This past week, talk at the University of Oklahoma was dominated by the aftermath of the now infamous video of a busload of members of OU’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing a racist chant. As readers of this blog are probably aware, the response to the video was swift and decisive. The video was shot last Saturday and was widely circulated by Sunday. By the end of the weekend, SAE’s national office had disbanded the OU chapter. Only a few hours later OU President David Boren announced that the University was banning SAE from the University. Later in the week, the two students shown leading the chant were expelled from the University.
While the OU community has been admirably united in its condemnation of the racist chant itself, the conversation on and off campus seems slowly to be turning to address the broader issues raised by the incident. And much of the focus has been on the larger problems associated with Greek life. Since the appearance of Caitlan Flanagan’s exposé in the Atlantic one year ago, fraternities have been under increased scrutiny, not only for racism, but also for encouraging rape culture and for frequently putting their own members in physical danger. Though the increased attention is new, the problems are not. To the extent that historians have weighed in on these conversations, they’ve pointed out that these problems have deep historical roots.
But, last year, I encountered a very different invocation of fraternities and their historical problems that, I think, sheds some interesting light on the problems we face today.
Last year, the historian Mark Carnes published Minds on Fire, a book-length argument for Reacting to the Past, the immersive, role-playing historical pedagogy that he created at Barnard College. Carnes argues that one of the virtues of RTTP is that it brings into the classroom the subversive play that has, for centuries, been a key component of student life, often to the consternation of universities and colleges. And in the American context, one of the chief sites of this subversive play have been fraternities, which by the late nineteenth century had largely replaced the debating societies that had played a similar role in student life in earlier decades. Carnes provides several pages of colorful anecdotes about the importance of fraternities to students and the fear and anger they provoked among faculty and administrators. University of Michigan professors in 1849 attacked fraternities for “debauchery, drunkenness, pugilism, and disorder and ravagism” (50). Cornell University President Andrew White later declared that a banned fraternity had become “a wretched, occult, demoralizing power” (51). Try as they might, universities couldn’t eliminate frats or the disruptive student behaviors that they encouraged. Carnes’s point, of course, is not to defend fraternities – then or now – but rather to point out that subversive play is an inevitable, and even important, part of the student experience. And, he later suggests, such play can be harnessed for pedagogical purposes.
Carnes is less interested in fraternities than in the larger phenomenon of subversive play that they instantiate. And he’s certainly not making a case for the particular forms of subversive play represented by fraternities and sororities. But Carnes’s account of fraternities reminds us, I think, of one of the reasons that they are – and have long been – such popular institutions among students.
As we, at the University of Oklahoma and elsewhere, continue to consider ways to reform, or even eliminate, Greek life on our campuses, it will be important to keep Carnes’s argument about subversive play in mind. Defenders of fraternities and sororities tend not to discuss such play, pointing instead to the friendships that these institutions forge and the service or leadership opportunities they provide. Critics are much more likely to draw attention to what Carnes calls subversive play. But, of course, there are more or less healthy forms of subversive play. While we should certainly strive to eliminate those forms that rely on such things as segregation, racism, sexual assault, and deadly hazing, we should also remember that the history of college life suggests that subversive play will almost certainly find an outlet, whether in Greek life or elsewhere. Rather than trying – and failing yet again – to eliminate such subversive play from a reformed version of student life, we should strive instead to find creative ways to rethink it. Channeling subversive play into relatively safer and less discriminatory directions will be one of the major challenges of future efforts to rethink fraternities and sororities.
 A number of civil liberties groups have raised 1st Amendment objections to the expulsions. And there is some indication that the board and alumni of the former OU SAE chapter might sue the University to reinstate the fraternity.
 I was inspired by Carnes’s book to attend a Reacting conference last fall in Eugene, Oregon. I’ll be teaching OU’s first Reacting class in the Honors College next fall.