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National Fraternity Leader Says Suspending Frats A 'Knee-Jerk' Reaction


The University of Virginia announced this week it will reinstate fraternities on January 9, as it had planned, despite calls for that to happen earlier. They were suspended after a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at UVA. Several details in that piece are now in question.

Well, before the Rolling Stone piece there had been renewed focus on campus sexual assault in this country. The North American Interfraternity Conference, for its part, formed commissions to study sexual assaults, alcohol abuse and hazing in fraternities. Peter Smithhisler is CEO of that organization. We talked about the issue of suspensions and he challenged the move by UVA and other schools. There have been schools that have had to suspend fraternities after incidents.

PETER SMITHHISLER: I would say have chosen to suspend.

CORNISH: Have chosen to suspend. Why make the distinction?

SMITHHISLER: Because I think that they have to is the knee-jerk. I think that what we would want from our university partners is the direct outreach and involvement in helping shape the way forward. These suspensions are not helpful in creating a collaborative environment where we are all working together to address the issue in proactive ways. It creates a stopgap and ultimately hurts the collaborative spirit that is important in moving forward.

CORNISH: You know, the flipside, for example at UVA, the school - when it suspended Greek activities on campus, it said that they needed a chance to step back and reevaluate policies. What's wrong with that?

SMITHHISLER: Nothing's wrong with that, but it doesn't require a suspension to do that, and we would want to be involved in that conversation. That's the key - where all the stakeholders are involved in that dialogue together.

CORNISH: You know, with these three commissions looking at sexual assault and alcohol abuse and hazing, do you come to the review essentially saying we have a problem and we need help figuring it out, or is it a review that says, do we have a problem? Help us figure it out.

SMITHHISLER: Being very frank with you, we are coming to the commission process with open eyes and identifying that these problems exist. It is the commissioner's responsibility then to identify in what ways we can be the leaders and move forward. All topics are on the table. They have been given the proper time to examine the issues from all angles and then to form recommendations for us in order to act on.

CORNISH: We've talked a lot in this last year on this program and others about the issue of campus sexual assault generally, and there are many campuses that are doing all sorts of programming around teaching their students about this issue whether it be about consent or just general safety. When it comes to fraternities, what kinds of programs are out there? What is a fraternity brother told about this issue?

SMITHHISLER: The first thing I would say is the importance of the education process and making sure that we teach our brothers the expectations of membership. So that needs to occur throughout their fraternal experience. The other aspect of fraternity that I think is important in this is that we have to encourage our brothers not to be bystanders. We have to give them the skills necessary for them to confront their brothers at the critical times and to be equipped to get support and resources to the individuals who need it. The student leaders are the key part of this education process. We must ensure that they're equipped to teach and then are vigilant in that expectation.

CORNISH: Peter Smithhisler - he's president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

SMITHHISLER: It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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