High Price of Belonging

Posted April 27, 2010, at 6:05 p.m.

Imagine you have been asked — or even recruited — to join a club. Then imagine being required to run a gantlet to gain membership in that club. Would you still be flattered to have been invited? Trying to make sense of this process might make you recall the old Groucho Marx wisecrack, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

A recent incident at the University of Maine in which a student was trying to gain membership in a fraternity ended up with him getting lost in the woods for eight hours. Multiple public safety agencies were engaged in the search for the 19-year-old, who emerged relatively unharmed. This initiation rite, in which the student was sent off to find a nonexistent cross in the woods, may not qualify as the sort of brutal and humiliating hazing rituals of decades past. But the university ruled it was irresponsible enough on the part of fraternity leaders to warrant placing the organization on probation.

Along with quests into the woods, the fraternity required its would-be members to be isolated from social contact during a period known as “Introspection Week.” But it seems the organizations, not the prospective members, should be introspective about their roles in the 21st century.

Fraternities and sororities have a long, storied and often colorful history coinciding with the college experience. The organizations provide a network of friends for new students in their new world away from home. They provide some structure and accountability, along with a place to stay where food is available. And members extol the bonds they make with their “brothers” and “sisters,” ties that often last a lifetime. But if the primary reason for attending college is to earn a degree and learn about the wider world, fraternities and sororities seem to undermine those goals by requiring such silly and potentially dangerous membership rites, and by focusing so heavily on the social component of the college experience.

The recent initiation incident by itself is not enough to prompt the university to consider banning the organizations. But putting the positive contributions made by frats and sororities on one side of the scale and the headaches they have caused college administrators on the other, must be part of a fresh examination that is in order.

The fraternities and sororities could head off this examination by reinventing themselves. Instead of asking prospective members to wander the woods or wear silly clothes, they could require meaningful community service. Instead of indoctrinating pledges with the importance of loyalty to the organization, they could stress a set of core character qualities to engender in their members. And instead of earning reputations for throwing great parties, these organizations could be known for taking courageous stands on the issues of the day, both on campus and in the wider world.

Traditions are fine. But some traditions should be questioned from time to time as a way to check that they are still worth retaining.

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