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Fraternity, sorority membership up amid bad publicity

03/15/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/14/2015 05:59 EDT
Hot sauce poured on genitals. A Taser fired at a pledge. Dildos thrown at anti-rape activists. Culturally offensive "socials."

The headlines look very bad, but the good times keep on rolling for membership across U.S. fraternities and sororities.

Recruitment has never been stronger at Greek-letter campus institutions across North America, with 114,330 new frat members in 2013-2014, up 45 per cent from seven years earlier.

"It's been blowing up over the last five to 10 years," said David Stollman, a co-founder of the anti-hazing support group HazingPrevention.org.

Fratmosphere

"Average chapter sizes are up, the numbers of chapters on campuses are up, and in terms of the different types of groups — culturally based groups from historically African-American to Southeast Asian to Latino — those chapters are growing," said the lifelong Phi Delta Theta brother.

This, despite turbulent press in recent years touching on everything from wearing blackface and deadly hazing rituals to alleged sexual assault and — most recently — a racist bus sing-along by Oklahoma University students in Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

"Greek life perseveres," said Brian Borsari, who has researched frat and sorority culture with Brown University’s Centre for Alcohol Addiction Studies.

"You'd be hard-pressed to design another system with this history, this legacy aspect, these cultural perceptions and these rituals."

Students are joining up in record numbers, seeking brotherly and sisterly bonds, networking opportunities and a sense of community stewardship.

"Mix in alcohol and freedom and sex and that's a pretty potent combination under one roof," Borsari said.

As much as school administrators might frown on beer busts and noise complaints, he said, they’re popular fixtures of the fratmosphere.

"Selecting in" with a clique of like-minded peers doesn’t just appeal to bros, however.

More young women are also joining sororities.

The National Panhellenic Council, which includes 26 sororities across 672 American and Canadian campuses, welcomed 140,000 initiates in the last academic year, up 75 per cent from seven years earlier.

What’s drawing droves of eager pledges is privilege, according to Michael Hevel.

Elite subgroups 'an attractive path'

That’s particularly true today’s goal-oriented millenials, who "want to belong and be part of something," unlike the grunge-era generation Xers before them, said Hevel, a professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas who has studied the effects of Greek life on students’ moral reasoning and critical thinking.

"Many students see connections between these organizations and successful future careers," he said.

"They’re seen as elite places, the most prestigious subgroups on the college campus. That’s an attractive path."

Depictions of the wild Greek life in films such as 2014’s Neighbours and 2003’s Old School may not please school administrators, but they’re apparently catnip for students yearning for the Animal House experience.

Fraternal social institutions aren’t blind to their PR crisis, however.

The video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members chanting, "There will never be a n---r at SAE" led to two expulsions.

The University of Oklahoma ordered its SAE chapter’s closure, and a torrent of anti-frat sentiment followed.

But not even that incident should take the fizz out of Greek membership rates and chapter growth.

Nor should such "outlying behaviours" affect SAE’s membership in the North-American Interfraternity Conference, according to Pete Smithhisler, the organization’s president.

"Of the almost 400,000 undergrads [in the NIC], the majority of fraternity men are doing things right," he said.

Although Shideh Javan agrees shuttering the SAE house in Oklahoma was a good move, the 19-year-old sophomore at Ohio’s Capital University conceded all Greek affiliations take a hit when such image-tarnishing incidents arise.

"It’s very hard to try to get a better representation of Greek life when you hear something so terrible like this," the Alpha Sigma Alpha sister said.

"We do so much with community partners and philanthropic efforts, and all of a sudden, one group of individuals does a racist chant, and they just put a horrible burden on the reason we join the Greek community."

Matt Conklin, a 22-year-old senior with Phi Delta Theta at Wichita State University, said his frat’s general council president was quick to condemn the behaviour in Oklahoma.

PDT is a diverse and inclusive community, he noted, as is Wichita’s SAE chapter.

After the fallout over the Oklahoma video, Conklin participated in a discussion hosted at Wichita on "Greek and Race Relations."

"I feel like these events, as unfortunate and terrible as they are, provide an opportunity for the communities to learn," he said.

Rehabilitating the image of fraternal college societies probably isn’t essential for boosting membership.

What is necessary, however, is observing basic human decency and respect for others, said Jessica Gendron Williams.

"There are certainly a lot of incidents, especially in recent dates, where fraternities and sororities have screwed up," said Williams, CEO of Phired Up, a company that focuses on developing positive experiences in campus Greek life.

"There’s lots of things to fix," she said. "But I think also there are equal amounts of incidents of fraternities and sororities providing great college experiences, helping develop people and connect them to charities and become better friends and leaders."

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