McKeon: How Northwestern made frat life too big to fail

Shane McKeon, Op-Ed Contributor

In this series, a writer examines the history and influence of Northwestern fraternities — and proposes what to do about it. He is a former member of an IFC chapter.

What if I told you our university set aside 15 of its buildings — 15 beautiful, spacious brick houses — for 15 groups whose practices diverge wildly from some of the University’s professed values? What if these communities, allowed to flourish over decades within these brick walls, were built on homogeny and exclusivity rather than diversity and inclusion? What if we learned that, inside those walls, our peers face hazing, assault and druggings? What if, despite all that, we continued to set aside ample space for this culture to flourish?

It boggles my mind to consider how massive and above-reproach Northwestern’s fraternity system is. Roughly 1,300 men belong to Interfraternity Council chapters, a huge chunk of the 38 percent of NU students who are Greek-affiliated. These are numbers so huge that the system has its own gravitational pull, and a feedback loop has developed: When freshmen find out how many students are in Greek life, many begin to believe “Everybody does it,” and/or “I won’t have friends if I don’t join,” and/or “It’s different here.” This pressure leads many freshmen to join — including many of us who criticize Greek life — and the Greek population remains massive, its momentum propelling it forth to another year. It remains so big that alternatives seem inconceivable. We start to believe that we could never develop a different way to organize our social lives. Tragically, many of us give up and pay in.

But fraternity men aren’t solely to blame for the dominance of fraternity life. They, like most people, join the communities available to them. Fraternities and sororities are the most established, entrenched social organizations on campus. Generally, we prefer to join existing communities rather than develop our own. Students go Greek because Greek life is what’s here, it’s what’s visible. So, how did we get here?

In the beginning, Northwestern needed fraternities as much as fraternities needed Northwestern. From the University’s founding in 1851 until the 1910s or so, there was virtually no on-campus housing for students. NU had not yet become the uber-wealthy, $9 billion-endowment institution it is today. In those years, it was a small liberal arts school of modest means where students had to find their own room and board.

In a vacuum, fraternities emerged and rented off-campus houses, according to a 70-page history of Northwestern fraternities compiled by a student in the 1960s available in the University Archives. They offered students a home and a space to eat. They also were some of the first places Northwestern students had to socialize. Evanston was a sleepy town, and in those houses students could meet new people and occupy some hours not spent in class. By the end of the 19th century, almost 20 Greek organizations had launched at NU.

Then along came Abram Harris. As far as I can tell, there is no man more responsible for the entrenchment of frats at Northwestern than Harris, the University’s president from 1906 to 1916. Harris was a fraternity man, an active member of Alpha Delta Phi and honors fraternity Phi Beta Kappa, as well as a founding member of Phi Kappa Phi, an honors fraternity he helped launch at the University of Maine.

“I am of the opinion that fraternities will always include a large proportion of the young men at the university, probably an increasing proportion,” Harris told trustees in 1907. “If it were practicable, I would be glad to see them include the whole body of young men.”

During Harris’s tenure, NU’s football team, which years earlier had been a powerhouse, had seven consecutive years of losing records. This in part inspired the University to launch the “More Men Campaign,” a concerted effort to attract more male students.

Toward that end, the University decided to build houses for men on North Campus. On-campus housing was rather limited before this, and the building campaign was the University’s most ambitious to date. This had consequences.

The main beneficiaries of the construction were fraternities: The University leased them land and built them houses that remain today. In other words, Northwestern endorsed and enabled (and still does) the frats’ entrenchment. Fraternity men’s continued occupation of these spaces, these fortresses, have given them a sprawling influence on social life.

The University also continues to benefit from this symbiotic relationship, especially now that students must live on campus for their first two years. The more students who live in Greek houses (of which there are — wait for it — 28 on campus) the fewer students are dependent on Northwestern’s residential and dining halls. This means less wear-and-tear on dorms, less food needed in the cafeterias, fewer staff required and so on.

Last year, The Daily asked President Morton Schapiro whether he thought Greek life could ever be “entirely disbanded” at Northwestern. “I think it’s really pretty unlikely,” Schapiro said. “I think they have a thousand beds.”

To some extent, we inherit this arrangement — these 1,000 Greek beds — from decisions made decades ago by men like Abram Harris. But it’s not just that. It’s also a decision made every year to let tradition continue to rule, a decision empowered by administrators, alumni and students alike.

Shane McKeon is a Medill senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.