Through internal means, fraternities and sororities at the University of Michigan have been attempting to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, but face an obstacle in obtaining buy-in from across all four Greek life councils.
More than 6,000 students are involved in Greek life at the University of Michigan according to the Office of Greek Life. Representing approximately 20 percent of the undergraduate population, the community often struggles with negative perceptions, perpetuated by a national narrative and a turbulent past year for the University’s Greek life community.
Apart from the lack of demographic diversity among traditionally white fraternities and sororities, disparities also emerge in areas like parties.
Students have noted police tend to shut down festivities hosted by traditionally Black fraternities more than those hosted by white fraternities. Many Black students have experienced overt racism at fraternity parties in recent years.
However, a group of approximately 30 students is working internally under the guidance of the Office of Greek Life to address the tenets of diversity, equity and inclusion through conversation and programming. Founded in 2012, the DEI Greek Life Collaborative is a student-led initiative providing a space for the fraternity and sorority community to discuss the often ambiguous landscape of DEI.
Outgoing DEIC President Tina Ji, an Art & Design junior, joined the initiative two years ago and has spent the past year in her role building the internal environment of the organization. While the DEIC has been in existence for six years, Ji said a weak infrastructure has made it difficult for the collaborative to increase its campus presence.
“I think the biggest problem the collaborative had in the beginning and in previous years is we didn’t have our name out there, and we were just struggling to make events rather than focusing on the internal environment and have an actual structure to it,” Ji said. “So that is what we have been working on this past year.”
As DEIC has spent the past year working toward receiving official student organization status, they have hosted several events including “Pizza with a Purpose,” which was designed to provide an informal environment to learn about cultural appropriation during Halloween. Most recently, they hosted the DEI Speaker Series in collaboration with the Multicultural Greek Council during Greek Week.
Ji commented on the outcome of the Speaker Series and explained how DEIC is trying to take “small steps” to achieve a more informed campus Greek life community.
“This event itself is not going to change the whole spectrum of DEI in Greek life and not going to solve any issues –– like right now it is not going to be a whole different world after that Speaker Series,” Ji said. “But the initiative of bringing it up on the topic and having people there who are willing to listen to others’ stories and acknowledging that they have their own stories, but other people in that room around you have that story.”
Incoming DEIC Secretary Emily Tumminia, an LSA freshman, noted even at the events organized by the DEIC, the collaborative struggles to have attendees from all four councils.
“At the Speakers Series, it was really about all four councils,” Tumminia said. “But we obviously didn’t have equal representation because there was just so many more people from Panhellenic.”
Internally, the DEIC is split into different committees which focus on different areas of impact, including education and programming. Besides the DEIC events, members also attend chapter meetings and provide education modules to councils seeking information on DEI. Their weekly meetings often include candid discussions of campus news and articles concerning the Greek life community.
One of the biggest challenges the organization faces is recruiting representation from all four councils within the Greek life community. While the collaborative’s roster includes approximately six core members and 20 general members, the majority of members represent the Panhellenic Association. The Interfraternity Council and Multicultural Greek Council each have fewer than five members involved. Currently, there is no representation from the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which represents traditionally Black fraternities and sororities at the University.
Ji listed the disproportionate size of the four councils and the weak presence of DEIC as reasons for this unequal representation, saying there was only so much the group could do.
“I think if you really look at it from a step back, that kind of goes with the percentage of members on campus of the four councils,” Ji said. “We try equally hard for recruiting from all four councils, but we acknowledge NPHC and MGC are smaller and it is harder to reach out to them because they are so much smaller in size and they are very busy.”
Nicole Banks, interim director of Greek life, also noted how the obstacles DEIC faces with recruiting students may also be harbored in the range of ways students choose to engage with DEI.
“I don’t think there is a lack of interest for diversity, equity and inclusion across our organization,” Banks said. “I do think that people are looking for broad definitions and there is a spectrum of knowing, understanding and making a difference, and I think people in the community cover that whole gamut and so their interests, needs and what kind of support will be different.”
Looking toward the fall, incoming DEIC President Danielle Belanger, a Public Health sophomore, said she is making it a priority to recruit students from all four councils to join the organization.
“I think because currently those councils are underrepresented in our group and NPHC does not have any members currently (on DEIC), I think that is why we are so focused right now on that application process because we do understand that those voices are currently not being heard in DEIC,” Belanger said.
Through their efforts to encourage collaboration across the four councils, Ji and the executive board have had to take into account the distinct operations of each Greek life council.
“All four councils rush process is different,” Ji said. “When I went about meeting presidents of all four councils, I saw that they run very differently. So how we word things has to be different and accustomed to every council –– that is one of the difficulties I face.”
According to Banks, even as DEIC has changed focus each academic year, it is the students who are at the forefront of the organization.
“Like other student organizations, they set the tone in their agenda each year,” Banks said. “So, one year it may be a group who are interested in learning more about DEI, the next year it could be concerned about responding to something they experienced in fraternity and sorority life that they feel is related to something so they have an action agenda. A third iteration could be a group of folks who are saying we need to make sure there is visibility for how we define diversity.”
Though she isn’t involved in DEIC, Nursing junior Lauren Edmonds is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, a chapter under the National Pan-Hellenic Council. She offered insight into the current landscape between the four councils, while also noting she is hopeful initiatives like the DEIC will work to foster increased collaboration.
“I think all of our councils kind of stay within themselves,” Edmonds said. “I personally don’t know too much about the other councils … I feel we really have to understand what they do and how they run before we can really collaborate.”
As the DEIC works toward addressing the lack of communication between the four councils, Ji said she hopes the Greek life community understands the organization offers a starting place for a conversation and is not the end solution.
“The collaborative is for all four councils, but we don’t represent all four councils,” Ji said.