Austin Hess’s column last Tuesday, “Can fraternities be feminist?” struck a chord with not just me but with many of my colleagues who volunteer for the Association of Independent Living Groups (AILG). Mr. Hess posed a number of questions to the MIT fraternity community that desperately need to be addressed. Although there has been discussion on the various AILG email lists, the column made us realize that there should be a more public statement from a fraternity man. As I am six years removed from undergrad — long enough to know the ropes of being an alum but still able to relate and connect to my active brothers and their experiences — I believe I have a relevant perspective to offer on this situation.
But first, a disclaimer: Although I’d like to say that I speak on behalf of all fraternity alumni, this just wouldn’t be true. Our alumni body is huge, and — much like the Forbes column that started all of this — one person cannot possibly be expected to represent all of us. But instead of speaking for everyone, perhaps I can speak to everyone in the hopes of starting a more productive conversation than the one in which we are currently engaged.
Fraternities have not been getting good national or local press as of late, and the Forbes column did us no favors. At MIT we like to say that we are different from the “stereotypical image of the state school frat,” but some of the responses to the column cast serious doubt on that claim. Gentlemen, there have been a number of serious indictments made against us over the past few weeks related to how we treat and think about women, and the role of alumni in our community. If we do not address these then the public will interpret that silence as a sign that we don’t really care about these charges, and I guarantee that will make everything more difficult for us in the long run.
Let us look into the mirror and ask ourselves two questions. One, are we guilty as charged when it comes to our treatment of women? I really want to assure Mr. Hess by telling him that the majority is not. Because we are MIT students and alums, we are the most educated people in the world in the year 2014, and it goes without saying that discrimination is dumb and sexual assault is a crime and victim blaming is a scummy thing to do. At least, I want to believe this. If I am wrong, then we have deep problems. Deep problems that include failing to live up to the standards of our organizations, totally lying about being respectable and gentlemen and the like, and being completely at odds with the modern world.
And two, is there a problem with the current state of alumni advising? Mr. Hess asks: “How often are such views perpetuated in new member education programs, or by alumni who should be serving as mentors?” At my chapter we have a refrain that goes: “When you graduate, leave the house better than how you found it.” This cannot happen if alums refuse to acknowledge how much culture and standards have changed since they walked the Infinite. We cannot keep our undergrads reliving our pasts; instead we must synthesize our lessons learned with their current experiences to create advice that is appropriate for today. And realize how bad misguided advice looks: even affiliated undergrads have started questioning the necessity of the fraternity alumni organization if the volunteers hold antiquated views.
The fact that those questions need to be asked at all is incredibly damning. The events of the last few weeks have informed me — all of us — that we need to reflect on our actions and have a conversation. Gents, I am tired of hearing veiled attacks against victims. I am tired of seeing statistics that fraternity men are three times more likely to rape than unaffiliated men. And I am tired of having to hesitate before I praise the progressiveness of our community, making sure some screw-up won’t leave me with egg on my face. So let’s take Mr. Hess’s advice and do something about it.
As I am not a government I cannot mandate anything concrete, as Mr. Hess suggests. Nevertheless, allow me to present some aspirational action items that will perhaps push the relevant Councils, Boards, and individuals into motion:
To undergraduate fraternity men: Let’s ensure that we are building a welcoming community for men and women on campus. Support the IFC in its plans, but understand that true action and change go beyond PartySafePlus. Let’s realize that misogyny hurts us too, as it makes us look incompetent (“We can’t possibly screen drunk girls!”) and unable to control our impulses (saying “She made me do it!” is never an excuse). Let’s understand that contrary to what Reddit and tumblr would have us believe, “feminism” does not mean “praise women / down with men”; being a feminist just means you support equality — like when it comes to kicking out both unruly male and female guests, for example — which is an ideal we all should be striving for in 2014.
To my fellow alums: We are not under IFC or even AILG control, but our actions still have consequences. Let’s consider the full scope of these before acting on behalf of MIT or our organizations, especially because the undergrads — not us — have to deal with the bulk of the fallout. Let’s remember that although our experiences during our time here were meaningful, student culture, student mindsets, and society overall have changed, and what was considered political correctness when we ran campus may be a social standard now. We need to understand and appreciate today’s world lest we look out-of-touch and irrelevant, significantly reducing our credibility as mentors.
And to the external community: First, I invite you to learn the whole of what an MIT fraternity man is supposed to be about. We are “a wholesome group of brothers tied together by core values,” and if you look beyond the social aspect you will see that: we are students, musicians, and athletes. We are innovators, leaders, UROPs, and Orientation Leaders. That being said, please keep us honest. Let us know when and how we can do better. We’re human and are prone to the occasional minor slip-up, but when we make major mistakes that are nowhere near our core values, we are violating the promises we made upon joining and the oaths we swore to uphold as brothers. This is unacceptable. Call us out.
I still believe what I was taught about fraternities when I was a pledge: that they are organizations built upon noble causes that will positively contribute to the personal growth of all its members. It has not always been easy; continuous negative press and horror stories have indeed shaken my belief at times, making me question why I still bother with any of this. But at the end of the day I end up stubbornly returning to the ideal and the notion that the MIT FSILG community can be a model not just for MIT citizenship, but for Greek systems across the country. Recent events have undoubtedly stained our brand, but I do not think the damage is permanent. I’m confident that we will be able to come together and steer things back in the proper direction.
Akil J. Middleton, B.S. ‘08, M.S ‘10, is the president of Zeta Psi’s house corporation and is a member of the AILG Board.