Universities: Unsafe at any Speed

Back in 1965, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile warned that the automobile industry was resisting design innovations that would make cars safer. Twelve years later, journalist Mark Dowdie got hold of a cost-benefit analysis from Ford Motors, showing that Ford was aware of a potentially fatal design flaw, but decided that it would be cheaper in the long run to pay off lawsuits than to change production.

Have universities performed a similar cost-benefit analysis when it comes to handling sexual violence? As details about Greek life are exposed by journalists — at Dartmouth; at the University of Virginia;  at Wesleyan; at Brown; and nationally, universities have several uncomfortable options. They can defend the existing Greek system on the basis of its community-building activities, its philanthropy, the fact that students apparently are demanding the kinds of experiences that the Greek system is said to deliver. On my campus, in fact, one administrator told a public meeting that he believed that sororities provided young women with support networks that could help prevent sexual assault.

They can  take measures intended mainly to protect their public image. The University of Virginia took the bold step of suspending all fraternities  . . . until January 2015.

Or they can stick their heads back in the sand and hope the whole controversy just blows over.

The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Greeks boast that “members on average donate more than four times as much to their respective universities as alumni than do non greeks”  and that “Greeks give approximately 75% of all money donated to universities.”

I don’t know if those numbers are true. Universities are notoriously protective of their donor data. But true or not, institutions behave as if this is the truth: to take on the Greek system — even if it is in the interests of protecting students from alcohol poisoning, drugging, sexual assault, falls, fires, etc. — well, that’s to take on powerful financial interests.

Dependent on donors said to be invested in Greek life, Big Sports, and a party culture, university administrators (many of them products of systems that have for decades protected perpetrators and enabled the cultures of silence and shame that are only now being challenged) are weighing their moral and ethical obligations to students against the economic bottom line. A

nd like auto manufacturers, it appears that they’ve decided that it’s far more expensive to change their production process (e.g. acknowledging the extent of the problem, putting the brakes on Greek system) than it is to settle Title IX lawsuits (which, as a lawyer recently reminded me, are much harder to win than lawsuits brought by perpetrators).

It’s a shit system.

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2 responses to “Universities: Unsafe at any Speed

  1. Yeah, it is a “shit system”! I’m a very generous donor to many causes, however I’ve never given a penny to my university precisely due to the fact;
    “Dependent on donors said to be invested in Greek life, Big Sports, and a party culture”.

    I wonder how many potential donors like me they turn off by maintaining that attitude towards funding? I went to college for one thing, to learn. I paid full tuition and never got any financial aid. I paid to send both my boys to top universities, again no financial aid of any sort. While working my ass off to learn as much as I could, I was revolted by the focus on “Greek life, Big Sports, etc.” Both of my boys seem to have the same attitude regarding their education as I did, so it’s not a gender thing.

    Need to be clear that I’m all for financial aid to students that need it. In fact the German concept of paying all tuition to attend university is fabulous! Just that I didn’t need it so it’s not like I owe them anything.

    Anecdotally, my biased understanding of most of my fellow students was that for every one “Ra Ra” go team Frat boy, party animal, there were ten studious people just trying to learn and make a better life. So my opinion would be that Universities would do much better appealing to my crowd (the 90%) rather than the one they do. (10%) Not to even mention that it is highly likely that the studious “geeky” 90%ers likely make way more money in their 50’s and 60’s than the other crowd.

    • I think you’re absolutely right about alienating donors who aren’t on board with the party culture. I didn’t give to my alma mater until a new president (the first African American woman president) commissioned a study on the university’s role in the slave trade. I was so impressed, I wrote a check right then and there and said that I was proud to be an alum. I wonder how many of us would gladly write checks this year if our alma maters told us that they were serious about addressing sexual violence on campus and the subcultures that promote it? I fear that that would get in the way of business-as-usual, as activists are discovering in their attempts to make athletics and Greek life accountable. But it’s our job to make sure that we get in the way of that kind of business!

      By the way, there’s a great (but depressing book), Paying for the Party that really describes the casualties of universities’ increasing emphasis on delivering a particular kind of social experience for students who can afford it.

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