Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

During their periodic bouts of consultant-managed angst, U.S. companies are often encouraged to confront a single question: What business are we in? It’s a process that might also benefit U.S. colleges and universities with fraternities.

Such self-examination can lead firms to scale back or abandon units that don’t fit into their business model, fail to yield an adequate return or cause reputational harm. So: What is the business of an institution of higher learning? If your answer is to help young adults gain the knowledge and skills they need to prosper (or something close; this is a short essay question), then go to the head of the class.

The next question is: How do fraternities fit into that mission? As it turns out, the fraternities that dominate so much of collegiate social life are of dubious value.

University presidents and administrators don’t even have to pay expensive consultants to reach this conclusion. They can just look at the data, both statistical and anecdotal: On balance, most campuses would be better off without fraternities.

Start with alcohol consumption. Although a majority of college students drink, abusive drinking is far more prevalent in fraternities. One study of 17,000 students at 140 four-year colleges found that almost 90 percent of fraternity house residents engage in binge drinking (five or more drinks at a time), compared with 45 percent for nonmembers. Binge drinking is associated with a host of ills, from neurological damage to assaults.

Alcohol abuse also plays a central role in one of the most corrosive aspects of fraternities: hazing of new members in initiation rituals that are often brutal and vile. Sadly, at least one student has died in hazing episodes in each of the past 43 years. Although it’s unclear whether alcohol played a part in the death of a student at New York’s Baruch College in November -- the third hazing-related death last year -- alcohol is often involved.

Hazing is illegal in 44 states, but the existing laws are largely ineffectual or treat hazing as little more than jaywalking. A federal law that made serious hazing a felony offense might help deter this underreported scourge. It might also help college administrators overcome their reluctance to enforce bans on hazing for fear of offending alumni who threaten to withhold contributions. Unfortunately, fraternities have banded together to thwart the passage of national anti-hazing legislation in the past.

The anti-intellectualism that dominates so much of fraternity life -- the frat-boy culture of spring-break lore and “Animal House” -- also takes a toll on its members’ academic performance. Even adjusting for differences in ability, age and other factors, fraternity members tend to have lower grades and underperform compared with their nonmember peers in tests of cognitive skills.

Fraternities also are at cross-purposes with the goal of promoting campus diversity. As a whole, they are more homogenous than the overall college student population.

University officials and fraternity alumni have long maintained that fraternities yield benefits, both for students and campus life, and that hazing is a rare and isolated event. The organizations, they say, help students adjust to life away from home, build camaraderie among members, and participate in volunteer and charitable work.

These benefits are undeniable, at least for some students some of the time. Two questions, however: Are students in fraternities more likely to get these benefits than those that aren’t? And are there not other ways to encourage such behavior and fellowship?

At any rate, this much is clear: Too often, fraternities are at odds with the mission of a college or university. Focusing on that mission may be the best way for colleges and universities to see their way clear to the reform and, when necessary, abolition of campus fraternities.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.