Roland Davidson: Lending a cooperative hand

Monday, March 14, 2016 - 7:48pm

Last fall, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and the Greek community gathered and President Schlissel excoriated the Greek community for devaluing the University’s academic reputation. This is part of a larger pattern on our campus of beginning to hold Greek life accountable. Greek life has been the focus of changes that address the drinking culture and campus sexual assault that has gone unchecked for too long. Schlissel’s changes that target these issues are a welcome change of pace. It’s high time that the University no longer turns a blind eye, and these organizations bear the costs of their actions. However, in an effort to curb these serious problems with Greek life, the administration has swung the pendulum too far in an authoritative direction.

While it is important to address these issues, the University must reevaluate disciplinary actions and focus on creating a dialogue. This past year members of Greek life who attended the Mud Bowl, a philathropic Greek Life event, could have faced sanctions. However, the source of these sanctions is not clear. The Daily reported that the Interfraternity Council threatened these sanctions. According to the Detroit Free Press, administrators warned fraternity brothers not to attend the event. According to Henry Adams, president of the Interfraternity Council, the decision to not participate in the Mud Bowl did not come from administrators but from a collective unanimous vote of IFC chapter presidents. As Daily columnist Brett Graham points out, the Mud Bowl exemplifies the best aspects of Greek life and threats to limit the Mud Bowl feel to have stepped over the line and will likely have long-term negative consequences.  

Personally, I have many issues with Greek life, and I would love to see fraternities and sororities play a diminished role on campus. But that’s not a realistic possibility. Much of the University’s funding comes from wealthy donors who were members of Greek life during their undergraduate careers, and the University won’t likely agree to changes that risk losing that money. Furthermore, Greek life is a cultural institution at the University, with more than 20 percent of undergraduate students affiliated. 

The University’s response mirrors a tendency within parts of the social activist community on campus to demonize Greek life; to view it as a toxic mess that doesn’t want to improve itself. However, it’s important to note that there’s will within Greek life to end these abuses. When speaking to Adams about these issues, and from his perspective, there’s a growing self-awareness within the IFC of binge drinking and sexual assault’s sheer extent. He also stressed that he doesn’t view the community meeting as a break of the IFC’s working relationship with the administration and that they want to continue improving Greek life at the University.

Contrary to popular perception, according to Adams, the four Greek Councils organized the community meeting and invited President Schlissel and adminstrators to speak it. Each of the four Greek Council presidents spoke at the event about the meeting's importance. These issues are endemic: members of Greek life are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-members and more likely to binge drink than the average student. There’s an element within the Greek community which earnestly wants to curb these issues. These efforts have begun to take shape: Fraternities serve beer rather than hard liquor at open parties and new members are given an orientation that aims to prevent the aforementioned behaviors.

Other communities at the University have made similar attempts to prevent sexual assault and overdrinking. My co-op asks our guests to define consent before entering a party and all of our house officers are given bystander intervention training by the Inter-Cooperative Council. I’ve seen other co-ops hang the definition of consent around the house. These policies show our guests that we have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault. They also make the definition of consent salient to party-goers and help prevent potentially disastrous encounters. We put in a tremendous amount of work to prevent sexual assault, but why should this be outside the norm?

After the community meeting, Tom Allen, fellow Fordie and former president of Alpha Sigma Phi, said that “(Greek life) is definitely going to be open to what was said yesterday and in the future work really close with the University to make things safer.” According to Allen, eight fraternities within the IFC have already invited SAPAC for bystander intervention training and we should applaud that. But what about the rest?

Students who are in co-ops and are part of the University's social justice community should reach out to the Greek community. I envision a broad partnership between Greek life, cooperatives, the administration, CSG, SAPAC and other groups on campus dedicated to creating a safer campus. This won’t be a cure-all — some aspects of toxic masculinity are so deeply entrenched that we’ll need to see a nationwide cultural shift before we can eradicate them. My co-op has a deep history of activism, but only began aggressively fighting against sexual assault in 2014. Let’s accelerate that process and instead of working in silos, combine our efforts to make the University safer.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu

*Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated that the community meeting was co-organized by the Interfraternity Council and President Schlissel, that IFC chapter presidents spoke at the community meeting and that the University administration threatened sanctions on any fraternity members attending the Mud Bowl. This article has been updated to be factually accurate.