Amherst College, which banned fraternities and sororities in 1984, has now taken this an alarming step further: starting July 1, any students participating in an unofficial fraternity or sorority will be punished, and could be expelled.
A college has the right to ban fraternities only in the sense of refusing to recognize gender-biased exclusive social groups as official student organizations. When it seeks to punish students for being members of off-campus groups of any kind, as Amherst is doing, it is violating student rights.
I happen to agree with “banning” most fraternities and sororities. Registered student groups should not have gender-based restrictions, and they should be open to all students (rather than being exclusive social membership groups). But I don’t have any problem with the existence of fraternities and sororities as independent groups, and no college can ever punish students based on membership in a group without violating the association rights that everyone should have.
Amherst has a badly-written and repressive speech code that actually establishes a right to be free from “disparagement” anywhere on campus (which the administration is violating by disparaging fraternity members), but even that “honor code” prohibits punishing students for belonging for fraternities, since it explicitly protects the right of students “to join with others in other nonviolent forms of common action.”
A fraternity is a form of “common action,” and Amherst can’t punish students for being a member of one. The trustees at Amherst claim, “The college is better off without, than it would be with, a fraternity system.” That’s not the question, though. The question is, is Amherst better off without its students having fundamental rights of free speech and association?
In their resolution, the Trustees decreed that “student participation in off-campus fraternities and sororities, and fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations, is prohibited.” But what does participation mean? And what is a “fraternity-like” organization? As James Hildebrand at Amherst’s student web newspaper AC Voicepoints out, enforcing this rule is extremely problematic.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s headline for its story, “Amherst College’s Ban on Fraternities Will Extend to Underground Groups,” is quite inaccurate. You can’t ban an underground group. What Amherst is doing is not the mere extension of a policy on student organizations. It’s a radical new restriction on the association rights of students. Instead of just banning official recognition for an organization, Amherst will now individually punish students for their off-campus associations conducted on their own time on private property. This is a quite literal case of guilt by association. One can imagine McCarthy-style disciplinary hearings on campus, with students being asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a fraternity?”
John K. Wilson edits the Academe Blog for the American Association of University Professors, where this column originally appeared.