longer existing at the University of Oklahoma.

However, that didn’t erase the problem, and neither did the hastily-crafted, reactionary public relations stunt from SAE. In fact, in the aftermath of many fraternity-related controversies, unaffiliated Greek organizations are finding it increasingly necessary to condemn the actions of other chapters.

As the eyes of national media and critics of Greek life focus on fraternity-related incidents more, Greek organizations struggle to determine how to present themselves to a national audience that is colder than ever to Greek life. Rather than simply come up with tacky, reactionary public relations stunts, fraternities should focus instead on genuine change.

To give a brief overview, most individual chapters on college campuses are affiliated with a larger Greek organization. Each individual chapter pays dues and adheres to a set of rules that allow the national organization to have as much oversight as possible over the chapters.

When an incident like the SAE video, a sexual assault or even a death occurs due to the actions of an individual chapter or its members, most national fraternities have protocol that allows them to swiftly cut ties with the individual chapter.

National organizations, and the individuals that run them, can happily go about their affairs without directly taking fire for the actions of individual members. When there is a problem with an individual chapter, the national organization often engages in a public relations campaign condemning the problematic chapter and invoking the “bad apple” argument.

For example, after the SAE incident, the national organization I am a member of, Beta Theta Pi, released a public relations campaign called “I am a fraternity man.” The general gist of the campaign is that individuals from chapters around the country can make their own testimonial videos about what great guys they are and how they don’t fit the white, rich, conservative, Christian stereotype often associated with fraternity men.

However, as the media begins to focus on fraternities as a serious national issue, these types of reactionary stunts are less effective at convincing people that fraternities can justifiably exist and should be welcomed on college campuses. The campaign is a nice way for individual chapters to tell everybody how not racist they are and how they don’t haze, but fails to address the core of the issue with fraternities: that the Greek system as a whole plays an integral part in the way institutional racism, sexism and homophobia manifests itself.

“I am a fraternity man” gives us insight into the personal lives of just a handful of well dressed, sharp looking dudes who, based on the video, like to study, coach soccer for children with mental disabilities, and get involved with a great deal of on-campus clubs and activities. That goal is nice and all, but the conversation on fraternities has shifted away from the “bad apple” debate and more towards the institutional problems fraternities create on college campuses.

For example, “I am a fraternity man” never addresses whether paying dues is a serious barrier to low-income, minority students interested in Greek life. “I am a fraternity man’” doesn’t explain what charitable-frat-boy Chad’s chapter would do if a transgender individual wanted to join a Greek organization. “I am a fraternity man” definitely doesn’t convince me that these well dressed, sharp looking humanitarian dudes don’t haze freshmen to death and sexually assault their party guests.

If fraternities really want to prove to the world that they can renovate their identity and move away from the attributes that people think make them anachronistic at best and evil at worst, they need to start from a point that recognizes problems, not denies them. Fraternities need to start from a place of shame, embarrassment and genuine desire to grow in a way that is more consistent with the values of the student bodies around them.

Rather than have a public relations campaign that tries to convince everybody how not racist, sexist or homophobic fraternities are, we need one that admits these problems exist across all fraternities and lets people know that at least some chapters are dedicated to genuine change in the face of widespread institutional problems.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Out of concern for saving their hides, some fraternities simply try and avoid media attention, if possible. Others try and engage in tacky public relations campaigns without auditing their chapters, making sure they’re actually engaging in good behavior and embodying values consistent with how the national organizations wish to be perceived.

To be frank, none of these strategies will be viable in the years to come. Whether fraternities have poor behavioral records or not (and certainly not all do) doesn’t matter. National organizations cannot simply disassociate and recolonize with problematic chapters. Instead, there needs to be a widespread recognition of the way that fraternities reinforce existing problems. As college students across campuses continue to develop contemporary philosophies on race, gender and sexual orientation, fraternities need to adapt to a changing set of values rather than fight them at every corner.