Schlissel to Greek life: Party culture devalues University
University President Mark Schlissel discussed alcohol abuse and sexual assault — problems he said are rampant among the Greek community — during a gathering of students from every chapter of University Greek life Thursday.
The meeting marked the first of its kind, in which members of every University Greek life chapter gathered for the first time in their 170-year history on campus.
Schlissel’s argument centered on the ways in which an unfettered party culture stains the University’s reputation — not only for current students, but for the 500,000 people who graduated before them.
“The value of their degrees are gonna go down because the reputation of the University of Michigan won’t be the excitement in the Big House or our teams doing well under our fantastic new coach,” Schlissel said. “It’s not gonna be the kids who receive the Rhodes Scholarships and the Fulbright Scholarships, and the famous professors who do the work that you’re going to get reflected on for, or the National Medal for the Arts that our faculty won this past week. It’s going to be the ‘Shmacked’ videos. So it’s really up to you what the value of your education is going to be, what the reputation of this institution’s going to be.”
The talk was met with mixed reactions, with some students coughing loudly when Schlissel, along with other administrators, mentioned problems such as low Greek participation in the University’s sexual assault survey, among other issues.
Each fraternity and sorority was required to have at least 70 percent of its chapter attend the meeting. Those that failed to comply will face a semester of social probation, a letter to their national organization and a $1,000 fine.
The meeting comes after a year of magnified tumult in the Greek community, marked by national press coverage of numerous fraternity “ski trips” gone wrong last winter, in addition to increased scrutiny of the role of Greek life in excessive party culture in university settings throughout the country.
Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones told members of Greek life that the issues facing their community are grave.
“I fear some of you have embraced a work-hard, play-hard mentality and that you may have taken to the extreme what has us on this downward spiral, and we know we have to turn this around,” she said. “It’s clear to me that if we can’t begin to make meaningful, student-led progress and change immediately on our campus, the future of sorority and fraternity life as we know it is in peril.”
Issues on campus
Though Greek life represents just 22 percent of students on campus, administrators emphasized the influence members wield on campus culture.
Thursday’s meeting comes as administrators continue to emphasize the dire need for culture change in the Greek community — a point with which Blake Jones opened the conversation.
“I’m hoping tonight will be remembered as a turning point when the Greek community came together, reinforced and recognized its positive attributes, contributions and influence and was willing to thoughtfully reflect and consider the need for significant changes in the community,” Blake Jones said.
In particular, administrators said they fear the impact of Greek life-organized parties on the University’s image.
Blake Jones said the popularity of the 2012 “I’m Shmacked” video — which showcased and glorified the party scene featuring University students — ultimately casts a shadow over the institution. The result: potential students are drawn in for the wrong reasons or others are turned off for fear of a wild social scene.
This was a point that Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness, spoke to in an exclusive interview with The Michigan Daily on Sept. 4. She said balancing this kind of negative picture of the University with more positive messages that better reflect the school’s values is increasingly difficult in the digital age.
“The one thing that’s different today that we didn’t have to deal with 10 or 15 years ago is the 24/7 instant visual of party,” she said. “For those of you who saw ‘I’m Shmacked’ and how quickly that went around and how many views it got — now you’re a 10th grader looking at the schools you want to go to and you type in the University of Michigan. U of M’s admissions tour had like 70,000 (views) and the ‘I’m Shmacked’ had 800,000 ... so who’s doing your recruiting and does that change the way people decide to come to schools?
“That might have been 1,000 students in that video, but we have 43,000 students here, and now you have a video that we’ll never be able to get rid of that sort of shows our campus, but it shows this one teeny-tiny bit of the story,” Desprez added. “We’ll never get that sort of traction with any counter story.”
The virality of “I’m Shmacked” seems to be representative of what Schlissel sees as an increasingly poor understanding of what it means to have “fun” at school. Referencing his roles as a father and, previously, a practicing doctor, Schlissel emphasized the negative effect the party climate can have on students’ health.
“I don’t like the idea that we measure how good or bad a weekend was by how many of you ended up in an ambulance taken to our emergency room,” he said. “That’s not how we should measure how good a time we are having.”
According to the Campus Climate Survey taken last year and released over the summer, students involved in Greek life have a 40-percent higher chance of experiencing sexual assault.
At the meeting, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, stressed that the perception of Greek life on campus isn’t always positive.
“There are others in the community that see your behavior as racist and homophobic and sexist and unsafe,” she said. “Some see you as giving back to the community and others see you as sucking the life out of the community. Some see only the worst in you and others only the best.”
Schlissel said the issues described are best dealt with at the student-leadership level because students are more willing to cooperate with the changes if they are promoted by fellow members of Greek life.
He noted, however, that the problems don’t have a short-term solution.
“They’re culture problems,” Schlissel said. “They’re aspects of how our culture and our behavior line up with our values and who we think we are — who we say we are.”
A turning point for Greek life
Blake Jones said the need for a turning point for Greek life has been on the horizon for some time, and that the problems were evident for many years prior to the high-profile Treetops ski trip incident in January.
Over the summer, administrators began taking steps to curb these incidents by developing a task force composed of four leaders from the four branches of the Greek community: LSA senior Alex Krupiak, Interfraternity Council president; Business senior Maddy Walsh, Panhellenic Association president; LSA senior Reid McManus, National Pan-Hellenic Council president; and LSA senior Kelly Gee, Multicultural Greek Council president.
At February’s meeting of the University’s Board of Regents, Walsh said leaders from the Greek community were planning to work with the University to shift Greek life culture. During Thursday’s event, Walsh told the assembled crowd that the taskforce had created a plan to improve the reputation of Greek life members on campus.
The first part of the plan requires all Greek organizations to participate in the Achievement Expectations Program, which mandates that all chapters record and submit to the University their philanthropic and service-hour achievements. Walsh noted that last year, Greek students raised roughly $150,000 of the $450,000 raised for Dance Marathon.
Walsh also addressed concern over social life and the Greek system. She recommended chapters reduce the size and visibility of their parties to downplay the association between parties and Greek life. She said this reduces the liability and risk of hosting many potentially non-Greek students, who could be the ones destroying the reputation of Greek life. Another suggestion: reduce the amount of hard liquor at Greek parties.
Gee, the Multicultural Greek Council president, said the Greek community is working to improve diversity and inclusion. Until this meeting, the four branches of Greek life did not ever meet together for this type of discussion. Next year, a Greek life Diversity and Inclusion taskforce will be launched for that purpose.
Walsh said compared to other universities nationwide, the University’s practices for dealing with alcohol and other behavioral issues appear fairly advanced.
“We contacted universities across the country and found, to some extent, we are above the curve,” Walsh said. “Campuses with problematic Greek life communities are implementing sober monitors and social behavior policies which are things our Greek community at Michigan has had since the early 1990s.”
Frequent, loud coughs echoed throughout the auditorium and were regarded by several speakers as a purposeful disruption and show of disrespect.
As Schlissel spoke, members coughed so loudly that Harper, the following speaker, said while she rarely is intimidated by a large crowd, the negative atmosphere created by the coughing made her rethink her words.
Administrators weren’t the only ones to comment on the behavior. Krupiak, the IFC president, noted the display in his final comments.
“Think for a second about how much your chapter means to you,” Krupiak said. “I know it means a hell of a lot to me … But when students sit here and blatantly disrespect the leaders of our University and fellow students like myself and the three behind me, it’s flat-out embarrassing to say I’m a member of Greek life today.”
Correction appended: The story has been updated to reflect that Greek life members raised $150,000 for Dance Marathon alone.