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Research: Long Connection Between Fraternities And Sexual Assault

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Allegations of an appalling gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party continue to shake that campus. And that story adds to growing concerns about the level of sexual assaults on college campuses. And it's led to calls for a ban on fraternities. We reached Nicholas Syrett to find out how fraternities came about in the first place. He's author of "The Company He Keeps: A History Of White College Fraternities." He says they emerged in the 1820s.

NICHOLAS SYRETT: Fraternities started as secret organizations - not just secrets in that they kept secrets, but secret from the faculty themselves. And they largely did so as a way to sort of assert independence in the face of a faculty that was pretty regulatory. So fraternities were a way for them to do something that was rule-breaking against the sort of rules of the faculty.

MONTAGNE: How then did fraternities go from that underground status to being a prominent part of college life?

SYRETT: In part it was that some of the people who became faculty had been in fraternities themselves, and they insisted on a sort of more public presence of fraternities. But it's also that colleges grew, and fraternities started to perform functions for colleges like provide housing and that sort of thing.

MONTAGNE: And also, I would gather, a network that would be started in your student life and go on to be really helpful in, say, business or politics.

SYRETT: Absolutely. From, I would say, the 1850s, fraternities were pretty self-conscious about the degrees to which membership was national and that joining a chapter at one college then made you brothers with the men in the chapters at another college. And this was helpful in a country that was expanding, that was urbanizing. So if you move from one place to another, you were assured of a network of people who might be helpful to you.

MONTAGNE: Now, of course, we're talking about this because fraternity membership is correlated with some pretty disturbing behavior. What does research tell us about fraternities and things like drinking, hazing and sexual assault?

SYRETT: Sure, so in terms of drinking, the research I did certainly shows that there's a long history of drinking in fraternities. And the research of others demonstrates that fraternity men drink more than nonaffiliated men. In terms of hazing, there's a good deal of history of hazing in fraternities, for the first hazing death occurred in 1873 at Cornell University. And reporters have demonstrated that between 2005 and today, 75 students have died in fraternity-related deaths. Other researchers have demonstrated that fraternity men are more likely to participate in sexual assaults, and my research certainly found a connection between fraternity men's emphasis upon sex really escalating by the 1950s through the present.

MONTAGNE: Well, from what you've just said, maybe we should turn around the question that we pose - that I posed in the introduction - not should fraternities still exist, but why should they still exist?

SYRETT: I think they still exist in part obviously because the people who join them find them to be beneficial and fun. So there is a great demand. And then the people that graduate from fraternities end up becoming powerful alumni a lot of the time. So most studies have shown that people who have been in Greek-letter organizations are more likely to donate to their campuses once they have graduated and to be active as alumni. So when universities start to talk about the possibility of changing, modifying or eliminating fraternities, they often get a lot of pushback.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

SYRETT: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Nicholas Syrett is an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of "The Company He Keeps: A History Of White College Fraternities." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.