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Questions Arise About KU Decision To Allow Fraternities To Recruit High School Students

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Laura Ziegler
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KCUR

It's not the norm, but it's not uncommon for fraternities to recruit high school seniors to join their organizations. Those that do often reach out to high school athletic coaches, and tap legacies (students with generational ties to the fraternity) and siblings for a night out on the town or a ball game.

At the University of Kansas, it is an age-old tradition.

But after hundreds of interviews and extensive research, the University of Kansas Sexual Assault Task Force, which was appointed by the chancellor, recommended that KU fraternities defer their recruitment until spring of freshmen year.

The idea: Give incoming freshmen some time to acclimate to college life — to learn about the different fraternity houses and get used to being away from home.

The task force also said deferring until spring was one way to cut back on sexual violence. 

The KU administration rejected the task force's recommendation.

Alesha E. Doan, co-chair of the task force and associate professor of political science and chair of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, says the task force was disappointed by the decision. Most high school seniors, she says, aren't even legally adults. 

"(There is) excessive underage drinking," she says,  "also occurring while still high school students, not to mention the vulnerability and susceptibility of peer pressure at that age."

But Jane McQueeny sees it differently. McQueeny was the director of the Institutional Opportunity  & Access Office at KU when the university unexpectedly announced her retirement Tuesday.

Earlier in the week, McQueeny said the university has been working with fraternities for years on the issue of reducing campus violence.

"They're separate independent entities," she says. 

McQueeny says the university cannot dictate Greek policy, but acknowledges that it is important for them to understand what a healthy relationship looks like and when to report an incident of sexual violence.

Still, the risks are well-documented. A widely quoted study finds fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than non affiliated men — and that the houses foster a macho and sexually aggressive culture.

Further, campus violence has been widely linked to alcohol abuse and studies point out heavy drinking is endemic to frat life.  

Cari Simon, who’s prosecuted some of the most high-profile lawsuits against fraternities, says the risks of frat life are underscored by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

"The insurance commissioners are saying you know, what are the worst risks for insurance companies?And (they) are putting frats sixth worst among hazardous waste and asbestos contractors," she says.

Greek benefits

It has to be said that the majority of fraternity guys don’t end up in lawsuits or get involved in the worst of the recently publicized nefarious activities.

And you don’t have to look far to find men who’ve benefited from the leadership skills they gained by being a Greek.

The Center for the Study of College Fraternities reports that more than three-fourths of U.S. Supreme Court justices since the turn of the century were fraternity members, as were many U.S. presidents.

But in spite of these successes, Greeks today are reticent to speak publicly.

I reached out to fraternity leaders both at KU and nationally. Few would talk with me, and none on tape.

Will Foran, vice president of University Relations for the North American Interfraternity Conference, who would only respond to questions via email, said that recruitment is, in his words, predicated on friendship.

"The North-American Interfraternity Conference believes that a man should have the opportunity to assemble with others for the advancement of noble purposes at the time that is best for him." he wrote.

 

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Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Kearney, Missouri, Superintendent Bill Nicely wants to continue the conversation about fraternity and college life with high school seniors.

With the greater attention to the connection between campus violence and fraternity life, some high schools are beginning to think about educating fraternity-bound seniors.

Starting a conversation

The superintendent of the Kearney, Missouri, school district invited me to a senior English class to get their thoughts on the topic. He saw it as an opportunity, he told me, to have a conversation he’d wanted to have anyway with the students.

So, standing between two groups of senior boys and girls with the superintendent of the district sitting at a desk nearby, it’s maybe understandable it took some time to get the conversation started. And no one wanted to use his or her name.

One lanky young man said he thought it wasn't up to the fraternities to monitor behavior.

"I think it comes down to knowing what's right and what's wrong, just as an individual," he says. "It's really a matter of self-discipline."

But across the room a young woman raised her hand and said it's not so easy. Her brother, she says, pledged as a sophomore and still had trouble.

"They wanted to go hazing at one of girls sorority houses. He didn’t want to be part of it. They said if he didn’t he’d get kicked out. He and four brothers all got arrested and were in jail for two weeks,"she says.

Some of the kids said they expected frats from KU, the University of Missouri, and other regional schools to be recruiting seniors at the Kearney high school this spring.

Superintendent Bill Nicely want his kids to be prepared.

"I think it’s important for us to have the conversations and recognize that peer pressure is a real thing," he says. "Everyone is influenced to some extent by it."

As long as the University of Kansas won’t require fraternities to regulate when they seek pledges, Nicely hopes more high schools will have discussions like the one we had in English class today.

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