Yale and the Nanny State

Why has the Federal Government become involved in disciplining frat boy wannabees?
Kevin Ryan | May 24 2011 | comment  



 

Last October a group of Yale freshmen pledging a fraternity made jackasses of themselves by marching around the campus chanting a vulgar slur against women. Complaints poured in and the university took action. Several fraternity members were disciplined and Yale banned the offending fraternity from all campus activities for five years, saying “the actions were necessary to ensure an educational environment free of harassment and intimidation”. Quite embarrassing for a prestigious institution and the alma mater of two recent presidents (Bush 1 and Bush 2) and a close contender (John Kerry).

That was not enough, however. The federal government got wind of these campus hijinks. The US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has also launched an investigation “to review Yale’s policies for dealing with sexual harassment and assault cases”. The Feds are coming after Yale under the flag of the 1972 Title lX Act (20 United States Code Section 1681: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

My experience with fraternities and sororities is limited. I don’t recall ever encountering a member of either tribe during my undergraduate days at a large university. I did, however, have a brush with fraternities toward the end of my graduate studies at Stanford University. Being newly married and on the outskirts of poverty, my wife and I accepted an offer to be “faculty residents” for a freshmen dormitory of 90 boys, boys who had just escaped from the horrendous oppression of their parents and their high school teachers. Their newfound freedom quickly found expression in incredible slovenliness, loud cursing, a few fist fights and the consumption of large quantities of brown beverages. We still bear scars and invariably wince when we reflect on that near-Animal-Farm year.

One of the most upsetting events happened when our boys returned from Christmas vacation and fraternity “rush week” began. The fraternity “men” came around to pick over our boys and begin their recruitment drive. Watching the process up close was heartbreaking. Many boys were not selected and were instantly labeled as “rejects,” “losers”, along with several less flattering tags. It was the first time most of these boys had faced rejection. To say the least, many took it quite poorly.

Late one night, worried about what to do and angry at the fraternity system, I asked my wife for advice. She had been very much a part of the fraternity and sorority life at a big state university. While sympathetic to the boys who lost out, she described her experience. Having been raised on a farm and being away from home for the first time, sorority life had provided her a haven in a huge and otherwise impersonal university campus. She described how the rules and traditions provided structure and how important the friendship and example of the older girls was. She thought that in the better fraternities the same was true for the boys.

Clearly fraternities and sororities are like families, close communities where the individuals are linked by bonds of loyalty and friendship. And, like families, there are good ones and bad ones; families that have good years and bad years; families that occasionally do noble things and families that do incredibly stupid things. The offending Yale fraternity (a DKE chapter, for those of you into the arcana of the fraternity-sorority world) seems to have fallen into this last category. Fine. But why unleash a gaggle of Washington lawyers on Yale? Why wheel in the investigatory and legal machinery of the federal government of the United States?

It is not as if Yale University had ignored the crude and offensive behavior of the students and a campus organization for which it was responsible. The University punished individuals and banned the fraternity from recruiting or engaging in activities on campus for five years.

This didn’t satisfy a small group of current and former students, who pleaded for Washington to come in and straighten out the situation. They are like children who, after parents have meted out punishment to their siblings, run to the mayor and ask him or her to visit their home to impose justice.

What is happening to the United States? Are we so silly that whenever there is a perceived injustice, we take it to the highest authority? What about petitioning Yale’s president? Or asking the Faculty Senate or the university’s Board of Trustees to see that justice be done? Or the powerful Yale Alumni Association? Or the state of Connecticut which grants Yale its charter? What is this childish obsession with the federal government?

And do not Americans have to scratch our collective heads at a government that takes up such a case and send its lawyers to New Haven to hold hearings, take testimony and arrange depositions? Are there not more worthy issues or even more dire problems confronting the federal government? Are we so rich in 2011 that we are ready to spend several hundreds of thousands to get to the bottom of the rude chanting of some frat boy wannabees? Or is this just one more example of a bloated, out-of-control government bureaucracy taking over the responsibilities of an increasingly infantilized citizenry?

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu. 



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