I recently remarked on Facebook that it’s never good when you see a college fraternity on the six o’clock news.
And, sure enough, it isn’t. Fraternities have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, ranging from videos of racist songs to posting nude pictures of women on the internet.
After the story about the infamous SAE song broke, I read a thoughtful Facebook discussion about diversity and racism in college. It may surprise some that this discussion took place on a fraternity’s page—the page of my fraternity, Pi Beta Sigma.
That’s me, third from left in the top row, in Pi Sig’s 1986 composite picture. Pi Sig, AKA The Bulls, was founded in 1908 and is not only the oldest fraternity at Otterbein College, but the oldest fraternity in America without a national affiliation.
The story of how I came to pledge Pi Sig is, in itself, strange. When I was looking at a college, the thought of joining a fraternity was far from my mind. What I knew about frats came from watching “Animal House,” although I knew the film was not a documentary. I’d heard that frats were expensive and, generally speaking, an indulgence for rich kids.
During my senior year, a high school friend was attending Otterbein. While I had committed to going to Otterbein (as it was the only college to offer me a scholarship), I still had some misgivings about what the social life was like. I knew that it was a Methodist school with a dry campus and limits on opposite-sex visitation in the dorms, and I had the slight suspicion that I was being shipped off to Bob Jones University.
My friend reassured me that this was far from the case. One of the things he talked about was the Greek system, especially the frat he was pledging—Pi Sig. He talked about all the frats, what campus cliques each tended to draw from--and how they were often used as a way to bend campus rules.
Right away, I liked the idea of Pi Sig (even though I had not yet even visited the campus). I guess it was the sense of belonging to something that attracted me. While my friend left Otterbein soon after pledging, I was still determined to check out Pi Sig once I got there.
Something about the place clicked with me, and I’m still not sure what. Several other Otterbein frats attracted athletes and were very much part of the jock culture, which did not appeal to me. But Pi Sig was more of a mixture. There were members who studied theater, music, English and journalism, among many other majors. The atmosphere was more bohemian than one might associate with a fraternity. If Jack Kerouac had started a fraternity, it would have looked like Pi Sig.
The frat’s culture was also more diverse than some frats that have been in the news lately. While I was there, Pi Sig pledged students from several different countries—South Korea, Japan, England, Germany, Syria, and Thailand, among others. And we managed to do this on a campus where "diversity" usually meant your roommate was Catholic. I recall a song that was written during pledging one year—a parody of CCR’s “Down On The Corner”:
You don’t need a ticket
To the universal frat
Eight countries holding,
Ronald Reagan can’t stop that
So if you think of England,
Japan or Germany
The Bulls are who to talk to
And the only place to be
That’s a far cry from “There will never be a n***** SAE”!
I recognize that Pi Sig is not a typical fraternity. I suspect that Otterbein’s Greek culture, in general, is a bit different from that at most other colleges because the organizations are local, rather than national, and the dues are much lower, which makes them more accessible to the average student. From what I’ve seen, fraternities at most other colleges are the province of the privileged and bring with them many associated problems. If I had gone to a major university, a fraternity would not have interested me.
Maybe it's just because I'm older, but I now think of fraternities, in general, as a bit antiquated and immature. By definition, they are sexist in that they do not admit women—no way to get around that. And it's hard to think of a good thing you can get from a fraternity that you can’t get elsewhere in college. Learning to work with people? Male bonding? There are many other activities that foster those things.
When I see news stories such as the SAE controversy or read about fraternities being involved in sexual assaults, I start to think that maybe the time has come for frats to go the way of panty raids and freshman beanies.