College Judicial Consultants

Information on college, conduct, Greek life, advocacy, and fairness-published every Tuesday and Friday morning.

Fraternities, Sororities and the cultures that hate them.

(Before I begin this blog I should, in the interest of full disclosure, tell you that I was in a fraternity that was kicked off campus by our national in 1990 when I was a Delt at Tulane. (blurb in Spin from 1991 is here)  We were donkeys, we hazed, and I was a freshman.)

I’ve worked with fraternities and sororities since I went into student life 10 years ago.  Whether I was helping them with events or creating and supporting a judicial system, I have always been pro-Greek.  This meant not only doing what I could to help them thrive, but also pointing out the disparate ways Universities treat Greeks and non-Greeks.  At MIT it meant shining a bright light on the fact that what was unaddressed in the residence halls was enough to create a disciplinary response against a fraternity.  To be fair, part of the reason for that disparity was that the Greeks had their own discipline systems whereas there was not anything in place to address misconduct by a “group” of students without any formal affiliation.  But mostly, it had to do with the fact that Greeks are, and are on all campuses, easy targets.

While only 10% of college students are in a fraternity or sorority, almost every college student has an impression of Greek life and that impression usually has nothing to do with personal experience, but rather come from pop culture and the media.  Fraternities are seen as elitist groups of men who objectify and rape women while doing keg stands next to a beer pong table.  Sororities are filled with beautiful women who like nothing better than engendering eating disorders while being as vapid as possible.  Put them together and you have bullying and homophobic sociopaths who come from money and hate everything that isn’t part of their world. They haze, they drink, they are elitist, they commit all campus sexual assaults, and they cover it all up while drinking out of a 3-story beer bong.

This hyperbolized depiction Greek life seems pretty harmless.  Who cares if people not in a fraternity or sorority (or in college for that matter) think Greeks are jerks?  I know I wouldn’t have noticed a 33 year old giving me the fish eye for wearing my DTD sweatshirt or some rush T-shirt. In fact, there was something kind of cool about being in a “group” like I was with the “jealous GDIs relegated to eating cheese fries in the Rathskeller” while we had Widespread Panic play our rush party. Developmentally, this “us and them” mentality is completely appropriate when you’re 18-22.  So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the negative impression of Greek life continues with people who eventually go into student affairs and/or become faculty.  If you weren’t Greek, if you didn’t associate with many Greeks, and if you never had a reason to challenge your perceptions, then when you see someone wearing letters you make assumptions that do, in fact, separate them from other students and not in a good way.  You assume you know who they are, and no matter how often they do not validate those assumptions, as soon as they do, you’re convinced you were always right.  (For fun, point out a student that someone anti-Greek likes who is in a fraternity or sorority and see how often they are classified as “not being like the rest.”)  So when a member of a fraternity comes into class hung over, a woman in a sorority gets caught for plagiarism, or Greek issues make national news, that person feels comfortable with their prejudices.  And, over the course of any given year, some fraternity or some sorority somewhere is going to validate that prejudice.

So let me tell you from firsthand experience how that prejudice plays itself out when administration gets together to talk about student issues.  Say a student is transported from a residence hall for alcohol poisoning. The first question asked is “where was she drinking?”  If that answer is “in the dorm” nobody says “there must be irresponsible drinking and faulty management in the dorm.”  If, however, the answer is “at a fraternity house” that group is automatically reckless and has a problem.  If there’s a fight on campus, people ask “what were they fighting about?”  If there’s a fight in a fraternity house, people as “was there a party?”  and “were they drinking?”  If a student is drinking underage in the residence hall that student may have to go to a low level hearing and/or go through some substance education program. Nobody looks into where they got the alcohol, who else was with them, whether there was a party, if that party was within the rules, etc.  If there’s someone found drunk in a residence hall and they went to a fraternity party then the assumption is that they got drunk at that party.  There is little to no investigation into whether they pre-gamed, if they were doing drugs or on medication that resulted in their condition, or any other mitigating factors.  Instead there is an investigation into what the fraternity may have done or not done that allowed someone to become drunk. In other words, when a drug or alcohol issue can be connected to a fraternity, that fraternity is presumed to have at least contributed to that issue, if not directly created it.  Once a Greek organization is involved, there is something to blame for a problem because it is a lot easier than examining institutional issues that may be equally (and likely more) responsible.

I know this is going to sound conspiratorial, but as someone once said “just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t chasing you.”  I believe a major reason people go after fraternities, in addition to the prejudice discussed above, is because it’s easy.  Most schools have staff in the residence halls who are responsible for creating a safe and healthy environment, promoting learning and development, and upholding community standards.  That usually means student RA staff, a hall director, an area coordinator, an assistant director who oversees the hall directors, and/or a director who oversees the whole thing.  If there’s a problem in the hall there is a disincentive to asking harder questions about the community because a failure within that community means that all the people involved have failed.  However, Greeks are often autonomous and without live-in support so if there’s a problem, it stops with that organization.  Plus, if things get really messy a school can tag in the national headquarters who can come and make the hard decisions.  This keeps their hands clean and keeps them out of the student paper while subjecting the organization to discipline without any of that pesky due process they are entitled to on campus.

Greeks are visable.  They wear letters that identify them, they hang out with each other, they may have their own house that separates them from other students, and they have their own governing bodies.   There are a lot of things that separate them from other students and people like focusing on those things.  What people tend to forget is that there is a lot more that connects them to other student because they are not just Greek.  They are engineering majors, athletes, theater majors, active in SGA, and every other thing that non-Greeks are.  A group of 8 friends live together in a residence hall and nobody looks twice.  A group of 8 fraternity men get an apartment together and it’s an “off campus fraternity house.”  20 friends go to a bar after midterms and they’re decompressing.  20 members of a fraternity go to a bar and it’s a “Greek function.”

In other words, a school has every reason to funnel problems towards the Greek community and away from those “entities” they control.  Plus, if you want to catch a fraternity violating alcohol policy or doing things that are technically “hazing” then you probably can.  I’m sure most organizations have at least a few members that violate policies on a regular basis, with some having more than others.  That being said, get me a group of 100 students chosen at random and see how much better they are.  I’ll guarantee they would have as many violations as any Greek organization.

Fraternities and sororities are handicapped because the policies they violate are poorly defined and/or commonplace across a college campus, whether or not the people doing them are Greek or not.  Nobody will support hazing when that hazing if forced consumption of alcohol, physical violence, or sexual degradation.  But what if it requiring someone to wear a pin or some other uniform that identifies them as a pledge?  What if it’s late night meetings or early clean up of a fraternity house? Is the stress that causes and the mental toll different than paper deadlines, midterms, or two-a-day practices?  Is the pledge pin different than forcing athletes to dress up the day of a game?  Is it different than requiring “business casual” at a student employment job?  Is a party at a fraternity house different than a dorm party?  If so, how?  Underage drinking, casual drug use, and even sexual assault happen across a college campus.  It doesn’t matter if students are Greek, athletes, or LARPers.  No matter what group you look at, you will find things you could go after but most groups aren’t looked at too closely.  People go after Greeks because they can, because almost nobody fights on their behalf once a problem is found, and because most of them have internal systems in place to address misconduct.  If most people are anti-Greek, then even when a system is controlled by Greeks, it can be used unfairly and against them.

That’s where we come in.  We cannot change the culture that singles out fraternities and sororities.  We cannot stop schools from going after low hanging fruit.  What we can do is help a fraternity or sorority navigate their campus judicial systems, negotiate with their national organizations, and help the alumni figure out the best way to help and how they should approach the administration.  Even with our help the system may still be unfair, but we can make sure a particular case isn’t. We have experts and leaders in greek affairs and people who know not only Greek and other organizational discipline systems, but also the institutional culture that takes advantage of them.  Contact us to see what we can do for you.

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16 thoughts on “Fraternities, Sororities and the cultures that hate them.

  1. Interesting read. I would just add that, in joining a fraternity or sorority you are accepting that you are accountable for the actions of that chapter/organization and that I am willing to bet at some point you made an oath to hold yourself to a higher standard by agreeing with the values of the organization. Any movement away from that could be viewed as an opportunity to be attacked.

    -A Teke

    • Thanks for the note. I agree for the most part. I am not saying that people who are being idiots and endangering lives don’t deserve to be sanctioned. I believe, however, that admins/police/etc. look at Greeks a lot harder than that do non-Greeks. As I said, it’s not “unfair” when people get caught, but I think it’s unfair that same attention isn’t given to non-Greeks. I think it’s a red herring and that there are some serious issues that get swept under the rug on campus when admins focus so disproportionately on Greeks.

      That being said, you do point out a very valid truth and that is that it is fair to expect more of a Greek organization because fraternity men and sorority women do, in theory, commit to more lofty values.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Interesting read – and I agree we have an obligation as student advocates to extend that advocacy to Fraternity/sorority members – help them navigate the planning of events, advise on sound chapter operation strategies, and when necessary help them navigate the conduct process. I also think being an advocate requires us to acknowledge that our collective “Greek” reputation has in part been earned and that we are one of the highest risk populations on a campus.
    Fraternity and sorority members as well as leaders drink at higher-risk rates, haze at higher levels, engage in sexual violence at higher levels than most of the non-FS students on campuses. Solid researchers (not just haters) have studied this and the results are clear. –
    So as part of our advocacy we need to own this and work to mitigate the risk of being in a chapter. We cannot afford to say we are not as bad as X or X is just as bad and consider that a standard of excellence. AND we need to acknowledge, support and promote the good things our fraternity/sorority members, leaders, chapters, communities bring to higher education. – thanks for the challenge to think

    • Hi Kim–

      I agree that there are definite problems in the Greek community, but I believe that the higher rates are sort of like crime stats in the inner city. Sure, the numbers are higher, but how much of that is because of the greater scrutiny. Regardless, my point isn’t that Greeks should be excused from accountability, but that without equal accountability for non-Greeks there is an inherent unfairness in that accountability. In my opinion unfairness is created when a policy is inconsistent or enforced inconsistently, and I think the later applies here.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. rashmi on said:

    Hey Dave! So you and I have had conversations about this but I feel like it’s worth adding to your discussion here as well. I agree completely with Kim about solid “non-hater” research pointing to disproportionate problems in the Greek community. I also would add that most of the larger studies but from which those numbers were drawn are incredibly large pools of students of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, and regional backgrounds: they are sound research. In every study with a large sample (to avoid the “inner city” issue of which you speak), Greeks are overrepresented as both victims and perpetrators of problematic behaviors such as high-risk alcohol use, drug use, violence and hazing, and acceptance of misogynistic beliefs, such as rape myths and homophobia.

    In addition, though Greek organizations are not derived from the individual institutions from which they arise, they require a huge amount of university/college resources to manage. These “national” organizations usually require at least one full-time university-funded administrator (at MIT, there are FOUR), data infrastructure to allow students to connect to school networks, and countless other concessions (use of campus fields/buildings for rush/Greek Week, special dinners/meetings for Greek alumni, etc). And as Pat pointed out, these students “commit” to higher ideals when they join to foster themselves as leaders and scholars who are committed to service.

    All of this resource ($$) allocation would be fine if these organizations were consistently as stand-up as they loudly claim to be. This tension between the resources thrown at Greek organizations by a university (who are no different than a local Girl Scout troop’s affiliation with an elementary school) and the number of truly detrimental problems caused by these groups that causes the increased scrutiny. I completely agree that all students should be held equally accountable to school policies but your belief that increasing scrutiny on other campus environments such as dormitories will highlight copious problems elsewhere is naive. Research shows again and again that unaffiliated students have fewer problems with alcohol and drug use, violence and hazing than affiliated students. Furthermore, unaffiliated students did not choose to commit themselves to lofty ideals and a separate system of governance (like an IFC) which frankly, opens up Greek students to the “unfair” scrutiny you’re criticizing.

    In short: if Greek organizations are always claiming to be about scholarship, leadership, service, etc and there are consistent problems with boozing, drug use, and violence, why wouldn’t a university take a closer look? No other group on campus claims the same ideals, do they?

    • Hi Rashmi. Thanks for reading. As always, your insight and opinion is welcomed! (For those of you who don’t know her, Rashmi is one of the good ones and an expert in AOD and violence issues.)

      Assuming for a second that Greeks are indeed a greater problem than non-Greeks in all aspects (e.g. AOD issues, sexual assault and IPV, etc.) that still doesn’t change my main point. I still believe that one of the reasons why the disciplinary cases against Greeks are inherently unfair is because the administration in most universities is much more willing to go after Greeks than non-Greeks for the same behavior. I don’t know if equal scrutiny would result in equal accountability, but that almost doesn’t matter. I believe that not holding groups of students accountable for behavior who which you hold another group is an unfair system. “They asked for it” doesn’t really change that to me. While I will defer to you on the research behind the behaviors, I do take issue with several of the point you raise:

      1. I do not believe that the resources used to support Greek life is anywhere near that used to support non-Greeks. I am too lazy to look up resource expenditures, but I will guarantee that, even assuming a 4 person Greek life office, if you broke down the per-student administrative expenditures for Greeks it would pale in comparison to that of non-Greeks who have have RAs, Hall Directors, Area Coordinators, numerous people as assistant and associate directors, and a Director who oversees the whole thing. Compare that to most schools with Greek life who usually have a couple of professional staff that usually stop around the assistant director level so that if any serious advocacy needs to happen they are handcuffed. (Try counting the number of people above the Director level who work directly with Greeks as opposed to those who work with student activities or housing.) The other things you mention (use of campus buildings, etc.) are never more than are offered other student organizations, and those other organizations will almost always represent a much smaller percentage of the student population. That isn’t even taking into account the fact that the bed space in fraternities and sororities are counted on by the housing operations folks (who proudly include them in the percentage of students “on campus”), the presence of the Greek communities are used in promotional materials to draw in perspective students, and the good folks over in development rely on the donations of Greek alumni as a disproportionately large part of their success. I also think it’s not the strongest argument to say that the money spent hiring 1-5 administrators who will never crack $100K (and in most cases not $50K) is the difference between funding academic departments fully and not. (I think that argument might be stronger looking at Student Life as a whole, but I like Student Life so I’m not gonna.)

      2. I have never claimed that Greeks do not deserve to be held accountable, and if I didn’t make that clear I apologize. I do, however, think that there are indeed “copious” problems in the dorms which remain unaddressed and that many of them are similar to that of Greeks (e.g. tolerance of bad behavior by a minority, covering up known violations of policy, lack of bystander behavior, perpetuation of rape myths, etc.) I don’t think that there would be a 1:1 ratio, but I think it would rise to the level of “copious.” I admit that each individual fraternity and/or sorority will be more homogeneous than any given residence hall floor, but there is also a lot of good that comes from that self-selection.

      3. There is some merit to the “they signed up for it” argument, but the “lofty ideas” they sign up for look a lot like the values espoused by athletes, ROTC, many student organizations, and the students as a whole. I don’t believe that non-Greeks would agree that they do not openly value leadership, scholarship and service. Even if the average student doesn’t think along those lines most schools have a code of conduct and/or an honor code that expressly tells them that they do in fact value and stand for those things simply by being part of the school. That being said, a closer look would be fine, but the gap is too huge, in my opinion.

      I may have not been clear since you, Kim and Pat all got the same impression, but I think accountability for Greeks is fine. I think they should be held accountable when there is any behavior that is against policy, especially when it is hazing and other foreseeably dangerous behavior. However, I think to hold Greeks accountable for things that a school actively or passively allows to happen elsewhere is, in fact, unfair.

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  10. Samuel Cooper on said:

    I speak from person experience at the University of Nevada. Fraternities only let in woman to there parties, even if you know a bro. After all, they wouldn’t want competition over their sexual stock. I have had a friend who came back from a frat party not feeling well, so when I took her to the hospital the doctors said she had been drugged. Did the frat boys help get her to the hospital? no. Did they show any responsibilities? no. So from personal experience, frat boys live up to every stereotype I have ever seen.

    • Hi Samuel–

      Thank you for responding. Your story is terrible, but the logic doesn’t work. I hope the fraternity here got in serious trouble, but the truth remains that *most* fraternities don’t do things like this and that if you go to 1000 parties as a woman you are almost never going to have anything this horrible happen. Having done a lot of sexual assault work on multiple campuses, predatory assholes are not the exclusive property of fraternities.

      As to the exclusivity thing, I hear you. It is true that most fraternities will not let in most guys, but will let in most girls. There are a bunch of potential reasons for this. The first is what you say–less guys + more girls = a perceived likelihood that you’ll meet someone you’re interested in that’s interested in you. The second is that most fraternities are required to maintain a guest list and only admit people on that list. I know they sometimes let in women who are not on the list, but that’s their prerogative. If they wanted to be smart (in terms of risk management) they wouldn’t let in ANYONE not on the list. Third, its their party and they can let in anyone they want and exclude anyone they want. People act like this is elitist when a fraternity does it, but we do it all the time in non-fraternity life. When my friends and I had a party in law school I wasn’t going to let in some dude just because he said he knew someone who went to law school. I’m willing to bet that you’d do the same if you had a party in your house/apartment.

      Being in a fraternity doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily more “exclusive” than other groups of people, but when someone’s looking for exclusivity fraternities can make it easy to find.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  11. Nice attempt, but this is the type of mentality people hate about “Greek life”. Let me shunt everything that’s wrong with what I agree with and replace it with hypotheticals. “Get me 100 students” is abousolutly no way to write an article unless you actually do it. Right now you’re just making assumptions about everyone else, precisely what everybody hates about you. Actually conduct a FAIR experiment and come back with data before acting like you know what you’re talking about.

    • I let this go too long, but that’s what people hate about Greek life? They disagree with the approach to arguing that they make? I’m not working on my master’s thesis in College Student Personnel. I’m saying that shining a light so bright on fraternities and sororities increases the shadows elsewhere. If you thought “get me 100 students” was setting up a statement of fact and not implying an anecdotal counterpoint I apologize.

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