Does Greek Life Serve a Purpose on Today’s College Campus?
Ask anyone who has been to a college campus that has a fairly active Greek system, and you will hear some very strong opinions about the institutions. From those who think they are the absolutely best thing in the worl to those who think the idea is antiquated and the system needs a major renovation or even a demolition.
There are problematic aspects of Greek culture, to be sure, but is also a feeling of comradery and trust that goes into becoming a member of an organization. For some a fraternity or sorority might mean sister- or brotherhood, family, and fun while to others it is elitist, dangerous, and borders on bullying. Read on to learn about greek life and the arguments for and against it.
Brief History of Greek Life
Secret societies have long been a part of the cultural makeup of the United States. Students at the College of William & Mary in 1776 (does that year ring a bell?) formed a secret society called Phi Beta Kappa. It was the first Greek fraternity and set the precedence for those that followed: Greek letters, a secret ritual, a secret handshake, mottoes, a badge, and a code of ethics for all members. This group put an emphasis on academics and personal behavior, stressing the importance of being a gentleman.
The early 1880s saw a group of fraternities that is now called the Union Tria: Kappa Alpha Society, Sigma Phi, and Delta Phi. More and more fraternities were forming, often forming triads to keep in contact with other systems should problems arise.
In the 1850s the first sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, was founded, though it was not called a sorority at the time. It was during the mid-1800s that people started looking down on secret societies in fear of the unknown.
The National Panhellenic Conference (PANHEL, as it is called at many colleges) was founded in 1902 to unite sororities and in 1909, the National Interfraternity Conference (now the North-American Inferfraternity Council) was established to do the same with fraternities. As African Americans started to enter the college system with greater force and presence, organizations such as Alpha Phi Alpha were formed, as most other Greek organizations instituted racial and religious limitations on their membership until the 1960s. Eventually the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, and the National Multicultural Greek Council would also be formed to govern their respective organizations.
World War I and World War II brought trouble for the Greek system. Most college-aged men went into battle, and fraternities couldn’t keep their charters due to low membership. Many houses were used to hold troops, or were used to hold spillover students after dormitories were taken over. Smaller fraternities merged together to create larger ones in hope of keeping both alive. However, the opposite problem started when the boys came home from war: there was an influx of men on college campuses that wished to go Greek, and the fraternities could become selective. This brought about the tradition of hazing to see who was “worthy” of joining.
Since that time, fraternities and sororities have endured during times of distrust and membership decreases to now have prosperity and popularity. Organizations no longer have racial or religious barriers to membership, at least in their handbooks.
Currently, many schools have at least some Greek letter organization, whether it is social, service, or academic Greek. In some colleges, up to 70 percent of the student body is involved in some form of Greek life. However, some schools don’t allow Greek organizations due to stigmatism, low interest, or history. Many schools fall between the two extremes.
What issues do greek organizations need to face now?
Hazing has been at the forefront of much of the modern criticism of Greek life. Hazing typically occurs during the pledge period when a prospective member has to prove him or herself worthy of becoming an official member.
Almost all Greek organizations do have requirements to join the organization. Some of the requirements include interviewing current members, study hours, participating in service events, and memorizing the rules and history of the organization. Some sororities and fraternities focus on those who are academic, social, or sports leaders at the school. Earlier requirements to join Greek did include having the right family or the right bank account to back up the bid.
Many colleges require dry pledging – or require that no one pledging the sorority or fraternity can drink during pledging. However, some Greek organizations force alcohol upon pledges as part of the pledging process. Sororities will often have their pledges buy expensive jewelry and either gift it or throw it away, proving their monetary worth.
Horror stories from those who pledged sororities can be particularly vicious. While fraternity hazing can be dangerous or harmful to the body, girls take it to the extreme with the mental hazing. Many different schools claim to have some sort of body shaming where the women within the organization will circle or highlight the parts of the body that the pledges need to work on to be members of the organization. There are also reports of women and men performing embarrassing sexual acts in front of their sisters or brothers. Alexandra Robbins, author of the book Pledged, echoed the sentiment of emotional harm. “I’ve talked to thirty-somethings who are still haunted by their sorority hazing,” the popular author explains.
Many schools are cracking down on hazing and punishing fraternities and sororities that are even accused of hazing.
Partying, drinking, and staying out late will probably always be a part of college, whether Greek life exists on campus or it doesn’t. Sororities and fraternities seem to get the blame for a lot of on-campus partying, but the reality of it is that if a campus has any sort of group, they will get together to drink. It doesn’t matter if it Sigma Alpha Epsilon, cafeteria workers, theatre students, or the school newspaper – it will happen.
However, there are problems within the partying scene in Greek culture particularly. Many of the theme parties that fraternities and sororities are famous for are not in the best of taste. A college recently even sent out a letter to the Greek organizations to remind them to be appropriate and tasteful during Halloween events. In 2013, a Duke fraternity, Kappa Sigma, held an “Asian Prime” themed party where they dressed in Asian-inspired clothing and spoke in accents throughout the night. While other students were outraged, the college seemed to remain passive: “The event was thoughtless and offensive but we’re not sure if it actually broke any rules,” Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, told the Herald-Sun. Other problematic themes have included a “Thug Party” at Arizona State, “USA v. Mexico” at Randolph Macon, “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” at California Polytechnic State, and “Bloods and Crips” at Dartmouth.
The simple truth may be that part of the Greek stereotype encourages people to think this about fellow classmates. Even if a party isn’t a sorority or fraternity, if one person is there who is a member of the organization or wearing letters, it is automatically dubbed a sorority or fraternity party. However, Greek organizations also have a responsibility to each other and the organization as a whole to use discretion and appropriate themes when planning and participating in events.
The news has been aflutter with case after case after case against fraternities accused of gang rape, violence, and sexual assault. Is it just a coincidence that the highly publicized cases are all fraternity members? Could be — but the truth remains that one in four college women will be sexually assaulted. Something is going wrong on college campuses. A story from Rolling Stone emerged last week about a woman at the University of Virginia who says she was gang-raped at a fraternity party her freshman year. Regardless of the specifics of the crime, it’s clear the university mishandled her sexual assault complaint.
Too often, colleges will mishandle any and all rape or sexual assault complaints from their students. A young girl was raped during an athletic weekend with the University of California, and it was swept under the rug by college officials to protect the integrity of the athletic department. These are just publicized cases, how many girls are being assaulted and not reporting it? How many girls are being told there’s nothing the school can do? Sixty-two percent of sexual assault at the collegiate level is drug assisted, so there are at least two crimes happening: the purchasing of drugs and rape.
Case Study: Clemson
Recently, a Clemson University student, Tucker Hipps, fell to his death from a bridge while running with his fraternity brothers. The college suspended all fraternities, citing reports of alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, and general neglect. However, they didn’t tie the ban to the death of the student.
Clemson student affairs vice president Gail DiSabatino said in a statement:
“It is especially prudent to suspend fraternity activities given the tragic death of Tucker Hipps. There has been a high number of reports of serious incidents involving fraternity activities, ranging from alcohol-related medical emergencies to sexual misconduct … These behaviors are unacceptable and mandate swift and effective action to protect students. There is no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our students.”
Police haven’t connected his death to hazing or drinking, but there is still an investigation pending on the incident. The national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization released a statement saying that if foul play was involved in Hipps’ death, it would make sure those responsible are brought to justice and face proper repercussions.
Case Study: University of Virginia
The University of Virginia just suspended all fraternity activities, stemming from accusations in a Rolling Stone article that stated the Charlottesville campus failed to protect students from sexual abuse in the Greek system in 2012. According to the magazine report, a young woman was attacked by several members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. She was sexually assaulted for hours and sodomized with a beer bottle at the fraternity house. The victim had repeated meetings with campus officials, including the President and the Dean, but the campus did not take any steps. Two other women also had accused Phi Kappa Psi members of sexually assaulting them.
The school is currently investigating, as it could result in it losing its Title IX funding.
In Defense of Greek Life
Greek organizations do have a purpose on some college campuses. They serve to unite large groups of college students in a positive way. Students who are involved in Greek life are more likely to stay at a college than those who do not. Colleges with Greek life are more likely to see active participation in many other college events, including Homecoming and spirit week festivities. For those in academic Greek or service Greek, they make positive impacts on various areas of the school’s cultural landscape.
Those who participate in Greek life are also more likely to keep in contact with their college friends and return to the campus. According to Psychology Today: “for some people, memories from the Greek years appear to have a special significance, even influencing behavior decades later. In his book, Beer and Circus about Three A’s of University Life (academics, athletics, and alcohol), Murray Sperber writes about fraternity alumni seeking a little cross-generational bonding with current members through sharing memories of alcohol mayhem. “‘The main storytellers are often alumni, and they frequently gather in their old fraternity houses to narrate the tales and, on occasion, to try to relive them.’”
Greek life, despite its issues, does often have a place — it can help those who aren’t sure of their place in college find a home and a family. Amy Hansen sums it up best: “Sororities and fraternities teach young people to be strong, to be curious, to be brave, to be zestful. Their rituals aren’t just words whispered in a dingy basement. They are living, breathing actions during collegiate life and beyond.”
Some colleges don’t benefit from Greek organizations. If the college is too small, it definitely can seem like an “us v. them” situation. However, a large part of whether or not a college should have a Greek system depends on the actual organizations themselves. How the members treat each other, other students, and members of other organizations creates that atmosphere.
Aspects of Greek life certainly have problems, and there are many controversial situations with which Greek life organizations have to deal. However, there are tangible benefits from having the organizations on campus as well–schools need to encourage the organizations to find that balance themselves.
Editor’s Note: This post has been revised to credit select information to Psychology Today.