Will higher education crack down on fraternities and sororities as COVID-19 dangers?

As some American colleges and universities welcome back students on campus, COVID-19 infections are rising.  This has already triggered responses, from moving classes back online preemptively to several Toggle Term events.

What about fraternities and sororities?  Do they represent a particular danger to their members and the surrounding community during this pandemic, one meriting attention from campus leaders?  Is the Greek system itself a COVID hazard, requiring tailored policy responses?

(For my non-US readers, the Wikipedia page to this peculiarly American academic feature is a good intro.)

Evidence for this possible course of action is easy to find.  Throughout stories of student coronavirus infections, Greek life plays a leading role.  At the University of Kansas, “[a] large majority of the 87 overall student positives have come from our fraternity and sorority community.”  We’ve seen similar stories across the country, at Texas A&M, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of North Dakota, the University of Southern California, Penn State, the University of Missouri, the University of Pittsburgh, and Auburn University. There were actually Greek-centered infections back in June at the University of Washington-Seattle and in July at University of California-Berkeley.

frat party by Darren WoodWe can draw on the history of Greek systems as well as their present activities for reasons why they might be singled out for pandemic attention.  To begin with, these are social organizations at root, deeply committed to forming and supporting interpersonal relationships.  Therefore they have a strong compulsion to bring people together.  Second, many fraternities and sororities have a track record of encouraging behavior that challenges student compliance with public health measures: excessive drinking, in particular, along with hazing rituals.

Third, these houses have an established past of running counter to campus authorities and policies, from the notorious file cabinets full of term papers to ignoring regulations on their behavior.  Indeed, a century ago they were deemed to be secret societies with some accuracy.  Fourth, to some degree fraternity and sorority business models depend on intensive and sustained socialization.  Partying and building membership are not only essential to their culture but also to their sustainability.

I’m not sure how other critiques of the Greek system will fit into the COVID-19 picture.  Fraternities and sororities are often charged with elitism; perhaps we might see some houses accruing PPE or tests?  They are also charged as racist.  Will this key into the established pattern of blacks and hispanics suffering more infections and deaths than the rest of the American population?

frat house photo by Cory Doctorow

These critiques are not my creations.  If we consider any campus strategies to address Greek systems as infection contributors, we resurrect a long-standing debate in American higher ed.  There have long been critics and scholars who cite frats and sororities as sites of depravity, alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior that spreads diseases at higher rates than seen in the non-Greek population, sexual harassment, sexual assault, violence, and deaths.  There have been a range of campus policies aimed at corralling the Greeks.  The system’s size has ebbed and flowed, its configurations changing over time and according to negotiations with host institutions.

And naturally fraternity and sorority members have defended themselves.  In response to to portrayals of their spaces as danger zones, one response is to point to exceptional houses, such as honor or service groups, or ones that don’t live up to the Animal House vision.  There is also the cultural and institutional variety within the Greek system, including black houses, those connected to professional programs and honor societies, and those that just don’t behave as badly as some.  Moreover, in the current crisis Greeks can indicate their actions against COVID, as evidenced by this Panhellenic page or one sorority organization’s helpful resource list.

What kinds of policy actions could colleges and universities take if they consider some or all of their local Greek system to pose a pandemic danger?

  1. Maintaining the status quo.  This may be because leadership views fraternities and sororities to be effectively the same as the rest of campus life.
  2. Increasing data gathering and surveillance of frat and sorority communities.
  3. Restrictions on timing of Greek social activities, who can be on site.
  4. Increasing regulations of alcohol consumption and distribution.
  5. Suspending various social activities (rush, parties).
  6. Target fraternities more than sororities.
  7. Suspending houses deemed to be noncompliant with public health measures (for example).
  8. Shutting down Greek houses for a period of time, or permanently.

What actions could other entities take?

  • State government: California passed a law making it easier to sue fraternities and sororities for injuries and deaths.
  • Nonprofit: at least one nonprofit educates and advocates for reducing hazing.

What might fraternities and sororities do?

sorority house by Derek BRuff

  1. They can always reform themselves, of course, and have done so historically.
  2. They can disband on their own initiative.
  3. Members may quit the organizations in protest of attitudes they oppose.

Let me step back from these options and look ahead more broadly.

As with the rest of higher ed, much depends on how the pandemic itself plays out.  Back in March I proposed three scenarios: a single wave; repeated waves; a continuous plague. Right now the United States seems to be in the third scenario, although the latest data (citing 91-DIVOC) suggests we could be heading downslope at last:

coronavirus spread worldwide_US focus_2020 August 22_91-DIVOC

If COVID continues to roar through significant swathes of American society, colleges and universities will tend to shape policies to minimize infections overall*.  This can lead to significant pressure on Greek houses to clean up their collective act and try preventing viral spread.  If they succeed they may preserve their system for a generation.

If they fail – or, perhaps more importantly, if enough people perceive frats and sororities to be pandemic hot zones – then they could shrink.  Membership can decline.  Campuses can clamp down or ban individual houses or entire systems.

That’s a pretty large choice.  Given the nature of American higher ed (see footnote below) it’s likely we’ll see a mix of choices.  On some campuses sororities and fraternities will survive or prosper, either by successful negotiation and marketing or by actively fighting COVID-19.  On others they could go extinct, remain the same, decline, or be transformed.  Fraternities could suffer more than sororities.  The open question is what happens to the aggregate as a response to this terrible pandemic.

What are you seeing in your academic institution?  What do you think is most likely, looking ahead?  And what do you think should happen?

*I wrote “tend” for a reason.  The United States has around 4,400 colleges and universities, each some a significant degree of autonomy.  There will be a variety of responses, as ever.

(frat lions photo by Cory Doctorow; creepy party pic by Darren Wood; sorority house by Derek Bruff; thanks to Facebook friends for talking this through with me)

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1 Response to Will higher education crack down on fraternities and sororities as COVID-19 dangers?

  1. Mike Richichi says:

    I’m a little surprised you might not have recognized the Greendale Human Being mascot from “Community”.
    https://community-sitcom.fandom.com/wiki/Greendale_Human_Being

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