Hundreds of gleeful Penn students have just crossed the finish line of fraternity pledging amid a nationwide movement to abolish the institution for its history of violence and discrimination. As both a harsh critic of fraternities and a proud alumni advisor to one, I empathize with both sides of the debate and wonder about a middle path forward. To get there, I encourage us to zoom out and connect the dots between the learned behaviors in contemporary “bro culture” and the shortcomings of our business leaders and politicians. Through understanding this connection and inquiring about the types of leaders we need to effectively meet the complexities of our time, my hope is we may identify fresh and compelling ways to transform the ailing fraternity institution.
"Bro culture" has earned many definitions, generally referring to the dynamics and impacts of immature men getting together, from the chapter house to the board room. Like many men in America, I performed the identity of the archetypal bro for much of my young adult life — obsessed with winning at sports and video games, then girls and social life. On one hand I was a nice Jewish boy with an adventurous spirit. On the other, I was reckless and narcissistic with nothing and nobody to hold me accountable. I let loose in college as a 2012 Wharton graduate, in ways that felt totally normal at the time — though in hindsight looked more like alcoholism, inflicting harm on myself and others, and denying responsibility for my choices.
The "bro culture" lifestyle and identity worked alright for me, until a growing sense of emptiness and burnout in professional life prompted a hard look in the mirror to question who I was and what I actually wanted in life. These big questions helped peel back layers of masks that I had been wearing, but it took years of therapy to reckon with my collegiate past and get curious about how I became who I did. In the process, I uncovered a gnarly network of root causes, and frightening connections to the existential challenges of our era.
There’s the subtle influence of childhood, ancestral, and collective trauma on the Western male psyche. There are the tragic ways that bro culture celebrates addiction to drugs, alcohol, pornography, and work. It renders men tough enough to brute force their way into a bastion of achievement culture like Penn, yet too numb to feel the immense pain of the world just blocks away. And there are few to no elders or role models around to guide young men in a good way. With atrophied capacities to slow down, listen, see, and feel the impact we may be causing in the web of life, us bros learn to ignore or at best subordinate the needs of others.
But bro culture doesn’t disappear at graduation. This cold and desensitized orientation toward life crystallizes on campus and follows rising leaders into positions of power at unprecedented speed and scope, where it’s expressed in the deeply flawed systems that are driving civilization toward self-termination. We are at the mercy of a disassociated, hyperindividualistic, growth-at-all-costs worldview that cannot effectively respond to the meta-crisis (the multiple interconnected global crises) because it is simply not response-able. It is heart-less.
This is not all men, however, and men are not solely to blame. Though when 93% of global Fortune 500 CEO’s are men and 88% of these men belonged to a fraternity (as did 76% of all congressmen and senators), it’s worth asking: What would the world look like if other types of people were granted power? What if men were socialized in a different way? What does a good man look like today? As a point of contrast to who we grant power to and how, women of the Haudenosaunee elect their chiefs by screening for theft and abuse, and gauging ability to behave responsibly for the clan for seven generations, rather than one business quarter. Whereas scandal-plagued Facebook was started by domination-obsessed frat boys as a tool to objectify women and violate their privacy.
The pitchforks are coming out for fraternities as the face and fuel of bro culture. But what if there is another way — a middle path that refines and celebrates the necessary and supportive qualities of fraternity life, like camaraderie, rites of passage, and community living, while seriously addressing and adjusting the aspects that have gone astray? What if, instead of only calling them out for the culture they have inherited, we tried welcoming bros home with compassion and forgiveness, and calling them up into a place of greater maturity and service? What if men in the Penn community were given a context to better understand their stake in personal and collective transformation, and creatively brainstorm how they can connect with the best version of themselves? Yes, we must end toxic masculinity on campus, while empowering women’s and multicultural groups. And, we desperately need spaces to develop men who are capable of stewarding and protecting life on Earth.
In systems thinking, the highest leverage place to intervene in a system is culture. What would it look like to shift the mindset and goals of the fraternity system to something more beneficial for all stakeholders? I can see a new version of the fraternity, where rush involves deep conversations about what it means to live a good life, pledging centers on humbling initiatory experience like a vision quest in nature to connect with one’s greater purpose and potential, partying substitutes binge drinking for safer and healthier forms of catharsis and ecstasis, and brotherhood events are designed to foster mental, physical, emotional, and sexual health and wellness. Alumni could sponsor leadership development for cultivating the requisite capacities to navigate a changing world, and group therapy for those wounded by the common thread of pressure of expectation to conform to a narrow life path and identity, blindly pursuing wealth and power to fill unmet needs from an isolated and disenchanted upbringing.
This transformation is already happening. Many of my frattiest teenage role models have gone through their respective transformations: Adrian Grenier of “Entourage” (from playboy to farmer), Tim Ferris of “4-Hour Workweek” (from aggressive productivity guru to psychedelic healthcare patron), Tucker Max of “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” and Neil Strauss of “The Game” (from pick up artists to advocates for healthy relationships). Support for male individuals and groups is increasingly available through organizations like Evryman, The ManKind Project, Sacred Sons and The Mythic Masculine podcast. The University of Michigan is rolling out a program promoting wellness and openness among men. Fraternities at Dartmouth College have wellness chairs.
Frederick Douglass famously said, "It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men." Thousands of our children at Penn are in the process of becoming tomorrow’s leaders. As the party Ivy and home to the top undergraduate business school, Penn has a clear invitation to play a role in changing how we raise those who have an outsize influence on society. Each fraternity has the opportunity to set an example of developing better stewards of a biosphere that is literally in our callous hands. May we all find the strength and courage to take off our masks, look in the mirror, and be the change.
ANDREW MURRAY DUNN is a 2012 Wharton graduate and former fraternity brother, dedicated to helping high achievers live well and find their role in the web of life. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and is interested in your reflections and questions.