"It's a curious business model," said Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Fla., who specializes in higher-education law. "You're establishing a national brand and franchising. And then when your core customers are in a pinch, you're turning away."
James Ewbank, a lawyer who has represented at least 10 national fraternities, urged them at a conference last summer to deflect blame when they are sued by bringing cases against chapter members and colleges.
"Share the fun," he said, according to an outline of his remarks posted online by the Fraternity Executives Association.
The comment was hyperbole, Ewbank said in an interview.
While Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., have begun cracking down on local chapters, many schools have found it futile to prod national fraternities to take control, said Brett Sokolow, who has advised Lambda and other fraternities on risk management.
"Colleges have been trying to get a handle on these issues for a long time, and they haven't seen nationals step up so they figure why should it change now," Sokolow said.
The national fraternities' success in avoiding liability reinforces their "intransigence," he said. "They want to wash their hands of the problem and say it's their brothers' fault, it's their chapters' fault. These are million-dollar organizations that sponsor activities that are harmful."
There are at least 75 national fraternities with branches on college campuses across the United States Some have fewer than 10 chapters while others have more than 200. Membership is almost all male. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all belonged to fraternities.
Membership in national fraternities increased to 327,260 in 2011 from 253,148 in 2005, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a trade group. Revenue from dues and other sources for national fraternities and their related charitable groups rose to at least $170 million in 2010 from about $150 million in 2005, Internal Revenue Service filings show. Local chapters earned many tens of millions more. Fraternities own and operate more than $3 billion in real estate, according to the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, a lobbying group.