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Rehabilitating institutions

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Last week, the University of the Philippines(UP) was thrown for a loop when the screenshots of a group chat conversation attributed to members of the Upsilon Sigma Phi, one of the fraternities on campus, were leaked on social media. It is worth stating at the outset that the veracity of that allegedly leaked conversation has been questioned, but the incident is so serious that I consider it important to discuss whatever the eventual findings of the various investigations that have been launched.

“I think this is too extreme a response, especially in view of values such as academic freedom and freedom of association.

The outrage generated by that leaked conversation was immediate, widespread and fiery.

The posts in the group chat included threats and demeaning remarks against women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, lumad and even a member of the UP Fighting Maroons men’s basketball team (who, incidentally, scored a critical goal in last Saturday’s victory against Adamson University). And in one fell swoop, the racism, classism, sexism, misogyny of a group of boys – boys, not men – was exposed to the UP community and to the world. The homophobic slurs, in particular, prompted numerous sarcastic posts on social media: if indeed Upsilon members were behind the posts, it is the very height of hypocrisy and internalized homophobia, considering that several resident members and prominent alumni of Upsilon are out and proud.

The leaks, dubbed #LonsiLeaks, came on the heels of a violent incident between Upsilon and another UP Law-based fraternity, the Alpha Phi Beta, which was caught on CCTV. This incident, along with an alleged car chase on campus involving guns and the same two fraternities, has led the UP community to condemn the rising incidences of fraternity-related violence (FRV) on campus.

The fallout of the leaked Upsilon group chat and the scuffle and/or car chase was swift. It led to the resignation of the UP Diliman University Student Council (USC) chairperson, a former member of Upsilon, as well as a USC councilor, a member of Alpha Phi Beta.

This type of hyper-aggressive behavior from fraternities is to be expected from any organization that needs or requires violence to prove the loyalty of its members. There are numerous incidents in the past that I do not have the time to discuss here, but in the many years that incidents like the foregoing occurred, I have had the opportunity to contemplate the cause of this kind of behavior. I would posit that it begins with the violence and aggression embedded in fraternity culture, which recruits are exposed to from the moment they seek to join it. The recent decorum of the resident members of some of UP’s fraternities underscores the fact that it is never a good idea to include hazing or any other type of violence in initiating a hopeful member into any organization. Violence breeds violence and aggression, and a culture of toxic masculinity that leaves little room for empathy. This was foremost in my mind in 2017, when I filed House Bill 6440, amending the Anti-Hazing Law of 1995, following the death of University of Santo Tomas law student Horacio Castillo III during a fraternity initiation rite.

“The spotlight is now on the fraternities and not just in UP.

UP, in its tradition of academic freedom, has allowed the existence of fraternities on its campuses for over a century now. Upsilon is UP’s – and the country’s – oldest Greek letter fraternity. With the rising incidences of FRV and the appalling mindset apparently being cultivated among fraternity residents, this freedom, however, now appears to be too generous. There are now calls to abolish the fraternity system in UP. I must admit that I used to believe that fraternities and sororities needed to be banned wholesale, as such organizations operate under conditions of secrecy anyway and are hard to monitor, but upon contemplation, I think this is too extreme a response, especially in view of values such as academic freedom and freedom of association.

What should be done is to overhaul the fraternity system, not abolish it. Again, let us start with the recruitment process: there should absolutely be no trace of violence involved in recruiting and initiating new members. Again, all this misplaced hyper-masculine aggression is planted when new recruits are hazed, when they are taught that to be part of this esteemed organization involves receiving and inflicting pain. When they make it through the harrowing process of initiation, it makes them feel entitled to do what they will – or, to quote some of the memorable parts of the alleged leaks, to “go wherever we want including the insides of women and such” because “we’re above everyone.” Fraternities may deny that their recruitment process includes hazing, but who are they kidding? I hope that the strengthened Anti-Hazing Law will be a strong enough deterrent. Beyond the law, I hope that all institutions – academic and otherwise – who have been affected by the recent incidents will take these incidents as a clarion call for reform.

Having said this, I do also need to state that in my 15 years of teaching in the UP College of Law, I have had numerous students who were members of fraternities and sororities.

And I am proud to say that not one of them – to my knowledge, at least – was ever involved in any violent incident. Some of my most respected colleagues and friends are fraternity- or sorority-affiliated and I know that they are as impacted as I am by what has been going on.

I also have complete faith that the UP administration will deal with this issue decisively and in the appropriate manner. I have no doubt that the current UP leadership has the welfare of the entire community in mind. True to the university’s tradition of honor and excellence, we expect nothing less from them.

The one good thing that has come out with all these fraternity-related “scandals” is that the spotlight is now on the fraternities and not just in UP. I pray that the members and the alumni will work together to meaningfully rehabilitate their respective organizations.

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