Rolling Stone recently published a long story about Andrew Lohse, a Dartmouth senior who blew the whistle—assuming there was a whistle to blow—about hazing practices at his school’s social fraternities.  In January of this year, Lohse published an op-ed in The Dartmouth, chronicling his experiences with a particular Dartmouth fraternity and reproaching the school’s network of Greek letter organizations—Dartmouth has long been a breeding ground for “Greek life”—of perpetuating a “pervasive hazing, substance abuse[,] and sexual assault culture.”  Here is the essence of Lohse’s exposé:

I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a . . . pool full of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen[,] and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beers poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks; and vomit on other pledges, among other abuses. . . .  As a pledge, I ceased to be a human being; instead, I became “whale shit.”  In the process, I, my fellow pledges[,] and all pledges since . . . have been implicitly encouraged to treat Dartmouth women with about the same respect with which we treated each other in our social spaces: none.  Fraternity life is at the core of [Dartmouth’s] human and cultural dysfunctions.

Lohse went on to censure Dartmouth administrators for failing to take action to reign in the school’s fraternities, reminding his readers that Dartmouth’s Greek system is in need of “extensive oversight and restructuring.”  He also named names and took aim at Dartmouth’s president, Jim Yong Kim.

After several students attacked Lohse on The Dartmouth’s website, his story attracted the attention of Rolling Stone, which gave him an opportunity to elaborate on his experiences as a fraternity brother turned social reformer.  In the course of telling Lohse’s story, Rolling Stone made three assertions: first, that irresponsible fraternity brothers exert significant influence over the tenor of social life at Dartmouth; second, that the aforementioned fraternity brothers are supported in their endeavors by a large network of equally irresponsible Dartmouth alums, many of whom work in the financial sector, where they perpetuate the modes of thought instilled in them by their fraternities; and third, that many of Dartmouth’s students and administrators are in denial about the ways in which Greek life degrades higher education at Dartmouth.

There is nothing surprising about Lohse’s claims; social fraternities have long been known to rely on cheap bear, and on the insecurities of young men (and women) desperate for social acceptance, to bring out the lowest instincts in American college students.  If there is anything interesting about Lohse’s story, it is the fact that it has elicited so much resentment from the young man’s classmates.  The simplest explanation for the backlash is that Dartmouth’s undergraduates are angry to see their laundry aired in public.  But there is also the fact that many Dartmouth students see Lohse as the physician who won’t heal himself, for he was at one point suspended from Dartmouth for cocaine possession, and he appears to have begun his reformist efforts only after the drug bust and his subsequent disillusionment with Dartmouth.  As Rolling Stone took pains to point out, moreover, Lohse studied Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise before coming to college and, upon arriving at Dartmouth, made it his business to establish himself on the campus social scene as quickly as possible, a goal that led him to curry favor with the fraternity he would eventually join and later expose.  If Rolling Stone painted a negative portrait of Dartmouth, it drew an equally unappealing picture of Lohse.

Rolling Stone’s willingness to highlight Lohse’s checkered past means that the young man has struck many readers as a hypocritical figure, a fact that might explain why several individuals have penned articles criticizing the Rolling Stone article.  The attacks leveled against the article are precisely the ones one would expect, namely, that it overstates the extent to which the Dartmouth social scene is shaped by fraternities, that it relies on the recollections of a former fraternity brother who is equal parts disgruntled and vengeful, and that it draws a tenuous link between fraternity life and American corporate culture in order to sell magazines to an audience upset with Wall Street.  The problem with these lines of attack is that they do nothing to undermine the veracity of the article’s claims.  Lohse is not an ideal whistleblower, but the fact that he might have an axe to grind does not mean that his account is fallacious.  Those who accuse Lohse of exaggerating or lying ought to be prepared to document his dishonesty.  Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many of the story’s detractors are unable to tolerate even a small amount of criticism of the institutions they hold dear.

By depicting the social fraternity as a kind of preparatory school for social climbers hoping to succeed in American corporate culture, Rolling Stone unabashedly politicized the conversation about Greek letter organizations.  It will be no surprise, then, if the debate over the article—and over the accuracy of Lohse’s account—comes to reflect a larger disagreement about the values that college-bound Americans ought to embrace, as well as about the character of the American corporate world.

At this early point in the Dartmouth hazing controversy, a number of questions have yet to be answered.  It is hard to tell what motivated Lohse to cooperate with Rolling Stone, and it is equally difficult to discern the motives of the Dartmouth fraternity brothers and officials who have tried to discredit him.  It is also hard to speculate about what exactly happened among the drunken blokes Lohse described in his op-ed; there are no photographs or video recordings to give the lie to anyone’s account.  Thus far, however, no one has refuted Lohse’s story, and no evidence has surfaced to discredit his account.  Moreover, Rolling Stone has provided college students with an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about how a university’s social life should be organized, and about the ways in which students ought to interact with one another.  There thus arises a simple question: why do some readers feel threatened by Lohse and the article about him?  And why do some students grow so nervous when a journalist highlights a few of the negative aspects of their school?

Though all of the facts have yet to surface, the Rolling Stone story is entirely plausible, at least in the sense that it is easy to imagine fraternity brothers force-feeding beer to one another, as well as engaging in all of the rituals that Lohse has depicted.  Whatever happened at Dartmouth’s fraternities, it is clear that, as an institution, the social fraternity is outmoded and embarrassing.  To say that fraternities are an embarrassment to American higher education is not to say that all fraternities are alike, or that they are all incapable of playing a constructive role on college campuses.  The claim is simply that, by their very design, social fraternities tend to degrade the environments in which they exist, as well as the people who associate with them.  There are at least three reasons why fraternities are more than likely to debase the colleges at which they are allowed to function (much of what follows can and should be applied to social sororities as well).

First, fraternities are powered by the insecurities of college students, many of whom are profoundly worried about the prospect of ending up without friends, of being left to navigate college without a social support network of some kind.  The fraternity promises young men that they won’t have to worry about being alone, and it draws them in by offering a half-baked sense of belonging, a steady supply of interchangeable acquaintances, and boilerplate rhetoric about the importance of concepts like virtue and character and unity.  What the fraternities peddle isn’t especially pretty, but in moments of fear, college students take whatever they can get.  The problem with social fraternities, then, is that they exploit and reify the self-doubt of those who aspire to join them.  Our university system should be encouraging young people to cultivate confidence, insight, and repose by learning about their own mental and emotional dispositions, and by forming distinctive friendships based on their unique interests.  The fraternities have nothing to offer in this regard.  Indeed, they tend to discourage development and maturation, for their fundamental message is that, as long as one is part of some large group, everything will be all right.

Second, because Greek life tends to attract certain types of individuals—often, those who value conformism and want to be part of a group with distinct and recognizable boundaries—fraternities are bound to develop a particular bias: they are bound to develop into institutions that discourage independence, imagination, and innovation.  In its present form, at least, the fraternity can function only if it embraces a series of lowest common denominators, a series of activities so basic that nearly everyone can engage in them without difficulty.  Hence the fraternity’s tendency to organize itself around endeavors like drinking alcohol, watching ESPN, and throwing multi-colored ping-pong balls into plastic cups.

Third, fraternities serve an unfortunate expressive function.  The fraternities brandish a crudeness and a vulgarity that credulous freshmen often mistake for strength and confidence.  What follows from this is familiar: young men flock to fraternities because they don’t see organized displays of what they take to be confidence anywhere else on campus.  The fraternities appear to young men to monopolize the concept of manhood, and anxious college kids—who long to be seen as strong and manly and self-assured—are led to believe that the fraternity is the only zone in which self-confidence can be found.  All of this points, of course, to a more fundamental problem.  Because American culture has been unable to offer anything resembling a meaningful picture of manhood, young men often mistake the hoggish conformism of the fraternities for masculinity.  The failure of our culture to provide a constructive vision of what young men ought to be has created a void that the fraternities have managed to fill.  The problem is that, if there is such a thing as a conception of masculinity worth striving for, it’s certainly not the one advertised by the fraternities.

Time might help to sift fact from fiction in the Lohse saga.  But there is no need for universities to wait before they do what needs to be done: push the social fraternities and sororities off of their campuses.