I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia 50 years ago on May 22, 1967, the day I turned 22 years old. I returned with my wife to Philadelphia for my reunion this past May. Wow, 50 years gone. At an earlier time in my life, my mother used to say: “The passage of time.” Too well do I now know what she meant.
My first year at Penn was perhaps the most unique of all insofar as I met classmates from all over the country and beyond. This was the year before any of us were divided by the social forces called fraternities and sororities. My older brother who had graduated Penn in 1963 wanted to join a fraternity but had been “black balled,” a term used to describe those who were not accepted to the fraternity they wished to join. I remembered how hurt he had been by not being accepted. Although I was asked to go to a number of pledge parties to see if I was an appropriate fit with whichever fraternity had invited me, I clearly remember not having any desire to join or pledge a fraternity. I managed to meet some friends, who like me, never felt the need to become a member of a fraternity. In those days, we were called “Independents” and, I prided myself in claiming that status. Consequently, after my freshman year, I was never going to be in contact with the same breadth of classmates I had met that first year at Penn.
In my sophomore year at Penn, I do remember missing the unique camaraderie of classmates of all different types. The sorority–fraternity system is a way of segregating all of these types out: Thus, if you wanted to join a fraternity you had to be male to start, then you were classified or divided by your religion, and finally, you were classified or divided by how “cool” or how bright you were. Being Jewish, I was most familiar with the type of personalities Jewish fraternities were seeking.
The coolest and most prestigious Jews would pledge Sigma Alpha Mu (SAMI), the less prestigious but perhaps wilder Jewish guys would pledge ZBT or Pi Lambda Phi. The brainy but less cool types would pledge Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and the brilliant nerds would pledge Theta Rho. I’m quite sure these distinctions existed in non-Jewish fraternities and in sororities for women. The fraternity-sorority phenomenon effectively segregated students by their own choosing.
Jonathan Haidt, in his article in the Atlantic: The Coddling of the American Mind, points out a recent disturbing trend on college campuses. A first sign of this change actually occurred at the University of Pennsylvania when an Israeli born student could not study because of the noise that was coming from a black sorority group outside of his dorm room window. He yelled at them: “Shut up, you water buffalo.” This was taken as a racial insult, and a complaint was sent to the dean against this student on the basis of the sorority members’ rights being violated. Later, the student was exonerated through a long and arduous process, and subsequently, he filed a lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania.
According to Haidt, the above incident marked the onset of a new way in how students communicated their feelings and beliefs. Moreover, the Department of Justice and Education in 2013 expanded the definition of “sexual harassment to include verbal content that is simply unwelcome.” In following suit, what is known as “safe spaces” on campuses became prevalent and was extended to the classroom where both professors and students had to be extremely careful in not verbally offending other students. Rather, than teaching students to be more accepting and understanding of other people’s views, Universities are currently reinforcing their desire to avoid areas of disagreement in which they might feel uncomfortable.
To conclude, the University in protecting students from other student’s beliefs that they may find distasteful, is, in fact, creating a greater distance among those same students. When the University turns down a renowned speaker such as Condoleezza Rice because their students may be offended by her political views, these same students are gaining power by playing victim. Whereas fraternities and sororities created segregated living spaces for students, the University, by creating “safe spaces” for students, is segregating students on the basis of their belief systems. College marks a time period when our youth of today, and leaders of tomorrow, are most open to exploring new ideas and attitudes. A University that puts a damper on free speech among its students is closing off students to this very important growth period in their lives.