Greek Life on Campus: An Asset and a Challenge

In the lives of many college students, sororities and fraternities are vital elements — unique assets that can serve as premier leadership programs in campus communities. As our respective experiences as members of Greek organizations were among
the most profound of our lives, we believe that the opportunity to join fraternities or sororities should be available to every interested student.

Despite the benefits of Greek life, it is also an area in which there is much work to do. Progress is being made, but not at the pace at which a contemporary college student operates. It’s worth noting that many Greek organizations were founded generations ago on traditions that are antithetical to the institutional values of most colleges and universities, including hazing, heteronormativity, sexism, racism, ableism, and classism. Because of these and other factors, profound social, cultural, and ethical questions about Greek organizations loom large on campuses nationwide.

In many cases, however, Greek-letter organizations have taken the initiative to address these issues. For example, after the 2015 incident in which members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were caught on video singing a racist chant, the fraternal organization hired Ashlee Canty, a member of a historically black sorority, as their director of diversity and inclusion; she led training on inclusivity and Title IX with chapters nationwide.

That same year, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity voted to extend membership to any transgender man. More recently, the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity retired the word “colony,” which it used to refer to its newly chartered chapters, recognizing that the term “colonization” can connote rape, enslavement, and genocide in Asian and other nations populated by people of color.

Sometimes, fraternities and sororities draw strong responses from institutions beyond higher education and national Greek organizations. Following the hazing-related deaths of Tucker Hipps at Clemson University and Robert Champion at Florida A&M University, South Carolina and Florida — the home states of the respective institutions — took steps to increase public awareness of the dangers and consequences of hazing. One such measure involved publishing information online regarding the kind of conduct that results in organizations being found responsible for hazing; another involved implementing mandatory hazing-awareness training for every incoming student.

Even with the many challenges still facing Greek life, students continue to rush for many reasons, including legacy and a desire for a shared experience with their peers. And many fraternities and sororities have embraced our changing society in positive ways, reflecting values such as integrity, scholarship, philanthropy, diversity, and inclusion. Last fall, Emory University’s Greek members collectively earned an average GPA of nearly 3.5, and last year, they raised more than $75,000 for philanthropic causes and contributed 25,000 hours to community service. Similar examples abound across our nation’s campuses.

Yet, while many Greek chapters nationwide embrace social change, some unfortunately still see it as an existential threat to their organizations. To be positive forces in these changing times, they must recognize and accept change as both essential and inevitable. Sororities and fraternities that continue to operate on the margins of our campuses simply perpetuate existing problems and ensure an unsustainable future for themselves.

Equally problematic is the fact that this resistance to change fuels antagonism among Greek-letter organizations, higher education institutions, students, and alumni. These strained relationships are caused by tensions that also represent opportunities for Greek life to grow and thrive along with higher education.

Representing Campus Diversity
A major challenge that higher education faces in building a productive relationship with Greek life is fixing the erroneous perception that institutions want to remove groups that do not represent the diversity of the overall campus community.

Although most colleges and universities encourage all organizations to be inclusive, they do not require Greek chapters to do so, as they are semi-independent entities. When an institution takes the extreme step of removing a chapter from its campus, it is due to the violation of established rules of conduct — not a lack of diversity. The most offensive of such actions include sexual violence and extreme forms of hazing, and colleges and universities cannot tolerate such egregious behavior by individuals or organizations.

This same perception also compounds racial tensions by attempting to delegitimize the predominantly African American, Latino, and multicultural Greek chapters that have more recently joined campuses. These organizations began arriving at Emory in the 1970s. In 1976, the historically black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha joined the campus community and later became the first chapter of Emory’s National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), a historically black organization. Similarly, in 2002, the predominantly Asian sorority Delta Phi Lambda became the first chapter of the Multicultural Greek Council on campus.

Unfortunately, despite societal changes, many Greek communities throughout higher education still resemble segregated neighborhoods, representing less racial and ethnic diversity than their campuses as a whole. This is also true at Emory, where many of our Greek chapters remain overwhelmingly white, despite the university’s being one of the nation’s most diverse campuses today.

In the past, Greek members at Emory were leaders in diversity. Our Pi Kappa Alpha chapter became the fraternity’s first chapter nationwide to initiate a black member in 1968, and two presidents of our Intersorority Council.were members of NPHC.

Greek organizations today could do much more to better represent higher education’s increasingly diverse student population.

More than Housing
A second and equally challenging tension is that institutions like Emory want to provide social capital, including housing, to non-Greek organizations as well as Greek ones. Traditionally, Greek-letter organizations, unlike other groups, enjoy on-campus programming space. Yet, on many college campuses, Greek communities continue to grow while available housing shrinks. The expanding number of organizations is a good thing; however, the dearth of housing is not.

Greek organizations housed on campuses offer an important social venue for community members — but should this be the basis for exclusive housing for Greek organizations? If so, which ones should get access to that housing? Institutions need plans that support the strong presence of Greek life in a variety of spaces while simultaneously affording such housing privileges to other organizations and individuals who also embody the institution’s values.

Of course, Greek life encompasses far more than occupying a house and enjoying the social capital associated with that. If housing becomes the most important consideration when it comes to a student’s decision to rush, one must question a chapter’s raison d’être (i.e., the most important reason for its existence). Each chapter must vigilantly elevate its national organization’s mission and community’s values above the appeal of housing.

Ensuring Safety and Adherence
A third tension involves the privacy of Greek organizations, many of which are resistant to housing inspections and staff rounds. Their perception is that the university is on a witch-hunt to undermine Greek life, when in fact, facilities checks help ensure that students are safe and policies are followed.

Ideally, Greek housing should be held to the same standards as other on-campus housing. At Emory, staff rounds are no more frequent in Greek than any other university-owned residences. Staff members conducting rounds rarely enter student rooms; they do so only when necessary and after knocking several times and announcing themselves. Most allegations of violations come not from staff inspections, but from members of Greek life who are concerned about the behavior and safety of their peers.

As institutions, we have a paramount responsibility to maintain safe environments for our students and, at the same time, respect their right to privacy. These commitments must exist in concert, alongside greater trust and student accountability.

We all must own Greek life on our campuses and share the responsibility of helping it improve. Higher education can and should help sororities and fraternities thrive on individual campuses and across the nation. For their part, Greek organizations must retain the best traditions of their pasts while embracing the cultural transformation that’s essential to our collective future as a higher education community.●

Ajay Nair, PhD, is the senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Victoria L. Chan-Frazier is the assistant director of student conduct at Emory University.