Within 48 hours of bids being handed out to Duke Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association students, senior editor at Bloomberg News John Hechinger spoke the Rubenstein Library Tuesday afternoon about some of the problems facing fraternities in America.
His new book, "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities," addresses questions about how some of the worst incidents involving fraternities—like deaths that were disproportionately common in chapters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon—have arisen in recent years and the efforts that are being taken to improve fraternities.
“When a school does take action, it costs time and money,” Hechinger said. “[Eliminating them] would be very unpopular among not just alumni but among students, and in public universities it would be hard legally.”
Hechinger said that in comparison to many schools around the country, Duke has handled some of the problems with Greek life particularly well. He praised that Duke students cannot rush Greek life until at least their second semester, which he said makes students less vulnerable during Greek-related events.
Still, Hechinger said he wished Duke would be more transparent about some of the problems facing fraternities.
“The Duke website basically provides an endorsement of Greek life but doesn’t present research on drinking,” he said. “There’s a part where it says, ‘Is alcohol an issue in Greek life?’ for Frequently Asked Questions for parents. And the answer is, 'Alcohol is an issue in all of society.’ That’s it. And the reality is, every student that I’ve looked at shows that fraternity men binge drink twice as much as other students.”
The website actually reads, "as our society grapples with alcohol and substance use issues...Greek affiliated students also deal with these issues. Most students probably dealt with these questions prior to coming to Duke, and have most likely faced these same subjects since arriving on campus."
Hechinger added that in the past 20 years, fraternities have managed to be insured by essentially “kicking members to the curb.” He meant that national fraternities and universities leave responsibility for certain Greek incidents to the students, so that universities and national fraternities are not legally responsible.
The Duke Community Standard reveals that to be recognized by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, organizations must be insured for at minimum $1 million "per occurrence" and $3 million aggregate.
One attendee noted that the talk informed his impression of Greek life nationally.
“I’m under the impression that fraternities here won’t exist in 10 years, and the impression that fraternities won’t exist nationally in 50 years. So I expected to come here and have that confirmed,” sophomore Griffin Reilly said. “I actually had more of the opposite shown. Because I sometimes forget at state school environments just how powerful the fraternity strength is.”
Another member of the audience of more than 30 people, however, said she wished he had more personal experience as a minority to talk critically about race in Greek life.
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“For example, this older white man went in and talked to all these fraternity leaders and claims they are really open to change,” senior Anita Desai said. “But he’s not one of the people that actually are marginalized by these groups. And I think it’s very difficult for someone who feels like they’re on equal footing and has nothing to lose to say from these organizations to say they are committed.”
When asked after the talk about a relationship between homogeneity and damaging events, Hechinger said more diversity leads to less group think. He said that at certain fraternities in the country, like at Alabama, nearly all members have been white since their foundings.
The Chronicle published a story Friday detailing the extent of homogeneity in Greek life at Duke.
Given these challenges, Hechinger said fraternities will need to be more inclusive if they want to exist in the next 30 years. However, he noted that fraternities have become increasingly popular in recent years, due in part due the increased job prospects that are associated with being in a fraternity.
“I think if fraternities grapple with this diversity issue, then I think they do have a future, and I would expect that if they don’t, they’re going to be much smaller,” he said.