In the waning years of the Clinton administration, the Dartmouth College board of trustees created the Student Life Initiative in an effort to, well, improve student life. But, as often happens when distant bureaucracies intervene in individuals’ choices, things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
Here’s what happened: In 1998, the college’s new president, James Wright, persuaded the members of the board to adopt a new initiative to improve students’ social lives. Some of the measures they implemented were, um, troublesome to fraternity members. For instance, the school limited the number of kegs students could buy and made them register them. The school also claimed veto power over off-campus housing — if students decided to live in non-college-approved housing (such as in a fraternity house that wasn’t in the administration’s good graces), they couldn’t register for classes. Christopher Bowen, who graduated in 2002, tells National Review Online that the expansion of petty bureaucracy brought out some of his brothers’ libertarian “don’t tread on me” impulses, as he calls them.
For instance, one rule banned permanent bars. “For some reason that annoyed them,” Bowen says. “So we just constructed a temporary bar, which was very large, it was on wheels, you could move it back and forth, but, you know, it was temporary!” Regulation averted. The administration also banned students from living in two of the fraternity houses, but innovative students managed to get around that without much trouble. Bowen says the college had a “very unsophisticated” computer system, so students would simply give the student center’s address as theirs. “And the college just bought it, every time!” he says.
The keg rules, though, seemed to do the most to disabuse members of the Greek system of any romantic notions about central planning. “Eventually the leftists had to admit that that was an environmental disaster for the college,” he says, “because it wasn’t that kids wouldn’t drink. It was that we started buying racks of 20-ounce cans. And so pretty soon we were just filling the trash cans and the dumpsters and the recycling bins, to the extent that we could find them, with all these cans, and they were causing a lot of pollution.” As far as Bowen could tell, the university’s anti-drinking measures did nothing to actually reduce drinking.
As college students head back to school for spring semester, most will enter largely anti-conservative atmospheres. But for many, the Greek system may offer a respite from the typical environment of academia — or at least a safe and non-judgmental place to believe in limited government and free enterprise.
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Bowen’s impressions seem to be validated by the University of Iowa study “The Conservative Corner of the Liberal Academy? New Evidence of the Effects of Fraternity and Sorority Membership on Political Orientation and Social/Political Activism.” A press release from the university summarizes the study:
The UI team sampled 2,092 students who attended 17 different four-year institutions — public and private — between 2006 and 2010. From that sample, the researchers estimated the effect of being in a fraternity or sorority on political orientation and social or political activism, which was defined using an 11-item scale that included criteria such as the importance of influencing social values, involvement in community leadership and keeping up-to-date with political affairs.
Using quantitative analysis, the team discovered, that on average, fraternity and sorority members enter college with more conservative political views than their peers. And while their peers became more liberal over four years of college, Greeks remained more conservative.
The researchers added that their findings suggest campuses aren’t as politically monolithic as many assume. It’s an interesting phenomenon — if that’s the right word — and it’s reflected, to an extent, in students’ spending habits. Madison Wickham is one of the founders of TotalFratMove.com, a website of dubious literary and educational value that provides content targeted at members of the Greek community. He tells National Review Online that merchandise pitched to conservatives — such as shirts that say “Mitt’s the Tits” and “Back to Back World War Champs” — sells briskly, suggesting that the Greek system contains a strong contingent of young people who lean unabashedly right. Like most members of their cohort, they tend to be socially liberal. But Wickham says Greeks are more likely to have an affinity for conservatism than most young voters.
“It’s become so generic and typical for college students to be liberal,” he says, that the definition of “cool” has almost reversed. “It’s cool to be conservative because everybody’s liberal.”
He says part of the reason members of the Greek system tend to be more conservative than their independent peers is that the organizations celebrate tradition and history.
Mike Cunningham, from Purdue University’s class of ’12, was the president of his fraternity and also of the university’s College Republicans. He says he noticed that, while members of Purdue’s large Greek system certainly span the ideological spectrum, they seemed more likely to identify as fiscally conservative and to gravitate toward College Republicans than did the general student population.
“Conservatives on college campuses are a silent majority,” he adds, arguing that the Greek system can bring together students who otherwise wouldn’t find much sympathy for their ideals.
While Greeks tend to support socially liberal causes like abortion and gay marriage, they also seem more likely to respect tradition, history, and stability. That’s how Evan Burns sees it. He helped start the Odyssey, a newspaper for Greek students that reaches more than 300,000 readers on 45 campuses.
“You’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely a fiscal conservative,’” he explains. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say ‘I’m a fiscal liberal’ in the fraternity and sorority community.” He says Greeks tend to be more interested in professional degrees such as finance, law, medicine, and economics — instead of, say, women’s studies. The Greek system’s emphasis on philanthropy goes hand-in-hand with conservatism, he adds. “I think that goes back to the conservative value of doing things that are beneficial to you and the greater community as a whole,” he says.
Several students say a challenge for the Greek system is negative press from predominantly liberal campus newspapers. Christopher Warren, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 2012, said his fraternity consistently struggled with unfair coverage.
“The real thing we faced, even more than the bureaucracy of the university, was the on-campus media,” he says. “It was something we were constantly combating, having negative stories surrounding our fraternity or other fraternities on campus being the highlight in the school newspaper.”
He says negative stories were blown out of proportion and given front-page real estate, while the sparse coverage of Greeks’ philanthropic work was relegated to the back. And Warren says the bias could have been a product of liberal push-back against institutions perceived as bastions of conservatism. Burns noticed the same thing. He described the paper at the University of Indiana as “extremely liberal” and “very, very against the Greek system.” When he travels to promote his publication on other campuses, he says, he consistently hears stories of anti-Greek bias among student journalists.
As for the fraternity members, they don’t seem to mind if some students are put off by their right-wing proclivities. “It seemed that the very liberal students would shun the fraternity system,” Bowen says, “but no one really cared.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.