US fraternities blamed for spring semester Covid spikes

Repeat of autumn semester outbreaks adds to mounting pressure on Greek system

February 25, 2021
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The spring academic semester in the US has brought a revival of coronavirus outbreaks, with several attributed to unauthorised large-scale gatherings involving fraternities and sororities.

Early-semester examples include the University of Massachusetts, which suspended a fraternity while battling 500 new infections, and the University of Virginia, with more than 600 new cases and disciplinary actions against five fraternities.

The University of Kansas temporarily banned from campus all members of five fraternities, and the University of Washington took similar action against dozens of its students who joined fraternity-hosted parties.

Such violations of prohibitions against large public gatherings were largely tied to rushes, fraternities’ traditional beginning-of-semester new member recruitment events.

Rushes “no doubt” fuelled Covid-related rule-breaking and infections at Virginia, the institution’s president, James Ryan, apologetically told an online community forum to discuss the matter.

The role of fraternities and sororities in stoking the pandemic, especially at early-semester rush events, became evident last autumn. Institutions with large fraternity-related outbreaks at that time included the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Washington.

One study by state and federal experts, involving the University of Alabama, found that one of the nation’s biggest fraternity and sorority systems was behind 91 per cent of the social gatherings that drove an outbreak of more than 1,000 cases.

So-called Greek systems do not bear all the blame for campus outbreaks. A New York Times tracking project last semester identified more than 85 colleges with at least 1,000 infections and 680 with at least 100. Among those outbreaks, the mass of arriving students, their embrace at local bars, and the insistence of colleges on resuming sports also were seen as major contributors.

Their handling of the pandemic, though, is exacerbating pressure that fraternities and sororities face from within. On several campuses, students – including former members – have been challenging a tradition they see as more interested in personal self-interest than in broad educational and social improvement.

One petition by former fraternity and sorority members at Vanderbilt University has attracted the signatures of more than 1,300 people who regard the Greek system as an outdated domain for perpetuating wealthy white privilege.

The activists cite data showing that fraternities and sororities account for 76 per cent of US senators, 85 per cent of Fortune 500 executives, and 85 per cent of Supreme Court justices since 1910.

Fraternities and sororities see some of the same statistics as positives. Promotional materials by the North American Interfraternity Conference repeatedly emphasise the prospect of graduates converting personal ties from Greek life into career advancement.

The interfraternity conference also cites a new study from the Postsecondary Education Research Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville showing that fraternity and sorority members report better mental health and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

In terms of Covid, said Todd Shelton, a spokesman for the interfraternity conference, the vast majority of the 6,000 fraternity chapters across the US are taking public health guidelines seriously.

“While some may struggle with Covid fatigue,” he said, “we fully support holding accountable the handful of chapters and other campus groups alleged to be violating guidelines.”

At the University of Virginia, Professor Ryan told the online community gathering that he deserved blame for trusting fraternities to behave more responsibly. “In hindsight,” he conceded, “perhaps we should have tried harder to discourage all in-person rush events.”

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