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Forcing Frats to Go Co-Ed Won't Fix Them

A solution in search of a constituency

Joern Pollex/Getty Images News

In October 2008, not long after the school’s Greek rush week, Trinity College student Alexander Okano dove into a shallow pool at an annual frat blow-out called Tropical, paralyzing himself from the chest-down. Two years later, Trinity student Andrew Cappello drunkenly stumbled during his fraternity’s Hell Week initiation and suffered brain and spine injuries. Two years after that, late on a Saturday night, a Trinity sophomore was beaten to a pulp while walking with a friend. Alcohol- and drug-related ambulance trips were on the rise. The college’s reputation was sliding.

In response, a committee at Trinity College assembled a plan to reshape the campus social scene. Greek life starred prominently, and the report recommended that the system, which previously was not well-overseen by the college, be reined in. Affiliated students would have to maintain 3.0 GPAs or higher. Pledging would be abolished. Perhaps most foundation-shaking, fraternities and sororities would have to go co-ed.

While Trinity’s move was radical two years ago, the concept of requiring gender parity in Greek houses is now catching the eyes of other college administrators. Colleges like Middlebury, Dartmouth, and Swarthmore have all struggled with the deleterious effects of fraternities on their campuses—binge drinking, sexual assault, a party-school reputation. As an alternative to abolishing Greek life outright (the nuclear option that Middlebury chose), requiring the system to go co-ed promises to preserve some form of the system that so many students (and cash-flush alumni) hold so dear. Wesleyan embraced the reform in September in the wake of a lawsuit against a campus fraternity by a female student who alleges she was raped in their house.

But a mandate does not a solution make—and Trinity’s experience over the past two years suggests that old traditions are tough to flush out.

Under the calendar laid out by the Trinity committee, by this school year, 15 percent of the full-fledged members of the college’s fraternities and sororities would be of the opposite gender. And men and women are now required to go to rush events at all of the Greek houses in a new initiative designed to warm them up to the idea of crossing the gender divide, said Eamon Bousa, vice-president of greek affairs for the student government. But according to Kathy Andrews, Trinity’s media director, not so much as one student, male or female, has taken the leap. Though Trinity says its sights remain set on reaching Greek gender parity by 2016, Bousa says the college scrapped its aggressive quotas for a requirement of merely showing effort.

This isn’t the first time Trinity has attempted to make its Greek scene coeducational. The school’s Board of Trustees approved just such a measure in 1992. It would have been impressively progressive, if it worked. Instead, the college failed to give the mandate teeth, and it slipped into irrelevance, overwhelmed by tradition. The new effort seems headed toward a similar fate.

The problem? No matter the enthusiasm of the Board of Trustees or the conviction of the faculty (76 percent of whom would prefer just to do away with Greek houses), top-down approaches to student life can only achieve so much. At Trinity, the coeducation directive was met with student and alumni outrage. Crowds of students attended heated forums, where former President James Jones made the situation no better by condescendingly addressing two female speakers as “Kappa number one” and “Kappa number two.” A petition denouncing the policy as “unjustly onerous” received more than 4,000 signatures. Incensed alumni closed their wallets in protest—which wasn’t successful in reversing the reforms, but may have contributed to Jones’ resignation.

One particularly angry alum, Robert Bibow, founded the Foundation for Student Freedom of Association, which claims on its website to help “students around the world have the right to organize themselves independently of governments and universities.” Bibow declined to say whether he's pursuing a lawsuit against the college, as Bloomberg reported, or how much support he has from Trinity alumni, other than to say that "money is the least of our problems." Despite all their unsavory connotations, Greek letters are still worn with pride, and the fraternity girl and the sorority guy remain figments of triangulating reformers’ imaginations.