Looking from the Outside In: The Failings of Greek Life

It just didn’t smell right. It seemed to go against everything I was taught about being inclusive and being friendly throughout my life. You share your toys, you let everyone play on your kickball team at recess.  Before college, it was something I spent little time thinking about. Fraternities?

Previously, all that came to mind was the media stereotype of men running around in Greek letters and living in run-down beer-stained houses. Greek life is a perplexing topic for universities. On one hand, you have organizations that aim to assist students with their social life, providing members with a sense of belonging and ultimately helping with professional development and future connections. These are all things that universities want to offer their students, but are beyond the scope of what a university administration can provide. However, others argue that these organizations are archaic in nature, promote social stratification, promote bad habits and a lack of individuality and often fail to live up to the values they set forth.

I will start anecdotally, but as a disclaimer, I am a non-Greek male speaking from a guy’s perspective. Some of the things I discuss may be truer of fraternities than of sororities, and by not virtue of not being a member, I am simply incapable of understanding some of the inner functions of a Greek chapter. I ask you to not blame me or tell me “I don’t understand;” because the nature of Greek life is exclusive, by design there are aspects of the organizations that are only supposed to be understood by members. If you are Greek, these are my observations of the appearance of Greek organizations from the outside, and are not personal attacks. I do not wish to imply that my opinion is the opinion held by all non-Greek students. For this article, I am specifically referring to social Greek organizations, not professional or service fraternities, which are similar in formality but different in practice.

 

From the Outside:

The first time I thought about Greek life was when I was talking with someone from my high school, whom I admired deeply, about his fraternity and the rush process. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the lingo and the idea of “auditioning” for a group of people to see how you fit in. When I came to University of Richmond, I came as a football player. During my freshman year, Greek life was as far from my mind as possible. Whereas other first-year students may have actively been seeking out brothers at parties to talk to, I was pretty carefree. I mostly hung out with people in my hall, but after the first semester after rush that drastically changed. At least in my experience, the people I used to hang out with stopped associating with each other. They each joined their own fraternity and were busy pledging and getting close to their new brothers. There was a dramatic swing in how my freshman hallmates interacted with each other.

After sustaining a chronic shoulder injury, I decided to stop pursuing my football career and stopped playing my sophomore year. Suddenly, I was thrust into an environment in which I had little experience. Despite what the tour guides may tell you, Greek life is a big deal at Richmond.

Although I was not playing football anymore, I didn’t consider joining a Greek organization. I had been happy the previous year without one and didn’t anticipate that would change. What I didn’t realize was how much more segregated things were my sophomore year. I would say “hi” to people I knew freshman year and they would give me a look as if I had never existed. But hey, if people didn’t want to be friendly, that was their prerogative. When I was a freshman, I would walk into D-Hall by myself and almost always find somewhere to sit with people I knew. When I was a sophomore, I saw the same people I used to know, but they were all sitting at their “assigned” fraternity tables.

This reason, I believe, is one of the biggest ones people join social groups such as Greek organizations: It is uncomfortable to be alone. Having an organization in which you can come to the dining hall and always have a place to sit is immensely valuable to people. This isn’t a bad thing either; I prefer not to sit alone. And Greek groups are not the only groups that sit with each other. Sports teams do the same.

 

Stereotypes & Image:

In my sophomore year, I also learned about the hierarchies within Greek life. When I was playing football, I didn’t realize, or just wasn’t interested in learning about, the stereotypes and social standing of Greek organizations. I didn’t know the stereotypes until I started hearing comments such as: “Well, she’s in this sorority, so of course, she’s like that,” or “He’s in this fraternity so he’s probably a douchebag.” In my experience, again, as a bystander, Greek life creates more stereotypes on campus than religion, race or any other subject I have ever encountered.

It is every person’s choice to believe the stereotypes, and the argument I have heard from people within Greek life is that once you join an organization, you stop seeing stereotypes and that believing them makes you shortsighted. I agree I don’t think every guy in fraternity X is cooler than fraternity Y, and I don’t believe every girl in sorority A is prettier or more lascivious than in sorority B.

But take this example: As a resident assistant, what do I say when one of my residents knocks on my door and says: “Troy, what do you think about X fraternity?” How am I supposed to answer that? I said something along the lines of: “Like… well… I can tell you about the five to seven guys I know in that fraternity…,” only to get a response such as: “No, what’s their reputation, you know?” Or when the freshman girl I meet at a party wants me to list off who are the hottest sororities, so she is in the know about which one she should think about joining. Again, whether you choose to believe stereotypes is up to you, but they exist and they are toxic.

Many organizations have social aspects, so why have I singled out Greek life? People like to point out the similarities between the environments of fraternities and sororities and those of sports teams. While it is true that some similarities exist, the missions of the organizations can vary greatly. Competitive sports teams have one goal: to win games. The goals of a Greek organization are much more complex. The mission statements of Greek organizations all say something about “developing young men or women of character and high ethical bearing” (or some similar platitude). People on sports teams also don’t choose their members people on sports teams are supposed to be congenial regardless of background for the good of the team. Greek organizations specifically choose members based on, in my opinion, loose criteria. How does one get on the football team? Answer: Be a good football player. How does one join a particular Greek organization? There is no clear answer.

This lack of identity about membership and goals is striking to me. Each of the eight sororities and eight fraternities at the University of Richmond have about 100 people in the chapter, in which each organization is supposed to be slightly differentiated in terms of value systems and personalities. But does each organization select the 100 most similar and congruent people in the given class? That can hardly be true. While each chapter parades its flag and its letter shirts, it is hard to understand what these letters are supposed to signify. People will sometimes hold their identity as a “Greek man or woman” as a calling card to uphold higher ethical standards. But think about how that looks to us outside of the system. What aspects about choosing to be a part of exclusive and historically discriminating organizations have to do with you maintaining and implying some higher ethical standard than a non-Greek student?  What I am supposed to get from your Instagram bio with three Greek letters?

The easiest things for a person outside the group to see are the stereotypes. Reverting to stereotyping is easy, although not good. It is epically easier to read stereotypes from illegible symbols in remarkably undifferentiated organizations by value set. Some people enjoy wearing their letters and representing a larger organization. But to some, marching around in the letters of the stereotypically “hottest” sorority gives them some sort of satisfaction and is what they crave.

A large reason I have refrained from joining Greek life is I do not want to be defined by a set of Greek letters even in the slightest and the stereotypes surrounding Greek life. Maybe I am being pretentious in my own right, but I would rather have a stronger individual brand that I can manage than be bound to the brand of a fraternity. I would argue that people wish to be branded by the letter of a Greek organization to feel a sense of security and social standing. Perhaps if someone was unsure of his or her own identity, comfort could be found in what campus would construe as the identity of the particular organization, which gives a sense of understanding one’s place.

The letters that define these organizations were born from an era the early 1800s in which secret societies such as the Freemasons were in vogue, and historians were publicizing and popularizing the successes of ancient Greek culture. So naturally, college students combined the two ideas and invented fraternities. In the 1800s, there was not a myriad of service organizations and clubs to fulfill extracurricular desires of students as there is today. Perhaps in the 1850s if you wanted to engage in the improvement of your community, you joined a Greek organization. Now, at the University of Richmond if service was your primary goal, you would be better off working with the Center for Student Engagement than affiliating with a Greek organization. Alpha Phi Omega might also be an option, but again, I am limiting this discussion to social fraternities. I don’t discount the philanthropic work social Greek organizations engage in, but they are far from their defining characteristic.

In fact, because of the power of groups, fraternity brothers discovered how to exploit their newfound social influence in unconventional ways at the time. After all, these organizations were run by 20-some-year-old young men. A 2014 Atlantic article highlights a letter from 1857 that was sent from one fraternity member to another and it suggests the new system was already hitting its most enduring stereotype in full stride: “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago.” The nature of fraternities was set early on.

 

“Goold Ole Boy:”

In having archaic roots, Greek systems also inherit the reminisces of more segregated pasts. In fact, fraternities are even academically referred to as “traditionally-white,” which really has not changed as much as one may think.  A survey conducted by Princeton University showed that white and higher-income students are much more likely than other students to be in fraternities and sororities. A disproportionate 77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members were white. I requested information from a Richmond student who conducted a similar survey and was denied.

In defense of Greek systems, the most common argument I hear is that many great people, especially business leaders, were Greek in college. Great. Many business leaders went to elite colleges where Greek life was popular because such colleges had older roots. Business leaders also happen to be 1. white and 2. wealthy, just as many members of Greek life happen to be 1. white and 2. wealthy. If you believe the argument that Greek organizations help students get jobs by making career connections, you can’t ignore that this system appeals to social stratification in which the elitist white and wealthy students, who more often make up Greek organizations, are also able to get high-profile jobs more easily because of nepotism. Since when is discounting merit in favor of nepotism a positive? Do we really want a “good ole boy” network when it comes to getting a job? Shouldn’t it be based on merit and not what fraternity you decided to join?

 

Sisters, Brothers, People, Sheeple:

I think humans naturally tend to form groups and social constructs. Greek life is the embodiment of that. Being part of a group of people gives us greater confidence, power and influence. We want our group to be as powerful and influential as possible. How is that done?  Well, the easiest way to influence 18 to 22-year-old students is by having the “coolest” and best-looking group of people possible. Even in intellectual environments, being conceived as cool and good-looking can go a long way, especially toward attracting the opposite sex. This takes me to one of my favorite, and I think most true quotes about college: “alumni want sports, faculty want parking and students want sex.” If a person wants sex, I would argue it is most easily attainable in the environment fraternities and their parties create. It is simply more attractive to be a part of a group with desirable status.

This desire to be the top fraternity or sorority takes away from the mission of Greek organizations. I would find it hard to believe that someone would join a particular Greek organization because they liked the values that the national chapter stood for over another chapter. In the mission statements I have read, you see the same 10-15 buzzwords reiterated in different ways. Some people may join an organization because they may have a more reckless or tame reputation at a given school but again, these are all stereotypes, right? But what is equally tragic is how Greek organizations choose their members. It is no big secret that appearance plays a part in sorority recruitment, and I won’t entertain an argument that says it has absolutely no effect. I also find it hard to believe that fraternities seek out the most well-rounded men in every scenario.

Recruitment may be what I struggle with the most when it comes to Greek life. It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that universities allow and even support social life on campus to be run by exclusive, elitist groups that oftentimes choose their members based on adolescent conceptions of what “cool” looks like instead of merit. I was always an extremely accepting person despite who my younger self I thought I was. I was the captain of three varsity sports teams in high school, including captain of the football team at a Southern high school with the population of 2,400 students. Yeah, I thought I was pretty cool, probably the high school equivalent of what it feels like to be in a top fraternity or sorority, but I was mature enough to know some label society wants to put on was not indicative of who I was or how I was supposed to act toward other people. No matter who you were, if you wanted to be my friend, or be on my kickball team at recess, you were always welcome. That is absolutely not the case with fraternities, from my perspective, and because of it, I think the University of Richmond is actually more “high school” than my high school.

 

The Good:

This is a conversation, and although I felt the need to discuss some of the drawbacks of Greek life that I have perceived as an outsider, I do see positives within the Greek system. I fully expect to be surrounded by some frat bros, as I have in the past, who will try to intimidate me for talking about Greek life in a negative light. But hear me out. I have no problem with your decision to join a fraternity, and I have no problem with your particular chapter because I understand that there are great people who I am friends with in every Greek organization. I also understand that joining a Greek organization does not make you an exclusive person or prohibit you from getting involved in meaningful ways on campus. I would be lying to you if I said I never considered joining a Greek organization or even envied Greeks in a way. There is a long list of great reasons to join a Greek organization.

Personally, I would consider myself pretty independent. I do not need to constantly be around people to be happy, and I even identify as more of an introvert. I have very little social anxiety and have no issues with knowing more people casually than having a dedicated group to hang out with. I don’t have to sit next to someone in D-Hall to feel comfortable and confident. I used to think joining a fraternity was weak, or the easy way to guarantee friends and parties to go to. To some people, joining a Greek organization provides a great environment for them to express themselves, meet new people and feel comfortable. I simply never desired these things, and I tended to focus on the negatives of the system and not how Greek organizations can be a valuable and potentially life-changing experience that can indeed give young people direction.

I also give Greek system an enormous amount of credit for the amount of risk members take on. I think the overwhelming majority of fraternity members at Richmond look out for the best interest of women. I give them credit for having designated drivers or shuttles, contingency plans and their ability to handle the inevitable conflicts that happen at parties with ease. Social life at Richmond is not only run by fraternities, but it is also made safer by fraternities. Despite what some statistics say about higher rates of alcohol abuse and sexual assaults in the presence of Greek life, I believe Richmond’s Greek organizations are fairly responsible.

Our campus is unique in that it is isolated in the middle of an upper-class neighborhood, so that you won’t find a typical college bar or hangout spot that you would find at the majority of colleges. Because of the lack of naturally existing third spaces at Richmond, Greek life is responsible for a huge portion of nightlife, where at other schools many students could just walk to the local dive college bar. This gives social Greek organizations tremendous power, but also a lot of responsibility to create fun environments.  Running nightlife at a college is no easy task, and serious amount of effort goes into mitigating risk the way Greek organizations do.

It is the divisions Greek life create and the exclusivity that rubs me the wrong way. I strongly believe people will do everything they can do to avoid uncomfortable situations, even if they realize it or not. I can’t help but think that perhaps Greek life is designed to minimize uncomfortable situations. Greek organizations are single-gender, oftentimes dominated by a particular race and generally made up of people of similar social class and life experiences. They provide a place to sit at dinner, a house or common space to hang out in or throw parties. The big and little system is designed to be a support network, guaranteeing friends and someone to talk to. I wish I had all of those things. The university can’t provide those things, but Greek life can.

However, I can’t help but think that the Greek system inherently discourages individuality while promoting gravitating toward those who are most similar. I think associating with people I don’t know and exploring social situations outside my comfort zone ultimately helps me inch closer toward becoming a worldly and educated person. It also helps me to deal with the everyday uncomfortableness of life, things students are supposed to learn by leaving home and coming to a university.

My final point is that Richmond is a small, private liberal arts university. The supposed advantage of going to a university such as Richmond is that students of diverse background can work in close collaboration in smaller environments and challenge each other to reach socially conscious and innovative ideas for the future. Harvard received news coverage when it decreed in spring of 2016 that students participating in single-sex social organizations would be ineligible for certain scholarships and from holding certain student leadership positions. Obviously, this was a shot over the bow to Greek life and the segregated nature it perpetuates. At a school as historical and reputable as Harvard with extremely powerful alumni, many of whom were members of Greek Life, this caused a bit of an uproar. However, I support what Harvard is attempting to creep toward a more inclusive environment for learning. By creating this restriction, Harvard administrators are saying that exclusivity on campus is bad and is not conducive to learning and supporting the so-called “liberal arts education,” where learning a wide variety of subjects and from a diverse group of people is valued. Harvard is viewed as the standard by which other colleges were molded after, which makes their decision to attempt to eliminate exclusive social clubs on campus very telling to what their picture of higher learning and college life should look like.

Greek life tends to create microcosms of different socioeconomic groups on campus, because of its foundation in a segregated past. While Greek organizations provide many benefits for their members and the campus as a whole, it could be argued that these divisions are simply not in line with the study of the liberal arts, and at odds with a more accepting and equitable future.

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