Debate on Fraternities fosters discourse in spite of ongoing controversy over bias

By Steven Viera || Senior Editor

Last Tuesday, F&M’s Debate Team hosted the Debate on Fraternities in Mayser Gymnasium during the Uncommon Hour. The event—which drew a crowd of hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators—showcased the Debate Team’s skills and provided an opportunity for discourse on the institution of Greek Life on campus, although much of the event had been marred in controversy in the weeks leading up to it.

Members of the Debate Team squared off in a three-on-three contest where each speaker had seven minutes to both address the comments of the previous speaker on the opposing side and raise new points for consideration. According to Matthew Rohn ’16, former president of the Debate Team and organizer of the Debate on Fraternities, this is not the standard debate structure, but a modified format to make the proceedings more accessible to the community.

“We had eight or nine people [from the Debate Team] volunteer [to argue at the debate],” he said. “Then, [they were] split up based on which sides people were comfortable defending, and then we just tried to achieve balance by sides from there.”

Once the debaters had determined their position, it was up to them to prepare.

“To work on the larger independent points, which dealt with structure, community engagement, and brotherhood, I did my fair share of research,” said Thomas Fogel-Burlan ’18, a member of the Debate Team who argued on the pro-fraternity side. “As someone not in a fraternity, it was important to me that I represent that viewpoint accurately and faithfully, so I researched op-eds, testimony; anything I could find. I also spoke with some anonymous current brothers at F&M to get their views on the benefits of fraternities.”

Several weeks before the event, the Debate on Fraternities found itself at the center of a campus controversy: As this article describes, limitations were placed on the degree to which members of F&M’s fraternities and sororities could participate in the debate. Eventually, the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Council (PHC)—the student organizations that represent F&M’s fraternities and sororities, respectively—voted to allow members to attend, but not participate, in the Debate on Fraternities, although each chapter was subject to the policies of its national organization. However, despite these restrictions, many Greeks attended the debate, with some going so far as to wear letters declaring their affiliation with a particular chapter.

Rohn was surprised at the controversy, citing an initial positive response by members of the Greek community to the Debate on Fraternities and the relatively positive reception by students at a similar debate at the University of Chicago. Students outside of Greek Life criticized Greeks for their perceived boycott of the debate while members in F&M’s fraternities and sororities spoke out against restrictions on their participation, such as Noah Siedman ’16 does in this article.

“We wanted to talk about things that people really care about, that people are interested in, that probably are going to get some people riled up—which ended up happening, but to a bigger extent than we’d anticipated,” Rohn said. “The intent was to provide both sides of the issue and start an actual conversation in the public sphere.”

Regardless of the controversy, students indicated generally positive responses to the Debate on Fraternities.

“I thought it was really well done,” said Jason Boyask ’16. “I thought, considering the restrictions on who could participate, they did a really good job ensuring equal representation.”

Emily Feuer ’17 echoed Boyask’s comments, but also included some criticism.

“I think that the Debate on Fraternities was—despite all the rumors and hype leading up to it—a fantastic display of the prowess and mastery that the F&M Debate team has in oratory skills,” she said. “My main problem was the comparison of social fraternities to academic fraternities. The two originated from similar situations: a need for a support network and group of like-minded peers in a strange situation. And while the two have grown apart in similarities over the years, I firmly believe that each has their own merits. I also had a problem with the towing of the lines. There were strict boundaries set before the debate started about which topics could be discussed and which could not.”

Another student satisfied with the outcome of the Debate was Rohn himself.

“On the whole, [response has been] definitely much, much, much better than the reaction that it seemed to be getting before it actually occurred, where people seemed to be thinking it was going to be, ‘45 minutes for the anti-fraternity side! One minute for the pro-fraternity side!’” he said.

A video of the F&M Debate on Fraternities is available here.

Senior Steven Viera is the Senior Editor. His email is sviera@fandm.edu.

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