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Story highlights

A fraternity is in the news again for racism

Is it a few bad apples or a systemic problem?

Researchers have tackled the question from various angles

(CNN) —  

The latest incident of frat brothers caught being racist comes with familiar criticisms and defenses: Bad apples or a bad barrel?

The University of Oklahoma came down hard on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after a nine-second video clip of members singing racial slurs and making a reference to lynching. The chapter has been disbanded and the frat house closed.

The university’s swift action may have averted a larger scandal, but the larger question remains – are college fraternities fundamentally flawed or is it a few who give the entire system a bad name?

Researchers have looked at the question from different angles. Limited data means the studies aren’t conclusive, but they offer some of the evidence that exist behind the debate over fraternities.

A bad barrel

Nella Van Dyke is one researcher who was not surprised that an incident like the racist chant came to light.

There is a correlation between the number of fraternities on a campus and the number of racist hate crimes reported, according to Van Dyke, an associate professor and chair of sociology at the University of California, Merced.

Fraternities were one of four factors that Van Dyke examined in relation to racial hate crimes.

She didn’t pick fraternities out of thin air. Several studies in the 1990s found that certain qualities of fraternities – an emphasis on hierarchy, superiority, high alcohol consumption – lend themselves to racism and sexual assault.

“This combination of factors suggests that campuses with a strong Greek culture may have a campus climate that is more hostile to racial and ethnic minorities,” according to the study, co-authored by Griff Tester of Central Washington University.

The statistic behind this: Each additional fraternity on a college campus is associated with 8% more racial hate crimes.

What looks like a damning statistic, however, is not conclusive.

The problem is that it is not known how many of the racial hate crimes at the colleges were carried out by fraternity members.

Van Dyke agrees that the link between frats and hate crimes is not direct. “It’s not the best evidence, frankly,” she said.

Still, her findings are consistent with earlier research, and Van Dyke is among those who believe the entire fraternity structure is broken.

One thing did surprise her a bit: the university’s quick decision to shut down SAE on its campus and to expel two students.

The immediate expulsion of the students sent a strong message that such behavior won’t be tolerated, Van Dyke said. “But the bigger issue is that this is a systemic problem, not the result of a couple of bad apples, and that expelling a couple of students or closing one fraternity does not solve the problem.”

Don’t overlook the good

When fraternities make the news, it often is not in a good light.

Frank Harris III and Shaun R. Harper, researchers who focus on gender and race in colleges, found the same focus in academia. So last year, the pair authored a paper that shines a light on the other side: the “productive performance of masculinities among college fraternity men,” as they put it.

Don’t confuse this with a defense or minimization of the problems with frats, the authors say. They agree with consistent findings in previous studies that fraternity men are apt to make bad choices.

“While that is certainly true of too many, it is not universally true,” Harper said.

It’s a fact often pointed out during debates on Greek life. Nearly everyone knows outstanding men who were in fraternities.

The decision to study the positive stories about fraternities was to learn about what strategies these members use to be successful, Harper said. Focusing solely on the negative doesn’t solve any problems, he said.

“How is it that certain men in these fraternities adopt better stances?” asked Harper, a professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “How do they react when they see (bad behavior) and what from them could be useful for educators who want fraternities to behave differently?”

Harris and Harper’s published study focused on 50 men in one fraternity. But since then, they have expanded their research to include members of all major fraternities at 20 campuses with large student bodies. The larger study parallels what the smaller study found.

“What it takes for guys to be good is to be constantly reminded of the principles and values of the fraternities to which they pledge themselves,” Harper said.

A common strategy to disrupt improper behavior without breaking the shared brotherhood is to use the frat’s stated values as a mirror. These men ask questions like “Is this what we are really all about?”

These fraternity members also seek each other out, and join forces to change the environment in their organization, the study found.

In the most exemplary fraternities, these members seek to get elected into leadership positions and use the group’s judicial process to sanction their peers, if needed, according to the study.

“There are some members of these fraternities who are courageously stepping up to confront racism, sexism and homophobia,” Harper said. “We just need more of them.”

Do Greeks lack intercultural competence?

A group of researchers from several institutions examined fraternities from another angle. They tried to measure whether students who spent four years in a fraternity leave university less culturally sensitive than regular students.

The thinking was that if fraternities (and sororities) are criticized for being isolated and lacking diversity, they might not develop the skills to communicate effectively with people from other cultures compared to non-Greek students.

This group of researchers– Georgianna L. Martin, Gene Parker, Ernest T. Pascarella and Sally Blechschmidt – used two different scales designed to measure acceptance and openness to diversity.

Overall, the findings showed “that membership in a fraternity or sorority does not have a significant impact on students’ development of intercultural competence over four years of college,” the study states. This contradicts earlier research, the authors note.

At the University of Oklahoma, the SAE members chanting about never allowing a black member into their frat set off the current firestorm. But that fraternity has had black members in the past.

William Bruce James, the last African-American member of that chapter of SAE, told CNN’s Don Lemon that the video was “extremely painful to hear.”

He added, “it doesn’t represent what I remember at all, and I don’t understand how the house got there. But that’s not indicative of anything that I experienced at all.”

The leader of the chant and one of the expelled students, Parker Rice, has apologized.

Apology or not, James said, Rice is going to get a tough education.

“I feel a little bad for him because he now is going to experience something that very few people he associates with understand,” James said. “Of walking into a room and being prejudged just because of how he looks. People thinking they know something about him.”