Kappa Alpha suspension surprises no one

Editor’s note 10/12: This article has been updated to provide more context regarding the fraternity’s relationship with the Confederate flag.

So it happens again. Last year it was Lambda; this year, it’s KA. Which fraternity will be next? How soon will the next culprit be suspended, or put on probation, or expelled entirely?

More to the point: when will all of us at SMU recognize that Greek life—especially IFC-specific fraternity culture—is perhaps the most dangerous and destructive component of our campus culture?

The recent suspension of KA from campus, which was announced in a letter from President Turner to chapter members’ parents on Oct. 4, does not come as any sort of surprise. The confirmed allegations of hazing do not come as a surprise. Next year’s predictable ban of another Greek organization will not come as a surprise.

The next high-profile case of sexual assault will not come as a surprise. The next death of a student—from mere over-intoxication at a frat party or hazing or both—will not, if we are being honest, come as a surprise.

Yet business at SMU goes on as usual. A letter is sent to the parents of chapter members notifying them of the suspension following an unannounced investigation into allegations of hazing. The campus community is not directly notified of the suspension, and there is no open denouncement of hazing or proposal to curb the destructive elements of Greek life going forward.

This semester’s familiar hazing email singled out five Greek organizations in addition to the Men’s Swimming and Diving Team that have been disciplined for hazing in the past three years: Kappa Kappa Gamma, Lambda Chi Alpha, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Phi Epsilon.

The Beta Lambda chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order has joined that list. It is not unfamiliar territory for KA—the chapter was last kicked off in 2009 and returned two years later. “A whole six years before the university got us again,” I can imagine some of the members thinking. “Ain’t half bad!”

Let me be clear: I do not despise the entirety of Greek life. Many of my friends are active and thriving participants in Greek life, as is my sister. I have been to fraternity parties and even occasionally enjoyed them. I understand that college students want to have fun, and that for most of us often involves drinking. I’m not afraid or ashamed to admit that.

I understand that social life is an important part of the college experience, not to mention life in general. I support responsible and meaningful philanthropy efforts. I know that for many people, Greek life represents a distinctly positive force in their lives and in the world.

But I find it laughable and profoundly sad that the cycle of abuse, excess and rule-breaking by our Greek organizations is allowed to continue with little more than slaps on the wrist. My impression is that many at SMU in the weeks following the suspension are more likely to offer a KA brother their condolences than to celebrate the ban as rightful and just. They will act as if the ban were the fault of evil, misguided administrators and not foolish, rule-breaking young men.

We will know our campus culture has a healthy attitude toward Greek life when news of a ban is met with a sense of collective shame, not one of resentment toward administrators.

In the long run, however, banning KA from campus for four years will do nothing to curb hazing. It will certainly do nothing to curb the larger negative aspects of Greek life.

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Kappa Alpha members have posed for yearbook photos with the Confederate flag as late as 1991. Photo credit: SMU Archives

It will temporarily close the chapter that has traditionally displayed a Confederate flag with pride, whether in the house or off-campus, but it will not drive away the specter of racism that haunts our beloved Hilltop.

It will briefly disable one small piece in the puzzle that is SMU rape culture. It will momentarily shut down one of this campus’s fiercest defenders of racial and socioeconomic exclusion.

It will hardly cause a blip in the distinct sense of WASPish elitism and entitlement one cannot help but feel walking down fraternity row.

I do not think these things have any place on a campus supposedly dedicated to “intellectual integrity, academic honesty, personal responsibility, and sincere regard and respect for all SMU students, faculty, and staff.” The behavior detailed in SMU’s brief summary of its findings in the KA hazing investigation represents precisely the opposite of “sincere regard and respect” for anyone in any context.

I would ask, then: do we as a campus, a faculty, an administration and a student body really even want to curb these demonstrable and perennial negative aspects of fraternity life? Do we actually think hazing is a problem or do we tacitly endorse the good ol’ boy opinion that a little hazing never hurt anybody, that hazing is a necessary and even good component of the Greek initiation system? I would suggest as contrary evidence the case of Tim Piazza, the student at Penn State University who died last February as a result of the initiation rituals of that campus’ Beta Theta Pi chapter.

If hazing is a problem we are going to take seriously, we should address it seriously. We must realize that four-year suspensions are not enough. It is certainly not enough to enact that suspension without a word to the student body announcing the suspension and decrying the vile actions that led to it.

If we think Greek life contributes to other more fundamental cultural problems, then we should address those as well. That starts, in my mind, with addressing SMU’s puritanical and paradoxical attitudes toward alcohol. It also starts with continued conversations about race and class and admissions practices—but this time, with specific concern for the way the Greek system is tangled up with those issues.

We were lucky that this time, it was ‘just’ forcing pledges to consume hot peppers and milk until they vomited, then forcing them to wear shirts soaked in that vomit.

We were lucky that this time, no one died.

We may not be so lucky again. It is time to rise above our collective denial and address this campus’s most insidious and shameful problem.

Tell us what you think.