The 1978 hit film “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, depicts a ridiculous and unlikely power struggle. The authoritarian Dean Vernon of the fictional Faber College routinely and energetically clashes with a slovenly bunch of brothers from the college’s Delta Tau Chi fraternity chapter.
In the second-half of the film, the brothers of “Delta House” are put on trial before the school’s Pan-Hellenic Disciplinary Council. When the dean tries to shut down the trial before the Deltas have a fair chance to defend themselves, Eric “Otter” Stratton, portrayed by Tim Matheson, stands up and delivers a fiery speech.
“The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests … we did,” Otter begins. “But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perveted individuals. For, if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in-general? I put it to you Greg: isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society?!”
Truer words have not been said, although time makes fools of us all — Otter was not looking at this issue through the same lens we look at it through in 2021.
Released one year prior to director Harold Ramis’ “The Kentucky Fried Movie”, both films went on to launch the genre of “gross-out” comedy for years to come.
“Animal House” is a visceral movie to watch 40 years later — its contents have aged as society has continuously opened itself up to more nuanced discourse. Today, the film stands as little more than a piece of evidence as to how and why Greek life’s more heinous aspects are normalized.
Trying to ascertain an objective look at what goes on behind the closed doors of a fraternity or sorority house is a near-impossible task. This is because on any given day the whole institution is shrouded in groupthink and “members only” secrecy — generations of reticence and camaraderie have built a wall no outsider can scale without subpoena power.
Nonetheless, at least since late February of this year, a desire for understanding has burned in the hearts of many students at Virginia Commonwealth University. This comes on the wings of a student’s death — Adam Oakes, who succumbed to alcohol poisoning on February 28 while celebrating “Big-Little Night” with his soon-to-be fraternity brothers in Delta Chi.
Since then, viral outrage has been commonplace online. VCU students have shared lots of damning evidence that might suggest VCU’s Greek life is more toxic than constructive.
Of these, the greatest sources of outrage beyond Oakes’ death has been a TikTok and a screenshot. The TikTok showed a former VCU Student Government senator sexually harassing a Hooters employee. The screenshot showed homophobic, fat-shaming messages that victim blamed Oakes. Both examples allegedly derived from members of VCU’s Greek life.
Two weeks later, the identity of the alleged “big”, or fraternity mentor, of Oakes has been revealed. His identity has been confirmed by the family of Oakes in a viral video, wherein the individual can be seen on the lawn of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6. It is unclear at this moment whether or not the individual participated in the insurrection, however, the video clearly shows he had no quarrels with the terrorists who stormed the building.
Greek life has been the center of many controversies in recent years. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism is that Greek life is inextricably intertwined with white supremacy.
This criticism does not come unprovoked. In September of 2020, the University of Georgia suspended its chapter of the Lambda Chi fraternity after racist text messages were leaked. Two months later, in November, the University of Windsor in Ontario permanently shut down its chapter of Delta Chi for the exact same set of allegations.
History can often predict the future. And while history is usually written by the victors — in this case, white males who were at one point a part of a Greek letter organization — some clear inferences can be drawn.
According to historian and Greek life history blogger, Dr. Fran Becque, the term “fraternity” derives from the Greek word “phratia”, which means a group of people who hold a common interest.
But, don’t let the image of philanthropy and brotherly love fool you — the intention and interests of Greek letter organizations is up for serious debate, thanks mostly in part to the institution’s racist, heteronormative history.
How does Greek life work?
Not all Greek letter organizations are built equally — they come in all shapes and sizes. There are historically Black fraternities, such as Alpha Phi Alpha, historically Jewish fraternities, such as Alpha Epsilon Phi, and academic honor societies like Phi Beta Kappa.
In such regard, it is a bit disingenuous to argue that Greek life inherently seeks to uphold white supremacy. Rather, it seems to be more a result of the greater system’s failure to promote a diverse marketplace of ideas.
A chapter for a Greek letter organization is represented by its respective governing council, but these councils are usually under the authority of their sponsoring colleges. At VCU, all councils work within the confines of the school’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.
At VCU, there are four major Greek letter councils: the College Panhellenic Council (CPC), the North American Interfraternity Council (IFC), the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) and the Multicultural Greek Council (MGC).
According to the CPC’s Manual of Information from 2018, the CPC was founded in 1902, while the IFC was established in 1909. These organizations act as the umbrella to all affiliated sorority and fraternity chapters, respectively.
According to VCU FSL’s website, the NPHC represents historically-Black Greek letter organizations and was founded in 1930 at Howard University. The MGC represents “culturally-based fraternities and sororities” and was not founded until 1998.
Discriminatory Greek life
Historians have noted that many of the first Greek letter organizations resembled secret societies like the Freemasons — similarly, most exclusively admitted wealthy, heterosexual white males into their ranks.
From 1776 up to World War 2, most “U.S. Greek-letter societies reflected the dominant portion of the college population: white, male, Christian students of ‘proper breeding’,” according to Matthew Hewey in his 2010 study titled “A Paradox of Participation: Nonwhites in White Sororities and Fraternities”.
“As the homogeneous demographic of colleges lessened, most [white Greek letter organizations] incorporated racially exclusionary policies into their constitutions, which became their ‘hallmarks’,” Hewey states.
Bear in mind that prior to this, students of color had no chance of joining these initial Greek letter organizations anyway.
This is because of the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The ruling made it so that public colleges could be segregated on the basis of race. It would not be until the 1954 landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education that overturned separate but equal, thus beginning the process of desegregating public colleges and universities — all of this according to a report on Historically-Black Colleges and Universities from the U.S. Department of Education.
However, desegregation still came at the expense of African Americans and other minorities.
“Many of the public HBCUs closed or merged with traditionally white institutions,” the report states. “However, most black college students continued to attend HBCUs years after the decision was rendered.”
It would not be until Congress’ passage title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would ensure protection under the law “from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.” From there, all public colleges and universities had no choice but to desegregate.
“Nineteen states were operating racially segregated higher education systems at the time Title VI was enacted,” the report states.
A brief history of social fraternities
Phi Beta Kappa is credited by most experts to be America’s first official Greek letter organization. Founded in 1776 by students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the idea was hatched one night in the nearby Raleigh Tavern.
Phi Beta Kappa is considered an academic honor society — not what is often called a “social fraternity”.
Delta Chi is an example of a social fraternity; a trend which would not take form until the mid 1800s. Social fraternities are what most people think of when they picture the stereotypical aspects of Greek life à la “Animal House”.
In his 2009 book titled “The Company he Keeps: a History of White College Fraternities”, author Nicholas Syrett credits the beginning of social fraternities to the Kappa Alpha Society.
In November of 1825, five senior classmen at Union College in Schenectady, New York, met to form Kappa Alpha — all of whom were part of a military company at Union that had recently been dissolved.
“Feeling what was described by one as ‘an aching void’ left by the company’s dissolution, they decided to form a society for literary and social purposes,” Syrett states in the book.
Union College would see the formation of two additional greek letter organizations — Sigma Phi and Delta Phi — within two years of Kappa Alpha’s founding. By 1832, Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, had two of its own Greek letter organizations, with Miami University of Ohio joining the trend soon after.
“By the 1850s, secret societies with Greek letter names had a firm footing on virtually every college campus in New England and the mid-Atlantic region, as well as some in the South and Midwest,” Syrett’s book states.
From there, more and more Greek letter organizations were founded, particularly in the 1900s and 50s. Admission rates are generally believed to be the reason for this.
A 1993 report from the National Center of Education Statistics found that between 1900 and 1930, “the ratio of college students to 18- to 24-year-olds rose from 2 to 7 per 100.”
Prior to the mid-1940s to early 50s, college admission rates were steadily increasing, but were still far lower than they are today.
“Enrollment growth accelerated in the first 30 years of the 20th century, driven by population growth and continuing rises in participation rates,” the report states.
However, the report credits the Great Depression for slower growth in the 30s. By the late 1940s college admission rates began to skyrocket.
“Large numbers of World War 2 veterans entered colleges assisted by such programs as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act which provided education benefits,” the report states.
A huge surge in students meant over-occupied colleges struggling to provide adequate amenities. This is what led to an uptick in the founding of additional Greek letter organizations, chiefly because they could provide a critical necessity: housing.
That appeal still exists today. In his 2017 book titled “True Gentlemen: the Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities”, author John Hichenger notes that U.S. fraternities collectively own roughly $3 billion in real estate across 800 different colleges.
Aside from housing, Greek letter organizations are financially appealing to colleges for many other reasons as well. Most notably, it is widely believed that college graduates — particularly males — who participate in Greek life produce more income for colleges through alumni donations than most other students.
Caitlin Flanagan states in her article for the Atlantic Magazine titled “the Dark Power of Fraternities” that “at least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters.”
Consequently, critics say the relationship between Greek letter organizations and colleges is culturally hegemonic, which in turn causes accusations of racism, hazing and sexual assault to go unpunished.
In summary, Otter was right, but for all the wrong reasons.