McKeon: Frats are unsafe spaces

Shane McKeon, Columnist

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.

Allow me to say the same thing three different ways so that we might wrap our heads around it: There are 26 Greek houses on this campus. Northwestern sets aside 26 buildings exclusively for Greek organizations. The University provides 26 spaces that allow 26 individual communities to exist, and it’s done that for decades.

Not all of these organizations are bad. For many students, these are their homes. (A huge number of students feel this way, apparently. As I’ve written, roughly 1,000 students live in Greek housing.) That said, 26 houses is a lot — especially when you consider that there are 28 undergraduate housing buildings. It’s a number staggering enough to warrant certain questions: Why does Northwestern set aside so many spaces for Greek communities to flourish?

Instead, it should begin to downsize Greek spaces and look to fill them with other communities.

Take the Black House for example. It’s the only space on campus set aside exclusively for black students. It exists because black student activists demanded a space of their own during a 1968 sit-in on the Bursar’s Office. The house had to be earned, and in recent years, it’s had to be defended. Two years ago, administrators planned to move some offices into the building, but after black students and alumni organized in opposition, the plans were canceled.

That fiasco led to the Black Student Experience Report, a remarkably frank and comprehensive study of the myriad ways black students do not feel welcome at Northwestern. The report is part data analysis, part policy prescriptions and part oral history. It is organized into fourteen themes, including “the importance of space.”

“(There is a belief that) Black social and Greek life are not accessible due to lack of space. This lack of social space is directly linked to Black student dissatisfaction,” the report reads.

A student on a women-specific focus group that was part of the report added: “Let us have parties at the Black House. We promise not to have alcohol. Let us do something here. Something like that would really enhance our social life and make us feel like we can have a good time in college.”

Beyond campus, the meaning of “safe space” has become wholly unmoored from its original intent. Pundits and readers now imagine these as places where “snowflakes” can shelter themselves from uncomfortable ideas. It’s part of a larger trend in which lazy journalism and a generational divide conspire to paint today’s college students as overly sensitive and against free speech.

In reality, “safe space” is a less-than-perfect term that aims to illuminate an upsetting truth about college campuses, including Northwestern: Some students enjoy ample on-campus spaces to build community, while others have few or none.

Of all students, no one controls more space than fraternity men. Northwestern sets aside 15 houses for IFC frats, and they operate with only scant supervision. We might fairly call IFC’s houses unsafe spaces. Greek women have reported as much: A PHA survey of its members found that more than 80 percent of respondents felt a frat had “placed its own interests above their safety or comfort.” Black students, too: The report I cited above spends an entire section explaining that most Black students “do not feel a part of — sometimes even shunned by — the predominantly White fraternity and sorority community at Northwestern.”

The students who belong to these houses aren’t safe either. They get hazed. Many are put through mind games in dark rooms. Some are made to eat onions and swallow gallons of cheap beer. Blindfolds, handles of bitter vodka and early-morning workouts can figure heavily, too. Pledges’ bodies and minds are dominated by their older brothers. For some men, hazing reinforces the lie that’s been fermenting in their psyches since they were boys: that there’s virtue in domination. Toxic practices breed these sort of toxic assumptions, and vice versa. Frat houses incubate both.

These are unsafe spaces. Luckily, some slow, frustrating work of reforming them is underway. Survivors and their allies continue to pressure IFC to do better. SHAPE and MARS conduct trainings for new frat members. Programs like NÜ Men let men interrogate and deconstruct their own masculinity. This is all progress.

To educate and regulate frats is a noble project. But that project should unfold alongside another longer-term project: a years-long, deliberative downsizing of the fraternity system.

Northwestern needs a new frat policy. Today, its policy is one of willful institutional amnesia. It’s a policy that seems less motivated by logic and more by an apparent fear of losing alumni donations. The cycle unfolds as follows: A chapter is suspended or banished, but a few years later it returns, only to degenerate again. Nothing changes. This Hydra-like policy serves fraternities and their alumni boosters, who are more likely to donate to their alma mater than their non-Greek peers.

Instead of allowing frats to “recolonize,” Northwestern should repurpose ex-frat houses for literally anything else. A multicultural frat. A co-ed service frat. A new res college or upperclassman dorm. Office space for student groups or University staff. Literally anything else.

The hollowed-out SAE house would be a perfect place to start. Morty has drawn headlines for defending safe spaces in the abstract, but what if he actually brought some new ones into being? Think of it: the most notorious unsafe space on campus could be gutted, refurbished and reborn.

It’s not fanciful. This is something we could do. Don’t let your cynicism convince you otherwise. If you do, nothing will change.

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.