Divided We Stand: Greek Life at the "U"
Milan Crawford is used to being the only Black girl in the room. She attended Cranbrook-Kingswood, an elite, predominantly white private school in Bloomfield Hills. She was also competitive in swimming, a sport with notably few Black athletes.
But when on break during her freshman year, Crawford, now an LSA senior, told her family members that she had pledged Alpha Phi, one of the University of Michigan's 16 Panhellenic sororities. In return, she remembers receiving looks of confusion.
Many of Milan’s family members were part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, a historically Black Greek life council composed of nine fraternities and sororities known as the “Divine 9” on their respective college campuses.
Crawford is one of few minority women in her sorority and within the University’s Panhellenic community. Choosing to rush a Panhellenic sorority rather than one of the “Divine 9” was a personal decision that came down to her comfort and experience operating in predominantly white spaces — a multicultural choice many students on campus find themselves facing, even as Greek life considers ways to approach diversity and inclusion.
Diversity, or lack thereof, isn't an isolated challenge on campus.
This past September, University President Mark Schlissel launched a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategic Planning Initiative in an effort to improve the campus climate across every school and college. A Diversity Summit held this past November additionally served as a platform for students and faculty members to directly express their ideas and concerns they have surrounding issues of equity and inclusion on campus.
While the planning process is underway, with the release of official plans scheduled for Spring 2016, several programs have already jumpstarted the president’s push for an improved racial climate, resulting in visible improvements on campus.
One such program, the HAIL Scholars program, short for the High Achieving Involved Leader, seeks to improve the recruitment of economically disadvantaged, high-achieving students from throughout the state through increased resources and full-tuition scholarships. While minority enrollment increased this past year for the first time since 2005, diversity, equity and inclusion on campus is still a prevalent issue not only within academic and administrative spheres, but within the social one as well. Overall, underrepresented minority enrollment increased by 12.8 percent, and the number of Black students increased by 4.82 percent.
The University’s Greek life community is one in particular slowly working to improve enduring racial divisions.
Twenty-five percent of this campus is involved in Greek life, and when the term “Greek life” comes to mind, activities such as the Mud Bowl, Winterfest and St. Fratty’s Day undoubtedly follow. Giant houses that line Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue are common associations, but what many don’t realize is that these fraternities and sororities comprise just two of the four Greek councils on this campus.
Greek Life at the University is comprised of four groups: the Inter-Fraternity Council, the Panhellenic Council, the National Pan-Hellenic Council and Multi-Cultural Greek Council.
It's been a tumultuous year for the University’s IFC/Panhellenic community following several ski trips gone awry last February. Mary Beth Seiler, who has been the director of Greek life at the University for the past 37 years, is also set to retire amid many reforms currently underway within the Greek community. Each reform is set to combat such campus issues as alcohol abuse, sexual assault, the relationship between the city’s police department and the campus community and diversity.
Seiler said there is no denying that racism was once present in Greek life.
“Historically, honestly, there has been discrimination,” Seiler said. “Absolutely. That’s why we have organizations that were founded as African American, Jewish, Catholic ... There was outright discrimination. Nobody can really deny that.”
She added that the disproportionate sizes of the separate Greek Councils pose a barrier to mixing and socializing between the councils. For instance, she says, a social event between a 200-person Panhellenic sorority and a 30-person NPHC Fraternity might pose discomfort for minority students involved. In addition, IFC/Panhel’s Greek Week, one of their largest events, falls around many NPHC organizations’ Founders Days — an important, busy season of tradition within the NPHC community.
Nonetheless, Seiler said there has been a push within the past year to promote awareness of the separate councils and their unique traditions within each organization. This push starts with encouraging members of the four councils to attend the philanthropic, cultural and social events of the four different councils.
“Are we where we want to be? No, absolutely not,” Seiler said. She noted that she strives to improve relations and communication between the four councils, but that she also believes it’s important for them to maintain their own identities within such diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“When we find those times we can actually collaborate and do something together — that’s great, but the goal is not to do everything together necessarily,” Seiler said.
She went on to say that many people ask her about the inherent issue of inclusion in organizations historically founded for certain races, ethnicities and religions within the four councils. She explained that she believes the separate councils and individual Greek organizations that cater to specific identities are an important source of comfort for students of different backgrounds on campus.
“Not everybody wants to be in a 200-member sorority no matter what, so the fact that there are options is good,” Seiler said. “And I think, especially at Michigan, making your organization intentionally diverse — and some students feel like that’s what they should do — you know, they should reach out more to students with different identities, and while that may sound very noble, you have to realize: Well, maybe that’s not what they want.”
LSA senior Arnold Reed, a former Black Student Union speaker, said his NPHC fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, has been a source of comfort for him as a minority student on a campus with more than 43 thousand students, less than 5 percent of which are Black.
While both he and LSA senior Reid McManus, an LSA senior and former NPHC council president, said equity and inclusion between the four councils has gradually improved on campus over the past year with the creation of the Greek life task forces, they added that the University has a long way to go to achieve equity and inclusion.
Both Reed and McManus identified a general lack of awareness among the four councils as a major barrier between the organizations. The councils don’t mix often, they explained, due to a lack of knowledge of each other’s traditions and events.
Reed said he would specifically like to see more IFC/Panhel members demonstrating a willingness to learn about NPHC’s unique traditions, such as twirling canes — a tradition sacred to Kappa Alpha Psi.
“When people see that for the first time, they’re not really sure what to make of it,” Reed said. “But I appreciate the organizations who, when they see us do that, they’re respectful and they say ‘Hey, what do you call that? What is that? That’s really cool. What’s the history behind it?’ As opposed to, I’ve had other organizations when I’ve had it in my hand try and grab it.”
Reed added that NPHC has a strong history of reaching out to other minority groups on campus, as demonstrated by its 27th annual multicultural talents show “Night at the Set” held earlier this year.
“I think just on an exterior level people tend to feel more comfortable with people that look like them,” Reed said. “Nothing is necessarily wrong with that; however, our organization has tried to make its recruiting efforts very diverse ... I think it really just depends case by case.”
And while he understands some organizations within the four councils choose not to interact with other councils out of comfort, Reed says he is hopeful that members within each community don’t feel as though the opportunity to socialize with other councils isn’t there.
“Whether or not you choose to interact with each other across councils, I don’t want people feeling as if there’s a wall there,” Reed added.
McManus attributed the apparent separation between the four councils to potential differences in students’ motivations behind joining Greek organizations in the first place. NPHC, for instance, attracts students seeking to continue the legacy of their parents, aunts or uncles. Both McManus and Reed chose to join Kappa Alpha Psi because of the influence of family members who were also members on their own college campuses. IFC and Panhel, McManus said, is more of a social draw for students than one of culture and legacy.
McManus pointed out another potential social barrier between students across the University’s four councils: their pre-exposure to different races and ethnicities. McManus explained that, because he went to a diverse high school, he came to the University with a certain level of comfort operating in all different racial and ethnic communities, whereas some of his friends, in both NPHC and IFC/Panhel alike, attended schools dominated by a specific race.
“I don’t think there’s a divide in how we socialize with each other,” McManus said. “I think it’s that some people don’t know how, just because they haven’t had to or haven’t been exposed to it. I feel like a lot of the white students that come to this University — they don’t know about the organizations within the NPHC and what they can offer. It’s not their fault because they just haven’t been exposed to it.”
McManus also pointed out a stereotype he finds harmful that, he said, is often applied to men and women of color who choose to join IFC or Panhellenic organizations: that they don’t want to be within their culture.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh, they’re washed. They don’t wanna be with their culture,’ ” McManus said. “But I mean, I’ve talked to them, and they’re actually really cool individuals. They just decided that’s what they wanna do just because they grew up around not really knowing the African-American community.”
In reference to the stereotype, McManus added: “I don’t like that. A lot of my friends are white, and if I had joined an IFC fraternity I wouldn’t want that.”
Looking back on her time at the University, Crawford says her experience as a member of Alpha Phi was only positive. She said she feels fortunate she has never experienced instances of racism as a minority woman in a Panhellenic sorority.
She did, however, say that national headlines following instances of cultural appropriation and racism in Greek organizations — both at the University and on other college campuses — upsets her. In 2013, for instance, the University’s chapter of Theta Xi planned to hold a “ratchet” themed party, complete with an offensive Facebook event description and a photo that parodied Black culture.
“You hear that and you’re just like ‘Why the hell would I wanna join or be a part of anything like that?’ ” Crawford said. “And it makes sense. I don’t know how you change an entire culture.”
“It’s kind of opened my eyes, and I don’t wanna say that I’ve been ignorant this whole time, but I’m starting to see things and realize that ‘OK, I understand that I’m the only African American in my pledge class or chapter, but how can I use that to educate my peers?’ ” Crawford said. She added that, as a woman of color operating in an overwhelmingly white space, she often feels lacking in a space for open dialogue.
“When things like that tend to come up I’m silent — and I don’t like that I’m like that,” Crawford said. “I’m not very open about throwing my opinions on people, but when things like that come up, I feel like me speaking up can give my friends a new perspective, but I guess I’m not comfortable having those types of conversations around them.”
On the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus, Crawford says she sees significant room for improvement within the IFC/Panhel community. She recalled telling her mother she was excited after seeing three or four girls of color walk through the Alpha Phi house during a recent formal recruitment process.
“I wish that it was something that wasn’t so rare. It’s slowly but surely getting better, but there needs to be so much more that’s done,” Crawford said.
Crawford echoed McManus’ thoughts on a severe lack of education and awareness among IFC/Panhel organizations of the traditions and events of MGC and NPHC organizations. For instance, she said she believes a mandatory community meeting, held earlier this year by Schlissel to address issues of alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct and other issues that have put Greek life at the center of attention both on campus and across the nation, was the first time members of all Greek life organizations came together.
She added that the IFC/Panhel could significantly benefit from increased interaction with the MGC and NPHC communities.
“There’s just so many different perspectives,” Crawford said. “You learn so much from someone who is completely different from you. There’s people from so many different backgrounds and so many different cultures and so many races and I feel that Panhel and IFC is very closed off to that and I think it’s a problem.”
To minority women thinking of rushing Panhellenic sororities, Crawford highlighted confidence and self-awareness as crucial pieces of advice.
“Always make sure that you’re confident in yourself,” Crawford said. “When you hear these disgusting things in the news, and you hear these headlines, and you hear what’s going on and you’re hearing about the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s really easy in a situation where you are the minority to start not to be self-aware and you start feeling uncomfortable and feeling judged. It’s really easy for that to happen.”