They despise all women, without exception. Dick Cheney and his merry band of urban fraternity gangstas went to Iraq and tore the country to shreds. A "secret" society of homosexual white boys established so they can have butt sex in private. Charles : "Hey Jim, I'm worried that people might find out about our relationship. This is a group of males in college who pay money to spend time together. They do a lot of community service , like a couple of hours a month, to prove to the world how great they are. They host a ton of parties with copious amounts of booze; females can come for free, but few men not affiliated with the fraternity are allowed in without paying.
This makes it easier for frat boys to get laid. People in fraternities tend to preppy and metrosexual or absolutely disgusting slobs ; there is rarely any middle ground. College student: How's the frat coming along? Fraternity brother: It's not a frat. It's a fraternity! CS: Uhh, ok. Sorry, I guess? FB: You guess? You wouldn't call your country a cunt, would you? CS: Well, I don't now, but I might if it was something I could choose to be in, I paid a ton of money for it, and the only benefit of being in it was so I could pay money to hang around with a lot of other like-minded homophobic rapists who claim they're better than everyone else.
But hey, paying an extra 8 grand a year is so worth it for the bonds of brotherhood, am I right? My actual brother, you know, my twin, hasn't gone through nearly the same things as I have, like getting raped up the ass by the VP of recruitment. That's love , right there.
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The appointed member should be prepared to present a concise, factual, and minimally alarming account of what took place. This hideous task is to be left to the impersonal forces of the relevant professionals. If the dead person was a fraternity member who lived in the house, his brothers should return any borrowed items to his room and temporarily relocate his roommate, if he had one. Members sit tight until consultants from the national organization show up to take control of the situation and to walk them through the next steps, which often include the completion of questionnaires explaining exactly what happened and one-on-one interviews with the fraternity representatives.
The anxious brothers are reminded to be completely honest and forthcoming in these accounts, and to tell the folks from national absolutely everything they know so that the situation can be resolved in the best possible manner. As you should by now be able to see very clearly, the interests of the national organization and the individual members cleave sharply as this crisis-management plan is followed.
Indeed, the young men who typically rush so gratefully into the open arms of the representatives from their beloved national—an outfit to which they have pledged eternal allegiance—would be far better served by not talking to them at all, by walking away from the chapter house as quickly as possible and calling a lawyer. So here is the essential question: In the matter of these disasters, are fraternities acting in an ethical manner, requiring good behavior from their members and punishing them soundly for bad or even horrific decisions?
In a parallel universe, the two men would be not adversaries but powerful allies, for they have much in common: both are robust midwesterners in the flush of vital middle age and at the zenith of their professional powers; both possess more dark knowledge of college-student life and collegiate binge drinking than many, if not most, of the experts hired to study and quantify the phenomenon; both have built careers devoted to the lives and betterment of young people.
But two roads diverged in the yellow wood, and here we are. One man is an avenger, a gun for hire, a person constitutionally ill-prepared to lose a fight; the other is a conciliator, a patient explainer, a man ever willing to lift the flap of his giant tent and welcome you inside. I have had long and wide-ranging conversations with both men, in which each put forth his perspective on the situation. Fierberg is a man of obvious and deep intelligence, comfortable—in the way of alpha-male litigators—with sharply correcting a fuzzy thought; with using obscenities; with speaking derisively, even contemptuously, of opponents.
He is also the man I would run to as though my hair were on fire if I ever found myself in a legal battle with a fraternity, and so should you. In a year of reporting this story, I have not spoken with anyone outside of the fraternity system who possesses a deeper understanding of its inner workings; its closely guarded procedures and money trails; and the legal theories it has developed over the past three decades to protect itself, often very successfully, from lawsuits.
Fierberg speaks frequently and openly with the press, and because of this—and because of the reticence of senior members of the fraternity system to speak at length with meddlesome journalists—the media often reflect his attitude. For all these reasons, Fierberg is generally loathed by people at the top of the fraternity world, who see him as a money-hungry lawyer who has chosen to chase their particular ambulance, and whose professed zeal for reforming the industry is a sham: what he wants is his share of huge damages, not systemic changes that would cut off the money flow.
But in my experience of him, this is simply not the case. Sure, he has built a lucrative practice.
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But he is clearly passionate about his cause and the plight of the kids—some of them horribly injured, others dead—who comprise his caseload, along with their shattered parents. Most of them are awash in alcohol. And most if not all of them are bereft of any meaningful adult supervision. And then there is Peter Smithhisler, who is the senior fraternity man ne plus ultra : unfailingly, sometimes elaborately courteous; careful in his choice of words; unflappable; and as unlikely to interrupt or drop the f-bomb on a respectful female journalist as he would be to join the Communist Party.
He is the kind of man you would want on your side in a tough spot, the kind of man you would want mentoring your son through the challenging passage from late adolescence to young manhood. Indeed, the day after I talked with him, I happened to be at a social gathering where I met two women whose sons had just graduated from college. Her son had waited until sophomore year to rush, and freshman year he had been so lonely and unsure of himself that she had become deeply worried about him.
But everything changed after he pledged. He had friends; he was happy. Smithhisler was honest about the fact that he is at the helm of an outfit that supports organizations in which young people can come to terrible fates.
And neither the fraternities nor the insurance company are hiding their warnings that a member could lose his coverage if he does anything outside of the policy. One way you become a man, Smithhisler suggests, is by taking responsibility for your own mistakes, no matter how small or how large they might be. In a sense, Fierberg, Smithhisler, and the powerful forces they each represent operate as a check and balance on the system. Personal-injury lawsuits bring the hated media attention and potential financial losses that motivate fraternities to improve.
It would be a neat, almost a perfect, system, if the people wandering into it were not young, healthy college students with everything to lose. The plaintiff was a young woman who had been assaulted in the house, and who—in one of the bizarre twists so common to fraternity litigation—ended up being blamed by the university for her own assault. Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, is undergoing the kind of institutional transformation that our relentless fixation on U.
As great as its faculty may be—and it has included, over the years, some of the most renowned scholars in the world—it is the undergraduate population itself that constitutes its most impressive resource. Wesleyan is one of those places that has by now become so hard to get into that the mere fact of attendance is testament, in most cases, to a level of high-school preparation—combined with sheer academic ability—that exists among students at only a handful of top colleges in this country and that is almost without historical precedent.
Wesleyan is a school with a large number of aspiring artists—many of whom took, and aced, AP Calculus as 11th-graders. Given these sensibilities, Wesleyan might not seem the type of institution likely to have a typical fraternity scene, but as we have observed, fraternities are older than political correctness.
If you raise the topic of fraternity alumni with a college president in a private moment, he or she will emit the weary sigh of the ancients. The group includes some of the most financially generous and institutionally helpful former students a school may have.
But try to do some small thing to bring the contemporary fraternity scene in line with current campus priorities, and you will hear from them—loudly—before you even hit send on the e-mail. By , Wesleyan had taken such an action: it had pressured all three fraternities to offer residence, although not membership, to female students, if they wanted to be part of university-approved Program Housing. Wesleyan has a rare requirement. All undergraduates, barring those few who receive special allowances, must live either in dorms or in Program Housing.
But there was no shortage of fraternity brothers wishing to live in their houses—nor were the houses owned by the university or located on university property, as the Malcolm X House was. Predictably, and perhaps not irrationally, many in the Greek community viewed this new edict as antagonistic toward their way of life.
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Two of the fraternities nonetheless agreed to the new directive, retaining access to the buffet of advantages offered to frats that maintain an official relationship with their host universities. Alone among the group, Beta Theta Pi hewed to the oldest of fraternity values: independence. It refused to admit women residents, and thus forfeited its official recognition by the university. Strangely, however, Beta was able to have its cake and eat it too: its members continued to live and party in the house much as they previously had, renting dorm rooms on campus but living at the fraternity, with the full knowledge of the university.
In turn, the administration became increasingly concerned about what was happening there, and through back channels began pressuring the fraternity to rejoin Program Housing. But for whatever reason, it was loath to do so. The answer may involve the deep power that fraternities exert over their host universities and the complex mix of institutional priorities in which fraternities are important stakeholders. Chief among them, typically, is fund-raising. Shortly after the university tightened the housing policy for its fraternities, a new president, Michael Roth, was inaugurated.
A man of prodigious personal, intellectual, and administrative talents, with a powerful love of Wesleyan, he was uniquely suited to this grand vision. But no sooner had he taken office than the world economy crashed, dragging down the Wesleyan endowment with it.
He denied the charges; the case settled for an undisclosed amount in April In this challenging fund-raising environment, taking decisive and punitive action against a fraternity would almost certainly come at a financial cost. In February of , the university tried a new tack: Wesleyan suddenly dropped the requirement for fraternities to house women. And yet still Beta refused to rejoin the fold and enter Program Housing.
By March, the university at last took a decisive action. It sent a strongly worded e-mail to the entire Wesleyan community, including the parents of all undergraduates, warning students to stay away from the Beta house. The university was entirely in the right to send this e-mail; it was an accurate report of a dangerous location. But many parents of Beta brothers were incensed—they felt that their sons had been unfairly maligned to a wide group of people by their own university.
Thirty-seven Beta parents signed a letter of protest and sent it to Michael Roth. But that angry letter, sent by those outraged parents, was surely noted in the offices of the administration. The Beta brothers, meanwhile, had announced a plan to hire an off-duty Middletown cop to oversee their events, while continuing to deny PSafe access to their house.
The school year rolled on. Final exams came, and graduation, and then the students dispersed to their homes and internships and first jobs. They were not. Yes, there undoubtedly would have been a cost to resending the e-mail: more angry Beta parents, fraternity discontent, pressure from Beta alumni and the national organization. But just as clearly, great good could have come from sending it; student safety was at risk. University trepidation and fraternity intransigence were about to produce a tort case.
Its plaintiff: a young woman known to us as Jane Doe—18 years old, freshly arrived at Wesleyan from her home in Maryland, as eager as any other new student to experience the excitement of college life. During Halloween weekend, Jane Doe got dressed up and went out with some of her friends to sample the student parties on and around campus.
That wild fraternity houses are often attractive party locations for unsavory characters is a grim reality. Jane agreed to go along, although she had no plans to smoke. He put his arm around her, which was fine with her, and she slipped off her shoes because her feet hurt. The group then moved to a second room, where the men continued smoking.
He began kissing her, which she at first submitted to, but then pulled away. She started for the door again, but he grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her down onto the couch. She struggled, and bit his penis. He slapped her and called her a bitch.
SAVE THE DATE
Then he pulled up her dress, yanked off her tights, and forced his penis into her vagina. Some 10 minutes later, it was over. Jane pulled on her tights and ran downstairs and out of the fraternity house. On the street, hysterical, she ran into a male friend and asked him to walk her back to her dorm. Inside, she found a girlfriend who comforted her, staying nearby while she showered, giving her cookies, reading to her until she fell asleep.
He was initially charged with first-degree sexual assault and first-degree imprisonment, but eventually pleaded no contest to lesser charges of third-degree assault and first-degree imprisonment. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The fraternity followed the standard playbook, expressing sympathy for all victims of sexual assault and reasserting its zero-tolerance policy for such crimes. The brothers cooperated fully with the police and other authorities, which led to the capture of the criminal; and the actions of the individual assailant were forcefully asserted to have been in no way conducted under the auspices of the fraternity.
But back on campus, this level of coolheaded professionalism was nowhere to be seen. Next, Michael Roth issued an edict that he would come to regret: no Wesleyan student could so much as visit any private society lacking recognition by the university. His declaration was obviously intended to shut down Beta or bring it into the fold—but it did so in the same roundabout manner in which the university had been dealing with Beta all along.
That student sympathies would array themselves so strongly on the side of a fraternity in whose chapter house a sexual assault had occurred, and so negligibly on the side of the young victim of that assault, was the kind of eccentric Wesleyan reaction that no one could have predicted. Of course, I should have known this already, but hey, I try to keep learning.
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And it worked. The Free Beta protests ended, the fraternity agreed to rejoin Program Housing, student activism moved on to its next pressing target of opportunity, and the Beta brothers enjoyed a defrosting of their relationship with the university. It turned out that in the heel of the hunt, with the situation at the Beta house becoming so out of control that the Middletown police department was aggressively investigating the alleged violent rape of a Wesleyan student, the university finally decided to act unilaterally against Beta, imposing a potentially unpopular decision that would surely go a long way toward improving student safety.
Why had it spent so many years in protracted, back-channel negotiations with the fraternity, in a pointless campaign to cajole it into voluntarily rejoining Program Housing, when it could have pulled the trigger on this effective solution at any time? And—most pressing of all—why had it taken the assault of a freshman to get the university to finally take decisive action?
All of these questions were perhaps most pressing to Jane Doe, who had not gone back home to Maryland to nurse her wounds in private. She ended up withdrawing from a top university because that institution refused to take actions that could have prevented the assault, or, at the very least, to provide her with information she could have used to protect herself from it.
It was expedient, a shrewd legal strategy designed to protect the university from a guilty verdict and a huge settlement. It was also morally repugnant. But she was physically restrained by a powerfully built man intent on assaulting her. This is not one of those cases. This was a violent assault that occasioned a police investigation, an arrest, criminal charges, a conviction, and a jail sentence.
For it to be asserted on behalf of an American university against one of its own young students is even more astonishing. Michael Roth and Wesleyan repeatedly declined to discuss the case, or anything related to this article, on the grounds that they did not want to comment on confidential matters pertaining to a lawsuit. Later, when The Atlantic sent President Roth an advance copy of the article a few days before publication, the university provided an official response.
This January, after publishing a withering series of reports on fraternity malfeasance, the editors of Bloomberg. They are private societies, old and powerful, as deeply woven into the history of American higher education as nonreligious study. Clearly, the contemporary fraternity world is beset by a series of deep problems, which its leadership is scrambling to address, often with mixed results. Clearly, too, there is a Grand Canyon—size chasm between the official risk-management policies of the fraternities and the way life is actually lived in countless dangerous chapters.
Articles like this one are a source of profound frustration to the fraternity industry, which believes itself deeply maligned by a malevolent press intent on describing the bad conduct of the few instead of the acceptable—sometimes exemplary—conduct of the many. When there is a common denominator among hundreds of such injuries and deaths, one that exists across all kinds of campuses, from private to public, prestigious to obscure, then it is more than newsworthy: it begins to approach a national scandal.
Universities often operate from a position of weakness when it comes to fraternities—for far too long, this is what happened with Wesleyan and Beta Theta Pi. The one force that may exert pressure on the fraternities to exact real change is the lawsuit. Plaintiffs have stories to tell that are so alarming, fraternities may, perhaps, be forced to do business differently because of them. Last spring, Wesleyan sent yet another e-mail about Beta Theta Pi to the student body.