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.