AU greek life: Who is your risk management protecting?

Fraternities have existed almost as long as the residential college experience has. In 1825, a group of young men decided the best way to rebel against their administration was through the formation of a secret club—the Kappa Alpha Society. College life used to be quite different from what we experience now. As Caitlin Flanagan explains in an article from The Atlantic, the idea that “pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once preposterous.”

Enter fraternities. The college clubs exploded across the country, complete with youthful rebellion and Romantic style chants and oaths. They continued their dominance of college social life until the 1960s, when Free Love hit campuses. Suddenly, supervised mixers, dances and games with your big didn’t seem nearly as fun (or important) as protesting the Vietnam War and really experiencing life. In response, most fraternities tried to increase their autonomy from the schools, getting rid of as much supervision as possible by moving into off-campus housing. As most AU students know, universities have a much more difficult time controlling what students do on private property.

But the move to private housing and autonomous communities increased the liability of the fraternities themselves. Accidents happen at fraternity houses across the country. Students slip, fall from heights and even sometimes attempt to stick fireworks into their rectums. As fraternities separated themselves from schools, the accidents increased. And with more accidents, the lawsuits began to pour in.

A single lawsuit could devastate a fraternity in the 1980s, according to Flanagan. “In 1985, a young man grievously injured in a Kappa Alpha-related accident reached a settlement with the fraternity that, over the course of his lifetime could amount to some $21 million.” Liability insurance was becoming incredibly difficult to obtain. It was like the price increase on providing auto insurance for a male teenage driver times thousands of dollars.

Fraternities could not keep operating like that. They needed their own insurance, and they needed to isolate the organizations themselves from the behavior of some of the individual members—or risk financial devastation.

In order to get around the prices insurance companies offered, four fraternities created the first Fraternity Risk Management Trust in 1992. More than 30 fraternities have signed into this particular trust, but most belong to something like it. Membership in a private risk management trust comes with conditions, including adherence to risk management policies. These policies can be found in the risk management manuals that organizations like the Fraternal Information and Programming Group (FIPG) produce every year. The main thing these manuals cover is alcohol policy, because alcohol is the one thing all of the accidents have in common.

No one truly believes fraternities follow these alcohol policies. In the 2007 manual, FIPG explained that the only two policy-approved ways for a fraternity to have alcohol at a party were by a third party vendor checking IDs and selling drinks, or BYOB. The BYOB parties limited the over-21 members to bringing either six beers or four wine coolers. When a brother comes in, he is supposed to relinquish the alcohol he brought, obtain a wristband and come back to a sober brother to politely ask for a beer if he happens to want another one.

Yeah, right.

Here is the catch—if members of a risk management fund are found to be in violation of a FIPG policy, then the fraternity makes clear that the individuals have parted company with the fraternity. If an accident happens at a party your fraternity is hosting and you have violated policy, the insurance doesn’t cover you. You are on your own.

The FIPG policies are not just randomly designed like this. As Inter-Fraternity Council President Gabe Menchaca explained, “We have, essentially, insurance that doesn’t cover 95 percent of the things that could go wrong—and no opportunity to otherwise reduce our exposure….we all know that our undergraduate experiences have been incredibly valuable but struggle with the fact that an adversarial insurance/legal environment makes it so hard to secure it. We struggle with the distinction between protecting our brothers and securing for the future.”

But, that does not mean that individual members can’t be on their guard. These manuals can also outline what brothers are supposed to do in case of emergency. After making sure the victim receives immediate medical attention, brothers are asked to end the party, go upstairs and sit tight until representatives from the national fraternity arrive.

According to Flanagan’s article, when national representatives come, they usually distribute questionnaires to the brothers and then ask for an honest, written account of what happened from those involved. These accounts are then used to show, in writing, exactly how the individuals violated policy. The national representatives are not there to help the chapter members. They are there to protect the coffers of the national organization.

I don’t know the specifics of every Greek organization’s risk management policies at AU. After all, I don’t speak Greek. But the policies I just described are the norm for many fraternities. I urge the students who do participate in Greek life to know and understand their national organization’s risk management plan, and their personal chapter’s.

Don’t just leave it to your risk management chair. As Menchaca explained, “I’m a firm believer that at AU our chapter leaders get it, so to speak, but don’t do a good enough job articulating to their brothers and sisters why these policies exist.”

Know whether the plans are managing your own risk, or the risk for the fraternity at large. Protect your brothers, and protect yourself.

Shelby Ostergaard is a junior in the School of Public Affairs.

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