Alanna Berger: The plight of Greek life

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 6:38pm

The fraternity is an institution almost as long-standing as American universities themselves. The very first can be traced back to 1776 when the Phi Beta Kappa society was founded at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Since then, Greek life has grown astronomically, with over 9 million members nationally. Many politically and financially successful individuals often publicly reminisce about their college days spent in Greek life, and those currently involved in such institutions will defend their chapters with fierce loyalty.

To their credit, sororities and fraternities have been known to provide a strong sense of community to emerging college students and to devote themselves to philanthropic endeavors. However, in recent years, it has become glaringly apparent that Greek life is getting out of hand with potentially dire consequences. With reports of deadly hazing, dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, increased instances of sexual assault and stories of racist incidents within chapters, Greek life is under intense scrutiny.

Major universities across the nation have taken steps  to control this image, either by suspending, banning or regulating the activities of fraternities and sororities. However, as universities work to mitigate the criticisms of Greek life, it is reasonable to question the purpose of the Greek system as a whole. As colleges continue to increase non-Greek life related student organizations, as the internet develops new outlets to connect current students with alumni and as horrific stories of Greek life reality come to light, it is clear that the original purpose of such organizations is now obsolete.

There are abundant examples of Greek life gone wrong that illuminate how the disadvantages associated with such organizations far outweigh any potential benefits. Fraternities certainly bear the brunt of this image. While pop culture representation perpetuates an Animal House-type lifestyle of partying and drinking with reckless abandon, the true reality is much darker.

Take, for example, the February 2017 death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza. Piazza, a pledge at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Pennsylvania State University, fell down a flight of stairs after an evening of heavy drinking during a hazing event. He was carried, unconscious, to a couch by his fraternity brothers after the fall, clearly in need of medical attention. Instead, the other members slapped, punched and poured beer on him. He laid unconscious for 12 hours before emergency medical care was called, and Piazza died soon thereafter.

In response to Piazza’s death, his parents pressed charges against several members of the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi, and the president of the university vowed to increase punishment for instances of hazing. Yet, it is not difficult to find instances of hazing with dire consequences. Matthew Carrington died of hypothermia and water intoxication in the basement of the Chi Tau fraternity house when he was doused with cold water while forced to drink five gallons of water as part of a hazing ritual at California State University in 2005. Four student pledges in total died as a result of hazing in 2017 alone.

Yet, on the campuses of fraternities where such tragedies have occurred, these names are barely remembered. When a young pledge dies at the hands of fraternity members, there is typically a period of fierce outrage, condemnation of the programs, suspension of the fraternity chapter, and then everyone involved begins to resume their typical lives — not even noticing that the same practices occur frequently after the fact.

Beyond the deaths resulting from hazing or excessive alcohol consumption, fraternities have frequently found themselves involved in scandals of another nature. Research shows that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than their non-Greek life affiliated peers. Conversely, membership in a sorority is considered a risk factor for sexual assault, with some reports demonstrating up to 74 percent of college sexual assault victims are sorority members.

There have been several public instances of fraternities and their issues with sexual assault. In 2010, fraternity men at prestigious Yale University were recorded chanting the pro-rape phrase “No means yes, yes means anal” around campus. Matthew Peterson, a fraternity brother at Georgia Institute of Technology, circulated an email around his fraternity containing a manual titled “Luring your rapebait.” At many universities, young women are instructed on which fraternities are safe and which to avoid because of their reputations of sexual assault.

Sexual assault is just one of the many issues plaguing fraternities today. As most fraternities nationwide are almost entirely comprised of white members, fraternity culture has become deeply intertwined with racism. The University of Michigan made headlines in 2013 when the Theta Xi fraternity planned a social event titled “Hood Ratchet Thursday,” capitalizing on racial stereotypes of Black people and appropriating them to a largely white audience. In 2015, University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers were recorded singing a fraternity song including the following lyric: “There will never be a (expletive) in SAE.” This chant was allegedly taught across chapters of the fraternity. In April 2018, California Polytechnic University suspended all Greek life after photos circulated of white fraternity members appearing in blackface.

While the negative aspects of fraternity life have long been exposed, the practices of sororities are often equally problematic. Three George Washington University students were expelled from Alpha Phi after they posted a picture with a racist caption comparing African Americans to monkeys. Harley Barber,  a former member of Alpha Phi  was expelled from the University of Alabama in 2018 after posting two racist rant videos to her secondary Instagram account.

Compounding the racial issues, sororities have long had issues pertaining to image and what the ideal sorority girl should “look” like. This problem was once again highlighted this past September by the so-called “Beta Delta Letter,” published by an anonymous former sorority recruitment chair for the University of Michigan chapter. In this letter, the author details the methods by which the PNMs, or potential new members, of the sorority were rated on a scale from one to 10, largely based on whether or not their physical appearance fit the conventional beauty standards of a “top tier” sorority. Once deeper in the recruitment process, the recruitment chairs resorted to ranking their fellow sorority sisters on the same scale, determining who would be best apt to recruit the most desirable pledges. Once said pledges were officially recruited, a PowerPoint presentation was sent to fraternities with their names and faces only, with no other personal information.

If I were to include all or even most of the publicly known controversies associated with Greek life, this article would be nearly endless. The truth is, these are issues that arise constantly, and very few of us are surprised when we hear them. A tragedy or instance of egregious sexism or racism is uncovered, individuals are reprimanded or chapters are suspended, and similar circumstances occur again elsewhere. The steps taken in the past to remedy these affairs are not working. As important as Greek life is to social life on college campuses and to individuals involved, it is clear that it is now antiquated, resulting in senseless tragedies from which universities must disaffiliate.

Alanna Berger can be reached at balanna@umich.edu