What do young adults need to be happy? A recent article about the elimination of Stanford University’s fraternity houses and other “themed” residences got me thinking about this question.

In a piece called “Stanford’s War on Social Life” published in Palladium magazine, Ginevra Davis reports on how once — not so long ago — this highly regarded West Coast institution used to be fun. She tells the story of elaborate pranks pulled by Stanford students — who were smart but definitely not dull — including the creation of an island in the middle of a human-made lake on campus. Today, she writes, students seem “aimless and lonely” in a new social order that she says “offers a peek into the bureaucrat’s vision for America.” 

“It is a world without risk, genuine difference, or the kind of group connection that makes teenage boys want to rent bulldozers and build islands. It is a world largely without unencumbered joy; without the kind of cultural specificity that makes college, or the rest of life, particularly interesting.”

While a number of colleges — to include Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Colby College in Maine — have ended Greek life altogether, it’s been a slow process in most places.

The campaign to eliminate fraternities at Stanford has been, Davis argues, much more successful than at other schools because the administration has shut them down one by one rather than issuing a blanket policy. And with good reason. In recent years fraternities have been the sites of things much worse than teenage hijinks. As Caitlin Flanagan documented in her cover story in The Atlantic a few years ago, the level of alcohol consumption, combined with the unique power of these institutions, has meant innumerable injuries, assaults and deaths — all with little accountability.

But there is no doubt that these groups fill a need. And it’s a need that has been growing, perhaps even more in recent years.

A long time ago, college students had a clear purpose. Schools were almost entirely religious and students were supposed to become religious leaders, or at least enter a profession with greater knowledge of their faith. Over time, as schools grew disconnected from their sponsoring churches and more research universities and secular schools sprang up, students were supposed to understand the latest scientific discoveries and bring progress to humankind. Not every student would do this, obviously, but the purpose of the education was not in doubt. 

Now it seems that there is an inverse correlation between the amount of time schools spend developing mission statements and the actual understanding students have of the purpose of their education. As the offerings of college have grown to the most obscure (and silly) of topics and higher education is now marketed as the best plan for everyone, many students start to wonder what exactly they are supposed to be doing. If higher education is merely for career training, then schools should make that clear. Students can find an apartment near a particular school and attend classes. But they shouldn’t expect a university to do anything to develop their character or identity or provide any kind of community for them.

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It was once possible to avoid total aimlessness on campus with extracurricular activities. The camaraderie of sports teams has always been one option. Single-sex education also created an atmosphere where students were more likely to have a certain kind of bond. But that too has all but disappeared from the landscape of higher education.

What is left? Students who enjoy debating or hiking or trivia contests can always find a way to enjoy their hobbies together but these sorts of activities are unlikely to give students the kind of structure or sense of mission that the religious framework once did. Fraternities are not the ideal replacement for any of this, but you can see how much students need this sense of belonging, especially after all the isolation they experienced during the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

I saw this play out with a friend’s son, who was enrolled at a university that was doing remote learning after December break last year. He went back to campus anyway because the fraternity rush was taking place in person even when classes were not. 

Colleges have tried to socially engineer the sense of belonging that these other social, religious and academic missions once created. As Davis writes, Stanford introduced a new housing system, “designed to promote ‘fairness’ and ‘community’ on campus. Under the system, new freshmen would be assigned to one of eight artificially-created housing groups called ‘neighborhoods,’ each containing a representative sample of campus housing. To avoid the potential controversy of actually naming them, the administration punted the decision and called the neighborhoods S, T, A, N, F, O, R and D.”

This sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, not a recipe for helping actual human beings feel welcome or part of something larger than themselves.

Davis notes that 71% of college students nationwide say they are “very sad” and she wonders if the sad students are simply lonely.

“Our former fraternity houses have been filled with offices to help us feel better, and we are sadder and sicker than any generation before. If you are sad, Stanford has an office building with a number you can call and a series of “community conversations” about neurodiversity. But what if you are just unhappy spending your days alone, in your lettered house and numbered room?

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What if?

She doesn’t have an answer, or maybe just doesn’t want to go there.

As for that island that Stanford fraternity members built back in 1993, it’s barely visible these days. First, students were banished from it because of an endangered salamander, and eventually the university let it go dry. No man is an island, but sometimes a man needs one.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.

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