I always found the American phrase “the elephant in the room” to be very fascinating. It’s a bizarre idiom, but it’s one that provides a powerful metaphor. This phrase gives us a way to mention something so embedded in culture and society that it often proves hard to address.
Every place and time has its own “elephant.” In the Greek system today, that big stinky pachyderm is alcohol. That is because fraternities have an obvious privilege when it comes to alcoholic beverages: While the rest of campus is an alcohol-free zone (except during game days), where possession or consumption can get you in serious trouble with the police, fraternities remain de facto outside the law.
Considering that drinking is a common practice of college life, it shouldn’t be scandalous to think of students illegally consuming alcohol underage or on campus grounds. The problem here is how the law is being protected in almost diametrically opposed ways for fraternity members and for the majority of students.
Alcohol is a common presence in fraternity houses, protected by their independence and self-management from the rest of campus. Anywhere else – including dorms, sorority houses, the Student Union or even the Grove during 358 days of the year – alcohol is dutifully criminalized.
The consequences of this monopoly are wide-ranging and overwhelmingly negative. Besides the obvious health risks, accidents and sexual assaults in which alcohol can be a large factor, the unjust enforcement of the law promotes harmful social and cultural practices that affect all students.
Since fraternities hold a tight grip on the supply of alcohol, freshmen and sophomores who can’t legally consume it see Greek institutions as the most desirable way to access drinking and its perceived social benefits. In college, booze can equal power, and fraternities have too much of both.
This creates a feeling of anxiety among young men entering the Greek system who are willing to let the demands of their fraternities prioritize those of their academic courses while also struggling to conform to the culture and mentality of their new groups. Those who fail to enter or to get their desired bid can feel ostracized and disconnected from social life.
For Greek institutions themselves, controlling the supply of alcohol can also be toxic in more than one way. Lawsuits after reports of alcohol-related accidents, sexual assaults or hazing can severely compromise the image and the financial future of these institutions. The academic performance and mental health of their members can suffer, too.
If alcohol isn’t allowed anywhere on campus, then fraternity houses shouldn’t be an exception. In the meantime, this unjust situation remains like an elephant in our room – one who continually stomps over us and who leaves its very unpleasant waste for us to deal with.
Francisco Hernandez is a senior international studies major from Valencia, Spain.