DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Socializing on many college campuses takes place at fraternities, and fraternity life these days is a big and sophisticated business. There are the same old parties, they're still the drinking and debauchery. What's changed is who's held responsible when something inevitably goes wrong.
For the past year, Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor writer at The Atlantic, has been working on a story that's out now. It's called "The Dark Power of Fraternities." She investigated Greek life, focusing especially on lawsuits against fraternities. What she discovered is a complex system of hot potato.
Caitlin Flanagan, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming on.
CAITLIN FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Could I just start by asking you what role fraternities play in college life today?
FLANAGAN: One of the biggest roles that I think people will be surprised to learn is they're the largest single provider of undergraduate housing in the United States. One out of every eight students who lives on campus lives in Greek housing. So that's this tremendous amount of housing that colleges don't have to pay for, they don't have to maintain, they don't have to insure. And it represents one of the many ways that colleges, as much as they're bedeviled by fraternities, are deeply dependent on them.
GREENE: Before we get to some of the negatives, I mean it is worth noting that there is sort of a positive tradition when it comes to fraternities.
GREENE: Some do a lot of charity work and provide, you know, a social environment.
FLANAGAN: Absolutely. A fraternity, it's almost as though it's a franchise operation with terrible quality control. You could get a Big Mac in Cleveland and it's going to look pretty much like a Big Mac in Jacksonville. In a fraternity, you could go to Sigma Chi, the biggest American fraternity on one campus, and those guys are exemplary student leaders. They're doing tons of community service, they're raising money for charities. You could go to the next campus over to Sigma Chi and it's a bunch of thuggish kids who are perpetrating criminal acts and being drunk all the time.
GREENE: You write in your story that in the 1980s, fraternities were ranked the sixth worst insurance risk in America - not much safer than toxic waste removal. And if they are so risky, how to fraternities get insurance?
FLANAGAN: They don't get insurance. They self-insure. What that means, really, is they needed to band together and create a vast sum of money. The main one is called the Fraternity Risk Management Fund. No one knows how much money is in that. The closest I could get to the amount was that it is under a billion dollars. And when a kid is injured, when somebody is killed, the check ultimately comes from their own pocket.
GREENE: Well, you managed to get hold of an internal document that a major fraternity insurance broker provides for the industry. Tell us what you found.
FLANAGAN: It reveals what kind of injuries are most common in fraternity houses. We would immediately assume hazing. But if you look at the most frequent claims, number one is assault and battery; huge amount of fights there. But the number two most common claim against fraternities is sexual assault of young women. If I ran institution ostensibly dedicated to the betterment of young people and my number two source of liability was the rape of young women, I would say something's seriously wrong.
GREENE: Can you talk to us a little bit about the role of the university here? Do they have any responsibility to address some of these problems?
FLANAGAN: They may have a moral obligation to address it, they rarely have a legal obligation to address it. The college is not responsible for what students do on their free time. You know, if a kid slipped and fell at 7-Eleven, the college wouldn't be responsible. And similarly, if he or she slips at the fraternity, which is a private society in a privately owned building on privately owned land, the university has no responsibility.
GREENE: Who ends up paying the claims if there are civil lawsuits?
FLANAGAN: The most expensive part of joining a fraternity is the portion of your dues that go to fraternity insurance. What will happen is, if Johnny has made any mistake the night that there's a big incident, if he was downstairs in the fraternity having beers and upstairs someone is getting sexually assaulted, he, if he's under 21, is going to be a named defendant. He'll get dropped from his fraternity insurance in a second and his claim will be paid by his parents' homeowners' insurance.
GREENE: So you're saying if you are a member of a fraternity, you're at a party, it's possible that you, as a student, could face liability for something that happens. And the money in a civil suit could have to come from your parents' homeowners' policy or come from your family somehow?
FLANAGAN: It would come from your parents' homeowner policy. College kids' legal address is their home address. Their liability is covered under the umbrella policy of their parents' homeowners' insurance. And if the kid needs a legal defense, his parents are going to have to find the money for that too.
GREENE: Did you come away from all this reporting feeling like there is a way for fraternities to continue operating in a safe way to solve some of the problems?
FLANAGAN: Yes. Everyone knows exactly what they need to do because there have been very careful case studies on this. If you take alcohol out of the fraternity house, the number of claims drops by 85 percent and the severity of those claims, the dollar amount of those claims, drops by 95 percent. Any other industry that would have a chance to drop the number of claims by 85 percent and the severity by 95 percent by making a single change, show me any other industry that wouldn't make that change. If the fraternities are serious about cleaning up their act, that's the change they need to make. And it's a very painful one. It will probably devastate them, in terms of the numbers of kids who want to join, because pumping the keg is part of being in a fraternity in American culture. But that's the change that would clean the system up.
GREENE: Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Caitlin, thanks so much for talking to us.
FLANAGAN: Thank you.