Leading the Greeks

Andrew Winter’s typical day is similar to any other student’s at University of Richmond. He attends classes, meets with professors, goes to the library and eats in the Heilman Dining Center. But each week over the past year, Winter spent between two and five hours managing roughly one-third of the male population at Richmond.

Winter was the President of the Interfraternity Council (IFC). A current senior, he took over the position of president in the spring 2015 semester of his junior year, after spending his fall semester abroad in Vienna. He oversaw the six fraternities at Richmond and worked closely with the Panhellenic Council and the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC). These councils operate as the governing bodies for sororities and fraternities at our university. While each council works closely with their specific student body, they also work with one another.

What drew Winter to the IFC was that the IFC was more externally focused on the entire fraternity system, whereas Winter felt that his prior experiences in Greek life had been confined to his fraternity. Winter came to Richmond as a freshman uncertain whether he wanted to be a part of Greek life and entered his position as IFC president, three years later, still not completely convinced that Greek life was more than just a social group. Over the course of the year, in working closely with members of the Greek community, Winter said his perceptions of Greek life changed.

“I was pretty skeptical of what Greek life can do, and one thing I realized is that if you, as a full Greek unit, come together, this community has the potential to do so much positive good,” Winter said. “I became more optimistic because I was able to see, as president, the amount of leadership and all the incredible, smart people in the Greek community.”

Megan Hill, the Panhellenic Council president, applied to be the president because she was searching for leadership opportunities, a desire she had fostered in high school, but had yet to find in college. The Greek system at Richmond boasts of being unique because students rush in their second semester of freshman year, and there is no Greek-affiliated on-campus housing. Hill explained that because of this, she had friends across the Greek community, another reason she wanted to be on the Panhellenic Council.

“Before, I saw Greek life in a cliché light,” Hill said. “But I was really shocked by the amount of power your own individual chapter has on you, and the power the whole community has on the university.”

Midway through their presidencies, Hill and Winter came to learn just how important it would be for the Greek community to come together and support one another.   

In the fall of 2016, Greek life at Richmond came under fire. After critical Huffington Post articles detailing the administration’s dealings with two sexual assault cases were published, followed by the discovery of sexist emails sent from a member of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, the campus community turned to Hill and Winter as the faces of the Greek system at Richmond.

Yet there is no standard procedure for how to handle sexual assault. Meg Pevarski, the assistant director of Greek life at the Richmond, worked closely with Hill and Winter during their presidencies. Greek leaders receive basic leadership training, but there is no way to prepare for every and any situation, Pevarski acknowledges. She explained that incoming Greek leaders attend a “Greek Retreat,” which is held on campus, at the start of the spring semester, as the Panhellenic and IFC leadership positions begin in mid-January. The retreat is used as means of getting all of the new leaders together and opening up discussion about the goals for the semester for the Greek community. One of the goals that Hill and Winter, along with their respective leadership teams and individual chapter presidents established, was for the Greek community to be seen as advocates in the fight against sexual assaults on campus.

Pevarski believes this is why Hill and Winter were able to be successful in their responses and help the community. Although the events in fall 2016 were unexpected, the tough conversations were not new to Hill and Winter.

“This experience gave them an opportunity to shine around a topic that they had already self-identified as something that is incredible important to our community,” Pevarski said. “It wasn’t the first time we were asking, ‘Where are Greeks going to stand at the end of the day when it comes to being a part of the solution and not a part of the problem?’”

Stemming from conversations that were initiated at the Greek Retreat, where the councils first identified their desire to take steps toward being advocates for sexual assault on campus, and in their individual council discussions, it became easy for Greek leadership to take initiative, Pevarski explained. The conversation had been taking place for a while.

After the sexist emails, Winter made the decision to shut down all fraternity events on campus for the weekend.

“The campus was contemplating a lot,” Winter said. “Who are we to make these mistakes and then just not address them? Especially when we are a part of the issue.”

But the decision of one council is only effective with the support of the other. Hill explained that her male counterpart made the decision to stop social events, but it became the responsibility of the entire Greek community, especially Greek women, to follow through with this decision, and to ensure that no social events would take place.

Although the events that transpired during their presidencies were trying and emotional, both Hill and Winter look back on the year in a positive way. Both Hill and Winter, neither of whom entered their positions with much leadership experience, were forced to step up and embrace the opportunity they were given to implement lasting change on campus. Winter acknowledged that the fall semester was difficult, but said, “I have so many experiences that I will take with me for a lifetime. I didn’t know what the semester would be like it was, but at the end of it, I think I am a much better person for it.”

Hill became a confidante to many women, which she said honored and humbled her.  But the responsibility of leading, and helping, so many women was no light burden to carry.

“When you are in in a leadership position, especially in Greek life, you think everyone thinks the same things that you do,” Hill said.

It was hard at times for Hill, who has always strived to make everyone happy, to make decisions that she knew would not please everyone. But she soon realized that, while her position made her accessible to students on campus, it was not her role to please everyone, nor was it possible.

“I realized that it was about coming to the best conclusion for everyone,” Hill said.

In light of a year where Greek life was highly criticized, both on campus and by the public, Hill and Winter still found their experiences positive.  

Although the foundations of Greek life are inherently exclusive, Winter found that his presidency gave him an opportunity to expand beyond his fraternity.

“The Greek system is great, but often exclusive in the way it operates,” Winter said. “The people that I have met, within the system and also outside of it have blown my mind. I was locked in my own sphere of comfort, but this position forced me to venture out.”

As the campus community keeps working on these issues and new students transition to fill the positions held by Hill and Winter, Pevarski said that the fall 2016 semester would remain an example for the incoming leaders to reflect upon. Even after the fall 2016 semester, Pevarski continues to promote leadership development in Greek leaders as she always has.

“We were able to have more specific examples in discussion and to use real life experiences and outcomes to have more concrete discussions,” Pevarski said. “It helps to have examples from your own campus that you can pull from.”

While no one wants to think that bad things will happen on their campus, Pevarski explained that it was helpful to new leaders to use examples from a campus they are comfortable with and understand.

“You can’t necessarily always plan for for things, and you can’t live in a land of ‘what if?’” she said.

Hill and Winter graduate from Richmond in May, but they take their experiences as Panhellenic and Interfraternity Council Presidents with them as they move to the next phases of their lives.

“Did I go in thinking we were going to have a semester like we had? No, not at all,” Winter said. “But it was one of the best learning experiences. We had to figure out how to adjust our community and make it better, and I had to look internally and figure out what I needed to do.”

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