Popular media often treats fraternity culture as comedy, but what’s been going on at the University of Virginia is serious. Last semester, Rolling Stone put U.Va. at the epicenter of national concerns about sexual assault on campus.
An article offered a graphic description of how a young woman was plied with alcoholic punch and raped by seven men at Phi Kappa Psi. The magazine later admitted discrepancies in its story, and police cleared Phi Psi of wrong-doing, but U.Va. pressed ahead with reforming fraternity rules.
“None of this was ever about one case,” said student council president Jalen Ross, speaking before registration for rush week. Ross said sexual assault on campus is still a concern.
“This is a problem everywhere, but it hadn’t really gotten the sort of attention that it deserved as the big part of our communities that it is,” he said.
So over the winter break, Ross and other student leaders came up with a series of recommendations for fraternities. The Inter-Fraternity Council, which represents 30 frats with about 1,700 members, argued against banning alcohol at fraternity functions.
“If it’s not at a fraternity house, it’s going to be in the parking lot behind Taco Bell,” said IFC president Tommy Reid. “If it’s not there, it’s going to be in the woods behind first-year dorms. Acceptance and management is a much more practical strategy and a much safer strategy than denial and shooting to eliminate.”
Instead, fraternities agreed to serve beer in cans or bottles, to have wine poured in plain sight, to require mixed drinks be served by a licensed bartender and to ban “trash can punch,” a mix of hard liquor with sweet, fruit-flavored drinks.
“You never know how much you’re drinking with something like that if it doesn’t taste like there’s alcohol in it,” said fraternity member Jack Carlin. “I do think it’s a good move.”
The Inter-Fraternity Council also promised to have at least three brothers who are sober and lucid at its member parties, placing one at each spot where alcohol is served and another, armed with a master key to every room, at the stairs leading up to the sleeping areas.
The university accepted those suggestions, and in an editorial The New York Times praised them. But Julian Jackson, who heads the Pan-Hellenic Council, doesn’t think they go far enough. His group represents eight small African-American fraternities and sororities who have written to the university’s president asking for tough punishments in the event of a sexual assault or hazing incident.
“Unfortunately, you have to make an example of somebody,” Jackson said. “That’s the route that you need to go when you have a history of fraternities and sororities operating with, really, impunity.”
Mark Mann, a senior who dropped out of his fraternity before last year’s scandal, doubts that houses where drinking has been a problem can effectively police themselves.
“It was very hard for students within the fraternity to actually speak up against a lot of misogyny, a lot of destructive behavior, mostly revolved around drinking,” Mann said.
Two fraternities said they would not agree to the new rules, since changes were prompted by a story that wasn’t true. Faced with the prospect of missing out on rush, they relented.
Meanwhile, rush has begun, and despite the bad press, nearly a thousand freshmen signed up — about the same number as last year. They’ll spend the next two weeks visiting fraternities, deciding whether Greek life is for them and waiting for an invitation to join.