Trinity Seeking To Curb Risky Behavior By Forcing Frats To Go Coed
A Plan To Improve Social Climate On Campus
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
November 26, 2012
Faced with a slide in national ranking and a growing party reputation, Trinity College plans to transform its social climate, including forcing fraternities and sororities to go coed.
The decision on Greek life has thrust Trinity President James F. Jones Jr. and the board of trustees into the center of a firestorm of protest and petitions from sorority and fraternity members and alumni, with some threatening to withhold donations.
"In the end, it's really about taking a look and saying, 'What should be the ideal environment in which students develop intellectually and as human beings?'" said Trinity Dean of Students Frederick Alford. "We are a residential college. We believe learning and development takes place everywhere."
The decision to change Greek life and to make other reforms that will expand alternative social opportunities on campus was made after a period of self-reflection and study at Trinity that turned up some alarming trends.
Alford said administrators were concerned last year about a spike in the number of students taken to the hospital for drinking- and drug-related problems. Trinity was also developing a reputation as a party school on social media.
Meanwhile, the quality of applicants to Trinity has been declining and top students were transferring because they were unhappy with the social scene and with a lack of academic seriousness among students.
Schools that Trinity compares itself to — Amherst, Middlebury and Colby — have eliminated fraternities and sororities. On the Trinity campus, fraternity and sorority members say they are being unfairly scapegoated and worry that the plan is the start of a campaign to abolish Greek life.
"It's like we've been thrown under the bus," said Amalia Nicholas, president of Kappa Kappa Gamma.
As with many Greek organizations, her sorority will lose its national charter if it admits men. Without a national charter, the leaders say, the groups will lose an important part of their tradition and national support.
Even if her sorority continued as a club without a national tie, Nicholas said, she doubts it could meet the school's coed requirements: "There really is no man who wants to be part of a female organization."
Drinking, Drugs and Risky Behavior
A report issued earlier this fall by a special "charter committee" paints a disturbing picture of life at Trinity: Students are drinking and taking drugs at a greater rate than in the past and the problem is "far more severe among members of fraternities and sororities."
A year ago, the trustees appointed the committee — which consists of administrators, trustees, faculty, alumni and students — to assess the social climate and come up with recommendations to improve it.
"High levels of drinking, not surprisingly, have led to high rates of risky behaviors among our students, including both members of fraternities and sororities and unaffiliated students," the report said, "such as blacking out, drunk driving, assaults, fights, harassment, ambulance transports and sexual assault."
Alford, a member of the committee, noted that "drinking and social excesses" are concerns on all college campuses and at Trinity they do not involve the majority of students. About 18 percent of students are in fraternities or sororities, but the report said, those students "appear to wield a disproportionate influence on campus culture."
In addition, the report said, "with higher levels of drinking come lower grades," pointing to an analysis that showed that fraternity and sorority members have lower grades than the average Trinity student.
Alford said the committee considered abolishing the Greek system, but decided instead to try to preserve its positive aspects and take steps to try to tamp down "behavior that is of concern."
Besides requiring the Greek groups to go coed, the committee's recommendations — approved in October by the board of trustees — included the banning of a pledge period and a requirement that a group's collective grade point average be 3.2 or better.
The coed requirement will also ensure that anyone — man or woman — has a chance to become part of a group that plays a large part on campus. "We thought everybody should have equal access to it," Alford said. "... Everybody ought to have a crack at it when you walk onto campus."
Ending A Culture Linked To Privilege
The impetus to make significant change at Trinity was drawn from a controversial "white paper" written last year by Jones. He wrote urgently of his fears for the future viability of the school if steps aren't taken to ensure that it is offering a distinct and unique educational experience that is worth the hefty annual price tag of almost $58,000 for tuition, room and board.
Jones was not available to comment on the reform plan, but in an interview last year on his "white paper," he said that with increased competition from far more affordable state schools and other factors, "You've got to able to say … why is Trinity going to be enticing.
"I'm leaving in 2015, so this is a matter of tremendous urgency to me.
In the portion of his paper devoted to the social aspect of Trinity, Jones wrote that if only he had Harry Potter's wand," he would "wave it over Vernon Street and change all the fraternities and sororities into theme houses."
He wrote about the Vernon Street fraternities having a "stranglehold" on the weekends from Thursday night on and intimated that the Greeks are part of an old culture linked to privilege, family and money. Removing them from campus, Jones said, would "be to remove from Trinity's DNA the last remaining vestige of an anti-meritocratic structure on campus."
He also spoke of his own experience at the University of Virginia, where he declined a bid from a prestigious fraternity because an African-American friend did not feel welcome there.
The charter committee's report includes an acknowledgment that the college has not invested enough in providing social alternatives to Greek life on campus, and outlines plans to do that, including the establishment of a house system that will become the basis for social, athletic and other student interaction.
Concerns About Campus Security
Fraternity and sorority members at Trinity feel they are being unfairly targeted and linked to drinking on campus, particularly as the school has pulled back on its investment in social opportunities for students in recent years, leaving the Greeks to provide the parties.
"We are the scapegoats of Trinity College," said Jesse Hunt, president of Psi Upsilon. "We have been so accommodating. … We pay for the school's parties because the school has abdicated on that."
If forced to go coed, Hunt said, "I'm afraid that we'll lose well over a century of history and tradition. We live in a society that tries to push down masculinity and tries to tame it. That's fine for the professional environment. But guys need a place where they can go and hang out with guys."
Alumni such as David Hughes, who graduated in 1987 and was a member of the St. Anthony Hall fraternity, says that by focusing on Greek life, Jones and the trustees are avoiding "the real elephant in the room. … It's security."
Security has been a huge concern among students and an assault last spring has become a flash point. There have been no arrests in the attack on Chris Kenny, a student who was walking along a campus border. Since then, the college has increased security at the Frog Hollow campus.
Kenny is recovered and is back at school, but his mother, Cecily Kenny, said she fears that shutting down fraternities could lead to more students going to parties off campus, perhaps walking on neighborhood streets late at night or, possibly, drinking and driving.
Hughes and other alumni say the wrangle over fraternities also distracts from what they see as a problem with Jones' leadership. As evidence, they point to Trinity's decline in the U.S. News & World Report college ranking from No. 24, when Jones arrived in 2004, to No. 38 this year among national liberal arts colleges.
In addition, alumni are worried that the move will have serious financial consequences for Trinity: "I'm afraid they are going to alienate the strongest donor base," Hughes said, "and really rip the heart out of the school.''
Support for Abolishing The Greek System
While advocates of Greek life are upset to see it changed or curtailed, others on campus would prefer to have seen it go completely. A vote last spring showed that 76 percent of faculty would have preferred to have abolished the groups.
"We believe that until fraternities are abolished, nothing else will work," said Professor Cheryl Greenberg. "They seem to encourage behavior that undermines the academic and intellectual life of the campus."
Georgia Summers, a sophomore at Trinity, said, "I think the fraternities have a particularly negative effect on the campus and the community. … I'm sure all the people are nice people and I have nothing against them individually."
Summers said she has been able to find social alternatives to Greek parties on campus, but is pleased that the college plans to expand social options.
Even some alumni who belonged to fraternities would prefer to see them go.
Dan Tighe, was a student at Trinity during the 1980s and, like his fellow football team members, pledged at a fraternity. "I liked it, it was fun," Tighe said. But fraternities tend to encourage "a permanent clique system," when the college should be "doing all that it can to encourage students to socialize with people who are a bit different than they are."
"Now that I'm older with a little bit of perspective," Tighe said, "I don't think they were very healthy for the campus or for members."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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