Frat shirt and press shirt

What do fraternities and college newspapers have in common? Almost nothing.

When college newspapers cover the drunken and/or abusive antics of their campus fraternities – and that’s a story that never gets old – you can count on two responses. In this order…

First, frat brothers skulk around campus after dark, stealing newspapers off the racks. It happens all the God-damned time.

Second, fraternities love complaining to their newspaper…

Your newsroom is just like a frat house. You’re a clique that rejects applicants you don’t like, and you haze those you accept. You get fucked up together and you fuck each other – but you never cover your own stupid shit. You just pick on us instead. You’re hypocrites!

I’ve heard that lame excuse as both a college newspaper editor in the ’80s and a college newspaper adviser since the ’90s. Here’s how that’s so wrong.

A newspaper is a product. A fraternity is a party.

That makes all the difference. Let us count the ways…

1. A college newspaper values what you produce. A fraternity values what you consume.

When you rush a fraternity, your chances are enhanced by your good looks and personal wealth. But mostly, your odds depend on your conformity. That’s really what a fraternity is: a group of like-minded men. So if you agree with their politics, fashion, food, drink, music, and movies, you’re more likely get in – as long as you can afford the annual dues.

When you apply to a college newspaper, your advancement relies solely on turning in good work by deadline. Every other foible is tolerated. You can be uncool, unkind, unhinged, unfunny, unlucky, unhappy, unholy, and even unwashed. You just can’t be unreliable. And while you might not get paid anything, you don’t get charged anything, either.

2. A woman can be the editor of a college newspaper. A woman can only be a “little sister” in a fraternity.  

Why are fraternities routinely accused of sexual assault? Because that’s how they’re set up. Their mission: A few dozen horny young men sit around a house planning parties, with the goal of getting drunk and laid. Usually in that order.

Those are certainly noble ambitions, but not when the women are targets instead of co-conspirators. The only women allowed in a frat house are called “little sisters,” and they have little power.

In a college newsroom, gender doesn’t matter. You don’t need a penis to be the editor. But you can’t be a dick, either. A roomful of identical-thinking young men won’t ever learn how to fairly treat people unlike themselves. A newsroom full of editors has to deal with anarchistic staffers, angry readers, and suspicious sources. It’s humbling, terrifying, and educational.

Maybe that’s why I can’t find one instance of sexual assault in a college newsroom.

3. A college newspaper teaches hard lessons and soft skills. A fraternity teaches hard rules and soft ethics.

Fraternities are social organizations first, charitable organizations a distant second. College newspapers are professional organizations first, social organizations a close second.

That means the newsroom teaches you skills you can use in many professions, not just journalism. Clear writing, sharp photography, accurate editing, and clean design aren’t the most important. These are: learning how to persuade people you don’t know, encourage people you don’t like, discipline people you do like, and listen people you don’t care about (yet, because many will surprise you).

Fraternities preach leadership, but when you read stories about hazing and sexual assault, you realize no one stood up and said, “Hey, this is a fucking stupid idea.” That’s because fraternities value military order (even as they ignore military discipline) and treat their pledges like prisoners. Following orders is the purest virtue.

Newsrooms teach reporters to question authority. To the dismay of many editors, that blows back on them. It’s often said, and usually true, that if you can manage a staff of anarchistic journalists, you can manage anyone.

But college newspaper and fraternities have one thing in common. Neither questions the existence of the entire Greek system.

The end of school-sponsored segregation?

Back in March, The Atlantic magazine posted a provocative story called, What’s the Difference Between a Frat and a Gang?

The magazine’s answer: “The fraternity may be as violent as the gang.”

It’s also as segregated as 1950s Alabama. There are frats for just for Jews, just for rich kids, and just for good ol’ boys. Hell, some campuses have a separate “black fraternity system.”

No wonder fraternities make headlines for racism as often as sexual assault. That also happens all the time, maybe even more often.

Just as gay marriage and #metoo called out discrimination that mainstream society had accepted and seldom questioned, I wonder what college students will think in, say, 2030 when they hear…

Your school once had on-campus housing just for white men and just for black women. Jews weren’t allowed in some houses, and the disabled weren’t allowed in most. Administrators supported this system, and Student Government was organized around it.

I’m surprised more college newspapers aren’t posing the same kinds of questions The Atlantic did. If nothing else, there are conversation-starting op-ed columns that write themselves. Here are just two…

1. Why do public universities pay for administrators to oversee a racist and sexist private institution? Many large schools have a Greek Life department – overseen by an administrator usually paid with the activity and service fees that every student is charged. That often tops $10 a credit hour.

So students who aren’t in the Greek system pay to support those who are. How much? Right now, Washington University in St. Louis is looking for a coordinator for fraternity and sorority life starting at $43,000.

When I’ve made this argument before, Greek supporters reply, “Student newspapers are paid with those same A&S fees, and we’re not journalists.” True. But you can still read the newspaper, and you can still join the newspaper staff – whatever your race or gender. A&S fees shouldn’t support organizations that exclude students for their color or genitalia.

2. Why aren’t fraternities and sororities required to release demographics? Every public university has to reveal the composition of its student body. Here’s how Florida Atlantic University, where I advise the newspaper, releases its race and gender statistics.

Yet the fraternities and sororities don’t have to – even though they receive perks like a paid Greek Life administrator, free campus office space, and (at some schools) below-market-value campus houses.

Many fraternities and sororities claim they don’t discriminate, but they refuse to provide the numbers to prove it. For example, Sigma Alpha Epsilon touts its Diversity & Inclusion Position Statement. Of course, that didn’t stop one chapter from chanting, “There will never be a nigger in SAE.” How do we know other chapters are really diverse and inclusive if we can’t see the evidence?

Fraternities and newspapers have something else in common. They’re both ancient institutions with huge image problems. Yet newspapers are dying while fraternities endure, like cockroaches and cancer. Life, it seems, is as unfair as a fraternity rush party.