Well, well. Earlier this week, the State Senate passed a tax bill including a provision that would impose property taxes on fraternity and sorority houses. The action has sparked a tizzy in Greek circles: We can’t afford it! We’ll have to close our houses! A couple dozen frat boys and sorority sisters descended on a House committee meeting to try to kill the provision.
And, given the predilection of Our Glorious Leaders to run away screaming from any sudden outbreak of controversy, I fully expect that the Greeks will win this one.
My first question upon reading the story was: Wait, so frat houses are tax-free? We’re all helping to subsidize the Greek system?
Yep, we sure are. But as part of a wide-ranging review of tax exemptions, the Senate decided to pull the Greek giveaway. Senate Finance Committee Chair Tim Ashe says it’s a matter of fairness: non-Greek students have to cover the cost of property taxes, and his committee couldn’t come up with a reason to give preference to the Greeks.
But wait, say the brothers and sisters. We are nonprofit organizations that conduct charitable activities and perform thousands of hours of volunteer work every year. We deserve a tax break.
Snort. Yeah, it’s true that the Greeks do some good things. But according to the student life office at UVM, fraternity and sorority members will raise $140,000 for charitable causes this year. That includes the nine with actual houses, plus five others without. And according to Ashe, the estimated annual tax on those nine houses would be about $160,000. Hmm: investing $160,000 to get roughly $90,000 in support for charities? Sounds like a bad deal to me.
And that’s leaving out the other side of the Greek balance sheet: its long and unstoried history of hazing, substance abuse, and sexual assault. Let’s look at the record:
Earlier this year, UVM fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi received a five-year suspension over failure to abide by an interim suspension over alleged alcohol and hazing violations last fall. Frat brothers also “refused to cooperate with the police investigation.”
In 2011, UVM frat Sigma Phi Epsilon was first suspended and later shut down over a survey that
included the question “If [you] could rape someone, who would it be?”
Also that year, four officers of Phi Gamma Delta were fined for violating the state’s anti-hazing law.
Now let’s turn our attention to the Rogues’ Gallery that is the Dartmouth Greek system.
In 2013, Dartmouth suspended Beta Alpha Omega for hazing violations and providing alcohol to underage students.
Also that year, Dartmouth suspended Theta Delta Chi for five violations including alcohol abuse. TDC had been suspended in 2012 for similar violations, and in 2005 for a hazing incident involving a members of a campus sorority.
2013 also saw the infamous “Bloods and Crips Party” thrown by two Greek houses, in which members — predominantly from the cloisters of white privilege — dressed up as inner-city gang members. Hilarious, right?
The year before, an ex-Dartmouth frat brother named Andrew Lohse blew the whistle on hazing rituals that included making pledges “swim through a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beer poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks… among other abuses,” and described a culture of “pervasive hazing, substance abuse and sexual assault.”
After Lohse went public, a former Dartmouth sorority sister wrote an account of her hazing: a night of extreme alcohol consumption that ended with her in the Intensive Care Unit with a blood alcohol level of .399, a nearly fatal dose.
And in case the Greeks among us would shrug off these incidents as aberrations, I direct your attention to Bloomberg News’ devastating series on fraternity abuses including the deaths of more than 60 people since 2005 in incidents linked to fraternities, plus an “epidemic” of injuries, hazings, assaults, sex crimes, and substance abuse that seems to reveal a deeply dysfunctional culture in the entire system.
In light of all this, the question about the Senate-passed bill is not “Why should we force these groups to pay property taxes?” Rather, it is “Why should we subsidize their existence?”
But leading House liberals are already sounding the retreat. The Freeploid quotes the usually reliable Rep. Kesha Ram as urging “a step back” from what she says is the “targeting” of the nine Greek houses. Which ignores Tim Ashe’s sound reasoning. But then, Ram’s district includes many of those houses, so her political antennae are twitching.
There’s also Janet Ancel, chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee; she doesn’t want to consider the idea on its merits, but rather “whether we are completely out of the mainstream.” In other words, what do other states do?
That’s my idea of leadership.