The One Solution for Fraternity Problems That May Make the Most Difference But Won’t Ever Be Considered

The recent rash of incidents that have put fraternities (and sororities, but fraternities mostly) in a very negative light have spurred commissions, committees, and conversations to formulate solutions. There are also ideas coming from other corners such as professional associations, blogs like this one, and white papers from…well…whoever writes white papers. 

Most of the problems we face are not new and most of the solutions we’ll likely hear from blue-ribbon panels won’t be either. The “9 Basic Expectations of Fraternity Membership” offered by the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) in the 90’s and the Standards the NIC championed in the last decade have been attempted solutions. The lineup of speakers and sessions at every Association of Fraternity Advisors meeting in the last 30 years has offered various ideas towards solving pervasive issues such as hazing, alcohol, and sexual assault. 

In short, there is no shortage of ideas. Perhaps there is a shortage of will to implement the ideas…but I digress. 

In all of the recommendations that emerge, we’ll probably hear versions of what we’ve heard before: shorter pledge periods, more hands-on advising, increased alumni involvement, and a menu of things that should be alcohol-free forever more. Including housing. 

Alcohol-free housing is one of the boldest change initiatives in recent memory. Phi Delta Theta has been the biggest champion of alcohol-free housing, and I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Phi Delt has probably had pressure and many reasons to pull back and change their mind – but they have been absolutely steadfast in their belief that alcohol-free housing can change their culture. It’s not perfect, but it’s been a “wow” move in a sea of “blah.” 

But it’s not enough. 

There is one idea that I guarantee won’t come out of any commission or committee, in particular from the NIC side of things. This is an idea that I believe could present the biggest sea change for the fraternity movement and move the needle like never before. While you might hear about alcohol-free housing, what about a bolder move that could forever change our fortunes as fraternities? 

No housing. 

What if the NIC or FEA or any other acronym associated with Greek life declared that it wanted to begin a transition out of the housing business? At least the privately owned or independently-operated houses. Now we’re talking! In a sea of “blah” that one would be an “OMG!”

And a reminder – when I first broached this topic, I shared that my undergraduate fraternity experience included 3 years of living in a house. It was a blast. But, for a sustainable future, houses seem unnecessary to me. I’m convinced I would be as committed to fraternity as I am today without the house experience. 

Imagine if fraternity houses no longer existed on campuses across the land… 
  • The amount of money, time, and energy spent into keeping a structure standing and full could be spent on education, scholarships, funding for national conferences, and more. 
  • No more tragic house fires. 
  • No more falls from fraternity house balconies. 
  • No more part-time underpaid and under-prepared graduate assistant live-in advisors trying to be professional hall directors. 
  • Chapter officers could focus on improving the member experience and forget about occupancy rates, cleaning, furniture, and keeping a kitchen staff happy. 
  • We can finally end our draining 10-year dance in Washington DC trying to get Senators excited about sprinkler systems. 
Of course, there would be some trade-offs. Fraternity houses are great for recruitment because they are visible and (usually) impressive displays that potential members can see. It’s naturally convenient to have events and meetings in a house – although that can be overcome and has been by groups that use a lodge concept or just get meeting space on campus. Friendship is more easily built when living under the same roof, but can also happen otherwise. Ask those fraternities who have no housing right now and they’d put their “brotherhood building” up against yours any day. 

Would this make us just like any other campus club? Only if you believe housing matters more than the Ritual. 

So why would this be a game changer? I don’t have the research (great idea for a thesis or dissertation), but conventional wisdom leads me to believe that the vast majority of negative incidents that result in tragedy, big headlines, and calls to vanquish Greek life altogether involve a housed group. Think about recent transgressions at Old Dominion, the University of South Carolina, and West Virginia. Sexual assaults, hazing, deaths or harmful incidents with alcohol appear to be more prevalent in Greek housing. 

Reality check for me – those things can still happen and do still happen in non-housed groups and on campuses without Greek housing. NPHC groups typically do not have houses and hazing is a big issue they are confronting. The recent news from Baruch College didn’t involve housing. 

But if we solve the issues on the campuses with housed organizations – which tend to be larger or historically more influential in the Greek world – could a ripple effect be realized? We can launch campaigns to change the hearts and minds of members so that they embrace the best of what we can be instead of the worst. We’ve actually been doing that over and over again for decades. But if fraternity houses and the issues they carry inside their walls continue, is that a playing field on which we can’t expect our players to do their best? 

Imagine the previous 20 years without houses. Or the next 20 years. Is that a landscape on which a brighter future for Greek life can be built? 

Campus professionals – imagine that !poof! the chapters on your campus no longer have private houses. Could that make room for you to do more of the inspiring work you want to do? 

Headquarters staff – image that !poof! your chapters now have no residential facilities. How does that impact your insurance fees? What would you love to do with the time and money you get back from not dealing with those issues? 

Despite what could be some exciting possibilities, chances are we won’t be discussing that kind of change anytime soon. Houses are sacred cows for too many. This is unfortunate, because it’s hard to imagine any meaningful change if that topic stays off the table. 

But hey – maybe shorter pledge periods will do the trick.