Miles Stephenson: Can disaffiliated Greek life save itself?

Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 4:54pm

Can disaffiliated Greek life save itself?

Can disaffiliated Greek life save itself? Buy this photo
Casey Tin/The Michigan Daily

As the fall 2018 Greek life rush continues across campus, disaffiliated fraternities and their relationships with incoming students are left in an uncertain purgatory. Fraternities officially affiliated with the University of Michigan operate under a well-defined framework of rules. They’re geared to further focus on charitable work, inclusion and academic performance. Even the signing of bids for students chosen fraternities is administered through Interfraternity Council personnel. Recently, however, six fraternities (some of which with strong national charters and a large student base) have chosen to divorce themselves from the University and its IFC regulations. This separation raises more questions than answers. How will these disaffiliated fraternities continue to operate in the University’s social ecosystem? How will students perceive this new type of underground fraternity? And how will these disaffiliated fraternities impact the University’s Greek life that is already under siege for hazing, alcohol-related harm and sexual misconduct incidents? The answers to these questions might be within the fraternities themselves.

Colleges and universities across the United States have recently been grappling with how to regulate Greek life in the wake of a series of incidents. U.S. News and World Report has reported that American campuses have experienced at least one student death by hazing every year since 1959. Universities are meant to be crucibles of knowledge and self-exploration, not pitfalls where students are sent into potentially life-threatening situations. The University of Michigan, with its tradition of solving complex social and organizational problems since its founding in 1817, and as a university with one of the oldest and richest Greek communities in the country, must take a national leadership role in forging a lasting and workable solution to this problem. It is important to note that fraternities, just like the students that compose the memberships, are individual and widely varying. Disaffiliating so-called “bad actor” fraternities under this “eviction” system only treats the symptoms and not the root causes of isolated, erratic behavior, and may exacerbate the dangerous situations. And the prospect of creating a new, disaffiliated category of off-campus housing could cultivate a “Wild West” dynamic and compound the issues the University seeks to control.

The University boasts some of the brightest minds in the world, which should be called to action to craft a solution that involves input from fraternity and sorority leadership, university administration and functional academics. Instituting rules designed to “bring the frats into compliance,” for instance, new zoning ordinances that shackle fraternities to policy without due process, will result in rebellion, witnessed by the recent disaffiliations of six fraternities due to a zoning code restriction passed by the Ann Arbor City Council this summer. Surely there is a solution that doesn’t “evict” fraternities, but instead empowers them to self-regulate within a system that challenges them to meet the standards of the community. This would allow them to operate and manage themselves appropriately, while still proving to the University’s community that they are a force of good. They could meet challenges of financial performance (houses remain solvent and self-paying), academic performance and volunteering and charitable work. Under this proposal, the IFC would function less as university adults imposing arbitrary rules and more as an apparatus working more closely with the fraternities to better manage their houses, their safety and their success. Not only would this allow the fraternities to have more accountability, but it also might enliven chapters to run with their new personal responsibility. Greek rushing is up 45 percent at universities around the country since 2006, and a system like this at the University could pave the way for self-regulated fraternities across the United States.

But why do we have Greek life anyway? It’s flawed at its core and we should just ban the whole thing, some will argue. Greek life at the University constitutes 22 percent of the undergraduate student population (that’s more than 6,200 students) and generates millions of dollars annually for the Ann Arbor economy. The chapters hire cooks, cleaners, sanitation workers and repairmen to maintain their houses, buy bulk food and provide amenities for the residential students. Fraternities and sororities, social and otherwise, are woven into the fabric of the university’s social, academic and charitable life. Furthermore, these Greek life organizations have connections all throughout the private business sector and even the political sphere. U.S. News and World Report reports that 44 percent of the U.S. presidents, 35 members of the U.S. Senate, and 60 members of the U.S. House have held fraternity memberships. Furthermore, in the past year, the Interfraternity Council grade point average was higher than the all-male average for University students, underscoring that Greek life membership and academic performance are not mutually exclusive. A solution to the disaffiliated fraternity issue must recognize that Greek life is an overwhelmingly positive force at the University, offering relationships, housing, social experiences and networking for thousands of students each year.  Hazing and underage binge drinking are exceptions to the rule, and the University and local law enforcement must be uncompromising in attending to these situations. Working from the excellent, albeit imperfect framework and organization of the existing IFC, the University must challenge and empower fraternity and sorority leadership to collaborate on policies, rules and procedures designed to better police themselves.

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.