Is There a Future for Greek Life?

For many candidates seeking presidencies at American colleges and universities, one of the first questions asked is often what percentage of students participates in Greek life? It goes beyond the lasting impressions – overwhelmingly negative — created by Animal House.

These candidates see Greek life as an impediment to leadership. Schools with high concentrations of Greeks are often portrayed as insular, privileged, homogeneous and academically, culturally and socially uninteresting.

They wonder about the relationship between the Greek community and alumni trustees who by word and action protect it. Indeed, there is considerable banter among presidents about how to avoid assuming leadership in “jock fraternity” schools, arguing that the “Greeks” are counterproductive to academic and student life programming, inhibit fundraising, are unpopular with most faculty, and put new presidents in the presumed position of being “anti Greek.”

Further, experienced colleagues warn them to beware of the Greek and athletic shadow houses off campus from which most of the worst excess can originate.

There is truth to these fears. For Greek communities that rely heavily on their social profile to attract pledges to populate their houses, alcohol and substance abuse is a very real problem. From these abuses emerge even deeper issues of sexual misconduct and psychological and physical abuse.

It is important that all parties understand the scope of the problem.

In the end, these problems cannot be swept under the table if the Greek community is to survive in the 21st century.

As a result, most Greeks are on the defensive on American college and university campuses. While some of this defensiveness is historic, inbred paranoia, arguably many college administrators propose policies to limit Greek life over the long term.

Administrators sometimes offer knee-jerk reactions in the bad moments, ending traditions rather than working to improve them. They impose a variety of solutions that nibble away at Greeks, whether through residential housing redesign, common space reconfiguration, tinkering with traditions, enhanced police and security presence, and new regulatory requirements. They presume that they know best and confuse with good intentions their first responsibility to open dialogue with students who become adults in their college years.

It’s often easier to work quietly with the town, for example, to pass ordinances to address behavioral issues. The “climate of fear” that emerges from precipitous actions can take years to mollify.

Students sense what is coming over the long term. And yet it is not from the administrators but from these same students from whom the long-term solution must originate.

Greek leadership has historically engaged in a variety of tactics. They work behind-the-scenes with trustees to block or water down administrative actions, employ “duck and cover” approaches until the administrative and faculty pressure eases, or fall back on the good that they do philanthropically. Unfortunately, good philanthropy cannot disguise bad social behavior. It’s not enough.

It may be that Greek life will end because no one will continue to insure the Greek community. The accountants and whistleblowers may pull the plug on Greek life. What a sad way to let the candle sputter out on a rich collegiate tradition.

If there is a future for Greek life, its leadership must act soon. In doing so, this leadership might consider the following steps:

  • Get in the game. Recognize that Greeks have an important role to play in the life of the institution.
  • Greek life must support the institution’s plan for student life. Membership in a sorority or fraternity is an affinity offering within a residential setting. As such, Greeks should incorporate programs that promote a diverse and robust student life.
  • Greeks must advocate and support student life experiences in the first year that move progressively to added options like Greek houses, and ultimately toward independent living to prepare students for graduation.
  • Greeks may influence but never dominate the student life agenda.
  • Greek life must also reflect the desired educational behavioral norms. Do fraternities and sororities foster leadership development, time management skills, work in a collaborative setting, and the development of management and business acumen?
  • Is Greek life welcoming and inclusive? Do Greeks have a broad recruitment policy to encourage the best pledges, regardless of race, religion, and economic background?
  • Is philanthropy a check on a list or attuned to the college’s strategic objectives as a teachable moment to add value to living Greek?
  • Can the Greek community engage the faculty and administration as mentors on an equal and confident footing?
  • If Greek houses are occasionally centers of bad social behavior, do their policies and practices on substance abuse, sexual misconduct, and psychological and social abuse unequivocally reflect a “no tolerance” policy?
  • Are their actions consistent, quantifiable, broadly communicated, and regularly assessed?

Change is in the air no matter how slow American higher education moves to address and adapt to it. Greek life is a rich and historical tradition that has been a part of American higher education for decades.

It’s time to move to a new agenda as colleges work to reshape the residential learning experience. The alternative to leadership as an important affinity offering is a slow march to irrelevance.

Let’s hope that the Greeks choose well.

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