Fraternity house

Part One

The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio is among the largest public universities in the United States. A minority of its undergraduates belong to fraternities and sororities whose number and membership ebb and flow over time. Regardless of those facts—or the national effort to supervise, reform and regulate, protect the rights and lives of their members from active harm, and the regular bursts of reports of illegal hazing and rape among other forms of law-breaking, fraternities and sororities rule the boost at  OSU. The contradictions—and active damages to young people, their personal and intellectual development, and their incidental and purpose damage to neighbors and environment—are significant.

As in everything, OSU is at once part of national currents and an extreme example. With “student life”—which is not synonymous with actual living, breathing, growing student lives—OSU is no different. The clash between its Office of Student Life with its countless centers, sub-offices, associate and assistant vice presidents and directors—relatively few with publicly available descriptions—sits on one cliff of a practical grand canyon apart from academic and other “life.” It leads with empty often infantilizing slogans. It has no connections with Academic Affairs. Its offices in the Student Union and the crumbling, isolated dormitory towers are disconnected from the university as a functioning whole. They do not answer their phone or respond to email. They disrespect both university and city standards and the laws.

When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s, so-called Greek life—actually somewhat offensive mock caricatures of a mythical antiquity, segregated not only by gender but by class, religion, and race--temporarily declined from its major if always minority place on campuses. Touted for their traditions and sociability, both legal and illegal, most “houses” developed to house undergraduates after a required first year in a university-owned dormitory. Over time, they were both contradictory and anachronistic.

In the “old days,” dorms had paid graduate student residential advisors; fraternities and sororities had resident “house mothers.” Without exaggerating, it is fair to conclude that there was a much greater degree of supervision and availability of adult advice than today. Contradictorily, student housing prices rise, and responsible advising falls.

For 5-6 years, Greek life declined because of changes in youth culture, decline of colleges’ so-called parietal rules that purported to restrict male and female contacts, let alone social or sexual intercourse. I dropped out of the offensive “rush;” classmates “de-pledged.” With more students on scholarships and work study supplementary income, additional costs were prohibitive. Many of us found the customs and distorted relationships practiced and projected during “rush” to be offensive and off-putting. For me, for example, this included anti-Semitism and social class prejudice. What was once mocked as GDIs—God-Damned Independents—was then a source of pride and student solidarity.

Particularly revealing about the changing student institutional climate was the persistence of the difficult to enforce “three-foot rule;” that is, if a male and female student sat on the same surface, 3 of their 4 feet must always touch the floor. The adult controllers and rule-makers had limited imaginations or understandings of student creativity.

At Northwestern University in the late 1960s, all women’s residences clustered on South Campus, all men’s on North Campus, about 3/4s mile apart. As doors began to open unevenly, as a freshman, I could host a female student in my room—no longer with the door wide or cracked open. She could not host me in hers.

At the same time, in the dorms, men’s bed linens were changed weekly by a university employee; the women’s were not. Clean sheets and pillows were stacked on their beds. Another contradictory sign of the times were active protests on both ends of campus to the traditions of “panty raids” in which frat boys marched in a group to South Campus to shout outside women’s dorms and sororities “give me your pants.” Some young women complied.

For most of their history, legitimate fraternity and sorority houses stood on college campuses by requirement, custom, and/or convenience. In recent decades that changed. The incoherent pattern of university responsibility and regulation defies description. Northwestern’s president when I was an undergraduate, J. Roscoe (Rocky) Miller, was celebrated--by some—for keeping his own nationally notorious Sigma Chi chapter on campus after at least two pledges drowned in Lake Michigan while tied to rocks as part of regular hazing of new pledges.

Greek misconduct and law-breaking are regularly exposed with reports of hazing injuries and deaths, rapes, mass drunkenness, violence, and arrests. When they cannot hide public reports, universities tighten a few regulations, some states pass anti-hazing laws after deaths like Ohio’s Collin’s Law, some houses are suspended mainly temporarily. Time passes. Enforcement wains. Rapes in particular are unreported.

The most uncontrolled students find alternatives to registered Greek houses in rental units and apartments, as landlords, universities including offices of Greek Life, and local police do not enforce laws and conspire not to publicize incidents especially involving women and long-duration non-student neighbors.

Some private landlords actively cater to and solicit the wildest 20-22 (-26-28) years old students or hangers-on, who escape frats and some sorority houses to party and break the laws more recklessly and relentlessly. Landlords, with knowledge and at least the tacit complicity of the universities, local law enforcement, city zoning, and other public offices both indirectly and directly encourage and support them.

Increasingly, some chapters publicly celebrate their suspensions, most loudly at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. More than a dozen chapters now want legitimacy and recognition along with legal independence from their university. I have no doubt that this will become a national promoted by groups like Students for (un)Fair Admissions, Heritage Foundation, Fox News, and the (un)Supreme Court touting “free speech rights” regardless of contradictions and laws as written and interpreted.

At Ohio State, in my own neighborhood, during the 1990s and the turn of the 2010s, two-time former president Gordon Gee loved to visit fraternities (but not sororities), toast with water while the members raised their beers, and display some of his hundreds of bow ties. He was usually accompanied by Willie Young, the head of Off-Campus Student Life. Once he stopped by my house with a vice president or two in tow to chat on my lawn.

Despite full university knowledge of the temptations, dangers, and practices of Greek life, fraternities and sororities are excessively powerful. Despite scandals and exposes, murders and rapes, regulation remains modest. All pretense of university active responsibility ended with Willie Young’s death. Not only does the Off-Campus Student Life website provide less information about the nature and legal status of the historic, residentially zoned University District today, but occasional weekend patrols and a 24-hot line answered by real humans ended.

National exposure of hazing violations and death led to very modest restrictions, very limited public reporting (as compared to Ohio University or Bowling Green, for example), and also no mention of rapes despite students frequent observations about misconduct in Greek houses as well as dormitories. Presences of threats to physical safety as well as public nudity drives some students, especially women, out of the dorms after one years. On the other hand, the existence of any restrictions at all drives others, especially men, from frat houses to separate private rentals.

Thin sloganeering, physical symbolic “joint” university and city police “patrols” with no connection to police reporting systems, and directionless Buckeye Block Watchers occasionally inactively walk some of the streets, seeing little, doing and reporting less. The statistics speak for  themselves, as do the contrasting records of telephone reports to Columbus Police made by my homeowner and student neighbors, and my household almost every weekend.

About the same time that Young’s few practices ended, a money-making requirement that all first- and second-year students live in university dormitories for two years rather than one allowed an exemption for fraternity brothers and sorority sisters to spend second year in chapter houses separate from any pretense of advising or programming, thin as they are in practice.

No doubt a result of pressure from the chapters, especially by influential alumni including parents and national chapters, this exception not only contradicted all Student Life nonsense about “The Exceptional Student Experience” but is a massive direct and indirect subsidy or transfer to the private Greek houses literally off campus. It fueled their recruiting efforts and numbers.

Not only was money lost to the university, OSU also subsidized both directly and indirectly the large private landlords from whom many of the chapters rent their houses. It is no accident that the largest and most law-breaking of these real estate companies (with most complaints and legal suits, death and near deaths), NorthSteppe and HomeTeam, donate huge sums to OSU—and to Columbus city councilors and mayor.

As is well known, private interests dominate Columbus past and present. Public OSU is no exception. The rush of 3rd and 4th year students out of the chapter houses to these same rental property owners is all but by design. A Buckeye perfect storm! What Would Brutus Do (WWBD)?: make a pact with the monied devils to harm lives and property, all for a few individuals’ and corporations’, increasingly based outside Columbus and Ohio, monetary gain. Another Student Life slogan on a sign, planted illegally on both private and public property adds to the picture: 60% of OSU students don’t drive after 5 drinks. Subtract that advertising slogan from 100. I can’t make this up. I write fact not fiction. That slogan terrifies many of u.

Student Life contributes more to the nationally publicized problems of alcohol and drug consumption with its ever-growing number of Parents’ Weekends. One Student Life director admitted to me that they had never thought about cross-generational drinking, since the expansion of events was fueled by fund-raising. On more than one occasion, students in my neighborhood have apologized to me for their more drunken fathers’ verbal aggressions. More contributions to juvenilization and even infantilization by Student Life (never student lives). Of course, OSU tells students to seek mental health help but never mentions that the waiting time is typically months and longer.

At OSU, a number of brothers’ and sisters’ Greek houses under temporary or permanent suspensions at any one time is substantial, a statistically significant percentage. As elsewhere, some houses glory in that status, celebrating it with every more drunkenness and illegal property violations. This is the case, for example, with Theta Tau, an engineering fraternity that breaks multiple city laws every weekend. Neither the police nor the university cares. As I write, the suspended chapter is holding “rush,” announced with illegal banners in front of their house. The Fraternity and Sorority Buckeye Student Life office will not respond to my questions about how this can occur. I wonder why not.

Another suspended house, Acacia, owns multiple properties and breaks noise and public nuisance laws regularly. One Student Life staff member responded to my asking how that could be permitted by stating “their alumni are powerful.” Is there no OSU or Student Life?

The most law-breaking party properties are the residencies of 3rd and 4th students, many from New Jersey and other outside states, who move to their Greek houses for their 2nd year, then to NorthSteppe or HomeTeam large houses for 4th or 3rd and 4th years. Not only do they break multiple laws each weekend, and sometimes during the week, with noise and public nuisance violations. They also pollute the environment with their trash. On weekends, their yards are filled will illegal furniture, rented porta-potties without permits, and mass distribution of alcohol.

The police see this. Recently, two officers told me on a football Saturday, “we have been advised [by the ignorant of the law and extremely rude assistant City Attorney Furbee for police liaison] not to enforce the law and not to issue citations.” The City Attorney will not respond to my questions about this information. The City’s problem reporting line is open only Monday-Friday, 8-5:00. So much for student lives or their neighbors’ safety or sanitation.

OSU knows. The landlords know. All City of Columbus departments and elected officials, from mayor and council to city attorney, know. Students and older, homeowner neighbors report these violations week after week. Nothing changes. Ordinary residents from no rights in any of their eyes including the university’s. Both ignorant students and police officers have told us that “you should live in Upper Arlington or Worthington, not here.”

Relevant Graff essays

“The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District,” Columbus Free

Press, Sept 14, 2021

“Columbus’ University District: Students and the institutions that fail them,” Columbus Free

Press, Oct. 8, 2021

“OSU isn’t having a crime crisis; it’s having a leadership crisis,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, Nov 2, 2021

“‘Update’ to Ohio State isn’t having a crime crisis,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov.

13, 2021

“The Banality of University Slogans: Whether its ad campaigns for football season, gauzy

reports from the provost, or rhetoric from the school’s president, higher education abounds with

empty rhetoric,” Washington Monthly, Jan. 10, 2022

“Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes,” Times Higher

Education, Jan. 17, 2022

“Sloganeering and the Limits of Leadership,” Academe Blog, Jan. 19, 2022

“Ohio State versus ‘campus safety,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 13, 2022

“How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic

neighborhood,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Part One, Apr. 26, 2022

“How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic

neighborhood,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Part Two, Apr. 29, 2022

“How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic

neighborhood—a continuing saga,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, May 2, 2022

“Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need,” Times Higher Education, May 17, 2022

“The Fallacies of ‘the Shadow Curriculum,’” Academe Blog, July 1, 2022

“How Young People Have Changed,” Letter to the Editor, Inside Higher Education, Aug. 4, 2022

“Recreating universities for the 21st century without repeating the errors and myths of the 20th

century?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 7, 2022

“The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization,

 dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part One,” Busting

Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 28, 2022

“The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization,

dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part Two,” Busting

Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 31, 2022

“Universities Must Help the New ‘Lost Generation,’” Academe Blog, Sept. 16, 2022

“Growing up was always hard to do. It’s getting harder, and universities are doing little to help,”

Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Sept. 26, 2022

“The City of Columbus and The Ohio State University: Two peas in a pod, one bigger than the

other, relatively speaking, but so much the same. Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, Oct. 8, 2022

“The City of Columbus and The Ohio State University: Two peas in a pod, one bigger than the

other, relatively speaking, but so much the same. Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, Oct. 14, 2022

“The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being,”

Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022

“How universities fail their students: The president may be ‘born to be a Buckeye,’ but the

students are not. A call to eliminate Offices of Student Life and invest directly in   students’

lives,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 10, 2022

“University bragging rights: OSU whimpers but doesn’t bite or swallow,” Busting Myths,

Columbus Free Press, Nov. 27, 2022

“Columbus’ home grown illegal landlords in a destroyed historic district,” Busting Myths,

Columbus Free Press, Dec. 11, 2022

“The plague city: Daily life in Columbus, Ohio,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec.

17, 2022

“Lessons from the 1960s: Paths to Rediscovering Universities,” Against the Current, 223 (Mar.-

Apr., 2023; online Dec. 24, 2022)

The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part

One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 7, 2023

The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part

Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan.  11, 2023

“Universities and cities often fail both homeowners and students,” Times Higher Education, Jan.

22, 2023

“A city versus its neighborhoods: Columbus, Ohio,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan.

25, 2023

The Ohio Student University vs. The Students, The Law, and The Truth. The Victims of

Dr. Richard Strass and of OSU,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 14, 2023

“A call for reparations from the City of Columbus, the large corporate landlords, and The

Ohio State University for the destruction of neighborhoods with a focus on the

University District,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Apr. 1, 2023

“The plague of Columbus’ streets and sidewalks: Electric scooters illegally fueled by the

City’s Division of Public (aka Private) Services,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, Apr. 14, 2023

“Lawless, Unsafe, and Dirty: The Dying University District.” Busting Myths, Columbus Free

Press, May 2, 2023

“Ohio State University and its Dying University District: The Oval and the Campus

Beyond,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, May 5, 2023

“US universities should teach a genuinely common core of knowledge,” Times Higher

Education, June 28, 2023

“Offices of student and academic affairs must call off the turf war: The mutual suspicion of

autonomous bureaucracies ignores the multifarious needs of living, learning, maturing young

people,” Times Higher Education, Aug. 12, 2023

“Emergency Bulletin: The City of Columbus, OSU, and landlords against student tenants and

homeowners—dramatic case in point,” Columbus Free Press, Aug. 21, 2023

“The 150-year-old, 90,000 student-staff-and faculty university that won’t grow up: The

Ohio State University Buckeyes led by Brutus Buckeye, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus

Free Press, Aug. 23, 2023

“The 150-year-old, 90,000 student-staff-and faculty university that won’t grow up: The

Ohio State University Buckeyes led by Brutus Buckeye, Part Two,” Busting Myths,

Columbus Free Press, Aug. 30, 2023

“The purposeless University District Organization (UDO) trashes and defaces the

University District itself,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Sept. 30, 2023


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and Academy Professor, Ohio State University . Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about history and higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. He is now writing Reconstructing the “Uni-versity” from the Ashes of the “Mega- and Multi-veristy.”