McKeon: Frat boys are like mobsters

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.

IFC had a bad week. Like really bad.

To recap: The Interfraternity Council announced last week it would “derecognize” Sigma Alpha Epsilon. It seems IFC thought its move would pressure Northwestern to stop SAE from returning to campus, but the strategy completely backfired. The University said SAE will return next year if it “successfully completes” its suspension, and the Panhellenic Association ripped IFC for acting without consulting just about anyone. In a blistering statement, PHA said IFC’s decision means that when SAE returns, it will be “unregulated” by IFC and not subject to the council’s trainings and supervision.

If SAE returns and becomes a rogue fraternity, IFC’s decision will have made students less safe. The controversy follows a PHA survey that found more than three-quarters of respondents felt uncomfortable in a fraternity space, or that they felt a frat placed its own interests above their personal safety.

It all makes you wonder why we continue to vest so much responsibility and power in IFC fraternities. And that brings me to the column I prepared before this controversy erupted. It’s not precisely a response to this past week’s events, but it helps explain why IFC wields so much influence, and why its decisions have far-reaching consequences.

Let’s talk about alcohol.

I submit that frat boys are analogous to Prohibition-era bootleggers. I submit further that this analogy can help us understand their position in our social networks and what to do about it. Like mafia men in the 1920s, fraternity men illegally serve alcohol and control the spaces in which it is consumed. Underage Northwestern students are prohibited, by both law and the University, to consume alcohol. Evanston strenuously resists slouching into “college town” status, so we have few bars that reliably serve underage students (not since The Keg closed in 2013).

Puritanical public policy created a vacuum, and fraternities benefit from it. In the underground, frats provide alcohol and spaces to drink, and they have developed intricate strategies for avoiding punishment. For example, a frat will sometimes elide the chapter’s connection to a party, referring to it as, for example, “a party at John’s house.” The aim is to indemnify the frat, or at least obscure its involvement, so that it can continue to trade alcohol for social capital.

Young men join these frats and pay monetary dues, hoping to profit off that capital. Their dues buy alcohol, and the cycle continues. And we, the individual students who show up to these parties, fill those basements with livelihood and social worth. (Why else would frat boys care so much about the goddamn “ratio”?) In other words, many of us endorse and perpetuate this cycle. And like frequenting a mob-owned speakeasy in the 1920s, our transacting with fraternities has consequences: We help prop up a reckless cartel that excludes and harms our peers.

Still, we who seek out alcohol have few alternatives. That’s thanks largely to our history. When Northwestern was founded by a handful of Methodist men in 1851, they wrote into the charter that no alcohol shall be sold within four miles of campus. The founders hoped to encourage wholesomeness among the students, and the “four-mile limit” helped develop a community in Evanston that valued temperance and considered itself a dry haven from wet Chicago. This set of values won out nationally in 1919; Prohibition forced drinkers underground; organized crime blossomed thanks to a black market for alcohol, and the rest is history: In 1933, America became wet again.

But not Evanston. Northwestern pledged it would try to enforce the four-mile limit, and in 1934, Evanston residents voted to keep the city dry. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Holiday Inn threatened to nix plans for a proposed hotel unless it could have a bar, that Evanston became, as one professor described to me, “moist.” The hotel — and, later, other establishments — was permitted to sell alcohol, but only “with a meal.” (The professor said he once got into a spirited exchange with a waitress over whether nachos constituted a meal. He lost.) Evanston’s liquor ordinances began to ease up, but then, in the 80s, Illinois’ drinking age became 21. That basically leads us to today. Evanston is not the teetotalitarian city it once was, but it is far from a permissive college town with ample options for underage drinkers.

I don’t recommend that Evanston go the way of State College, Pennsylvania. Still, many college students want to drink alcohol, and they will seek out spaces in which to do so. Northwestern students have limited options. There’s no true “college bar” in Evanston where the underaged can get sloshed. (The closest is probably the Mark II Lounge, better known as The Deuce, a grimy bar a block south of Howard Street accessed by Uber and frequented by underclassmen. Its popularity has waned since the days of the Deuce Caboose eight years ago, but it remains a destination.) Many students in dorms fear being caught by their Resident Assistant and decide that to drink they must leave the relative safety of their own rooms. For these reasons, many freshmen venture off-campus or to North Campus. It is here, in these hazy and foreign basements, that we entrust the safety of 18-year-old drinkers to 19-year-old frat boys, most of whom are more interested in protecting their chapter than ensuring the immediate safety of their peers.

It’s worth remembering that SAE wasn’t suspended for alleged druggings at its house, but rather for “repeatedly hosting parties and providing alcohol to minors.” Of course, “repeatedly hosting parties and providing alcohol to minors” is a primary function of most IFC frats. It’s just that, in the course of a separate investigation, SAE got caught and suspended.

But Northwestern has turned its frat system into something of a Hydra. Decapitation is only temporary. Suspensions end. Frats are banished, then return, and nothing changes. We are four-year students up against 100-year-old institutions with brick houses and generous alumni. If SAE returns to campus, this cycle will begin again.

Little will change until students find more non-frat spaces to drink alcohol. That project will be difficult as long as frats dominate social life, allowed to regenerate year after year, above reproach and underground.

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.