Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed to protect the identities of several sources, denoted with an asterisk.
Everything is immaculately organized. The Panhellenic Association’s recruitment mass meeting will convene in the Michigan League’s Ballroom from 5 to 8 p.m. There will be 17 tables, one for each chapter in Panhel, and each table will be decorated with posters, paper cutouts and smiling girls in skirts and T-shirts.
I double-check the time written in my pink Moleskine before I step out the door — 6:00 isn’t too late, unless this thing was supposed to actually be a three-hour commitment. But that doesn’t make sense. Would our sisters actually keep us tied to chairs in the League for three hours, testing our dedication before the rush process even begins? I’m freaking out. And I’m not even rushing.
Greek life is a powerful social system on campus — powerful enough to make a seasoned journalist sweat through three layers of BareMinerals powder and powerful enough to draw a crowd of hundreds to a standard Thursday evening mass meeting.
At the beginning of my freshman year, I considered joining a sorority. I ended up making some friends in my hall and getting really busy with my film classes, and I chose not to rush. But sometimes I think about how my college experience would have been different if I’d stood in the League Ballroom three years ago, and found my family of sisters who made me miss home and Chicago a little less. Even as a senior, that’s an appealing prospect.
But I’m not writing this to justify my own decision to tough it out and carve out my friend group the old-fashioned way. I’m not writing this to put down anyone who joined Greek Life and loves it, and I’m not trying to capitalize on the stories of those who tried it and decided it wasn’t for them. I’m writing this article for my Ballroom-mates who chose not to hide behind a pink Moleskine and a prestigious editorial position at the campus newspaper. I’m writing this for all those orphans, floating by the intricately decorated tables, plastering on a smile and waiting to find their family.
According to data compiled by the University in winter 2015, 21.43 percent of the undergraduate population is involved in Greek life. Students who would like to join Greek Life are presented with several options: 28 official fraternities in the Interfraternity Council, 17 sororities in the Panhellenic Association and 12 sororities and fraternities in the Multicultural Greek Council. The recruitment process and other aspects of Greek life are formally governed by these student-led groups.
The Panhellenic Association (referred to as ‘“Panhel” by many members of the Greek community) mandates that Potential New Members (PNMs) participate in a formal September recruitment process. After the mass meetings, each PNM participates in a series of mixers and parties, briefly meeting women from every sorority before the second and third set events, where their choices are narrowed down through a mutual selection process. By October, sororities make bids on their top PNMs, each woman selects her favorite of the bids and pledges to the corresponding sorority.
The University’s Interfraternity Council website labels its recruitment system as “open” and “informal,” which means that the experience of rushing a frat differs a lot from house to house. But in general, young men who rush fraternities do not have to attend events and meet-and-greets at every fraternity; most guys pick between one and three frats to rush. Events are focused on evaluating the potential for a guy to join as one of the brothers, and male PNMs spend more time at an individual house during the rush process than their female equivalents. After weeks of parties, events and brotherly bonding, a fraternity will choose whether or not to make a bid on a guy, and if he is lucky enough to be accepted to more than one fraternity, the young pledge picks his favorite of the bunch.
When interviewed, many members of the Greek community for this story were tight-lipped about what goes on behind closed doors during those recruitment events. This is no surprise, considering that the IFC and Panhel are notoriously watchful during regular recruitment months, and are especially so in the recent firestorm of Greek controversy.
On Thursday, Sept. 10 (coincidentally, the same night as the Panhellenic Association’s mass meeting), members of every Greek chapter attended a mandatory discussion with University President Mark Schlissel and other members of University administration. Schlissel talked openly about his frustration with Greek life’s party culture, perpetuated through viral videos like “I’m Shmacked” and evidenced through incidents like Sigma Alpha Mu’s destruction of the Treetops Resort this past January. And party culture has consequences vastly worse than a night in the emergency room: A recent University-wide survey cited that members of Greek life are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their non-Greek peers.
LSA sophomore Julia Baer, a Delta Delta Delta sister, recalled her rush experience as being “a blur,” but was quick to point out that she never experienced any of the darker, news-headline-worthy aspects of Greek life.
“I feel like this reputation that exists because of a few people, and that’s really a shame, because it’s not representative of the community at all,” Baer said.
LSA senior Jessica* recalled picking out her outfit before the first mixer of recruitment season freshman year. Her Rho Omega — an upperclassman sorority member in charge of overseeing groups of PNMs — called Jessica with a few helpful tips and reminders.
“She said that some of the houses I was gonna go to were going to have cheese and cracker plates out, and that it was actually a test,” Jessica said. “If I actually ate the cheese and crackers in the houses, I would never get in.”
For Jessica, this was the moment where she decided that she wouldn’t continue rushing.
“That’s just so not me. Obviously, I was going to eat the cheese and crackers. I love cheese and crackers! It became this symbolic thing, like I can’t join an organization that wouldn’t accept me because I eat cheese.”
Jessica said she was ostracized by some of her friends after she decided not to rush. She had already talked to a few older girls in one of the sororities, and one friend had even approached the president of a chapter and promoted Jessica to her. Since she’d asked for favors and other girls had gone out of their way to comply, Jessica’s Greek friends felt slighted.
“That was actually the hardest thing to say no to. Once I felt like I was already being accepted by this group, to refuse that, it actually tarnished my friendship with those people,” Jessica said.
This subtle not-hazing, low-grade emotional warfare is a typical experience of rush for many girls. With the Panhel mandate of visiting every sorority and making connections in every room comes the inevitability of getting cut and facing rejection from many of the houses.
Baer remembered adoring Tri Delta so much that she thought of “suiciding” it — choosing Tri Delta as her only preference, meaning that if she weren’t accepted she would not be a part of Greek life. But Baer weighed her options and decided that she’d rather join a less-preferred sorority than spend all that time and effort in recruitment for nothing.
“I would not go through (recruitment) again. It’s emotional torture. It’s awful. But I was like, ‘I’m just gonna put everything down, and whatever house I get in, I’ll be in. I’ll make great friends no matter what,’ ” Baer said.
Not everyone sees Greek life in such an egalitarian way.
Many rushees refer to a website called GreekRank, which allows users to anonymously rate chapters based on qualities like “looks,” “classiness,” and “social life.” Comments on the site perpetuate “tiers” and other reductive stereotypes of particular chapters, but the data on the site is irresistible, and influences many girls’ rush preferences.
Baer, who hails from New York, believes that many in-state girls, who hear rumors about the tendencies of chapters, allow all the labels to influence their decisions in rush.
“A lot of people coming from Michigan come into rush with the idea that they have to be in ‘XYZ’ or they won’t do it,” Baer said. “For me, being in Tri Delt hasn’t been about rank at all. That’s not what I wanted, that’s not what it is. I have a great group of friends, my best friends, and it’s not a status thing at all.”
Baer doesn’t sugar-coat the exhausting weeks of rush and the stress that comes with choosing houses to preference, but she insists upon the merits of the end result — philanthropy, friendship, sisterhood, and a home away from home.
“I think, in general, girls go through this thing that’s like, mentally draining and emotionally draining. But from there on, it’s smooth sailing.”
When LSA senior Michael* rushed a non-IFC frat, he expected a good time.
The Interfraternity Council (or, as one source affectionately dubbed them, the “frat police”) is in many ways the laid-back brother of overachieving Panhel. They oversee the two-week periods of fraternity rush in the fall and winter, help with coordinating events and set recruitment deadlines and other rules that keep fraternities in line with University standards. Without the IFC to organize mass meetings and promote their chapters, non-IFC frats are on their own for recruitment — but they also have leeway in extending the rush and pledge periods … and the freedom to bend a few rules.
“The first event I went to, they gave us some free pizza, free beer and free weed, so that’s fine, I’m down with that,” Michael recalled.
Having older male friends in fraternities is a large part of the reason many guys rush fraternities. Though Michael was a self-professed “straight-edge dude” during his freshman year, as he became more entrenched in Ann Arbor culture he made more friends involved in alternative Greek Life, so he decided to rush during his junior year.
“Partially, I would say, it was a peer-pressure thing. (My friends) invited me to check out the house, and I was like, ‘Why not?’ And this particular frat had the reputation of being a not-standard frat, and (a standard frat) is something I knew I wouldn’t be into,” Michael said.
Despite the fact that he was rushing a non-IFC frat, Michael recognized some of the same dynamics from his uncles’ playful hazing stories of eating goldfish (yes, the swimming kind) and being locked in basements with kegs.
“I do believe they do hazing, but it’s not like they’re going to beat your ass with a paddle or anything like that,” Michael said.
Michael started to have his doubts about recruitment when he saw how long it went on — from free pizza in early October until the middle of January, when PNMs finally graduated to pledges.
In his three months of rushing, Michael had to memorize facts, songs and perform in front of the brothers. He had to clean bathrooms, wear a sweatpants uniform, give up his phone and stay locked in a room until one of the brothers granted him permission to leave. Toward the end, every minute he wasn’t in class, he was supposed to spend at the frat. Finally, he decided he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Their justification for making you go through all of this is that, when you’re done, you get to be part of this awesome social group and live in this cool house, and you have brothers forever, and it’s gonna be great. I didn’t doubt that these guys were going to be friendly afterwards, but I didn’t agree with their condition that to be a part of this group, you have to accept the emotional abuse.”
The week before recruitment ended, Michael notified the brothers that he was dropping out. They begged him to stay, offered to change and to cut the bullshit and start treating him better. In Michael’s words, both sides behaved like a couple in an “abusive relationship,” where one cannot control the horrors it inflicts and the other can’t resist the desire to be loved and accepted. Despite the bartering (the frat offered to let him back in without completing the last week of “events”), Michael broke it off.
Michael remains good friends with a lot of the guys in the frat, and made sure to tell me several times that his experience “wasn’t the worst thing ever in the world” and that the frat he rushed is generally one of the gentler, more “forward-thinking” ones on campus.
He sees the appeal in joining a fraternity, especially as a means to community-building.
“They welcome you with open arms. They say, ‘We’ll give you all the weed and all the girls you want,’ not telling you up-front what you have to do to actually get to the end. It isn’t sold as the intense kind of experience that it actually is.”
Several of the young women interviewed for this story referred to rush as “a blur,” a rigid and exhausting three weeks that one has to endure get to the wonderful part of Greek life — the sisterhood and the house and the luxury of participating in recruitment from the other side. For fraternity members, however, the lack of rigid governing structure means that the hard part can bleed over into the months following recruitment, the pledge period and the whole first year.
According to one study, women who rushed sororities were more likely to self-report feelings of low self-esteem than before they rushed. A Northwestern University study cited sorority rush as a catalyst for self-objectification and poor body image in college-aged women. For example, curvier women are more likely to experience feelings of low self-worth after judgment from their peers. According to the study, for every additional point in a woman’s Body Mass Index — a standardized calculation of weight in reference to height — she is 44 percent more likely to drop out of rush. Even after rush, women in sororities are more likely to maintain dysfunctional and harmful eating patterns than their non-Greek peers.
For fraternity members, hazing has lasting impact self-esteem and self-worth. A 2005 study reported that “striving to belong to a particular group, especially during ritualized initiations, may result in the justification of that effort, thereby inoculating individuals against any dissonant cognition they may harbor concerning the consequences of group membership.” The desire to be a part of the group can desensitize members to harmful group practices like objectification of women, alcohol and drug abuse and other destructive behaviors.
How do these tragedies happen in organization that’s built on principles of friendship and philanthropy?
The members of Greek life interviewed for this article point out the difficulty of rebuilding the foundation of Greek life, making it more fair and inclusive. The University’s Greek community is celebrating its 170th anniversary this year, and there’s no denying that campus has undergone significant political and social changes since the 19th century. Greek life, in its great size and prominence, is just a little slower in getting with the times.
The Multicultural Greek Council offers Greek opportunities for students who want to join a group of other philanthropy-minded students in their ethnic community, but Baer wishes that Panhel’s homogenous reputation would break down and encourage more diverse recruitment.
“Something that has really bothered me is hearing the way people talk, even within the Panhellenic system, there being sororities that are, like known as being, ‘Jewish’ and ‘not Jewish.’ That creates the issue of someone feeling like the outsider in such a tight-knit community. But this is college, and we’re so integrated and always interacting with such amazing and diverse people … I do wish there was that kind of diversity in Greek life,” Baer said.
While leadership in Panhel and the IFC did not respond to requests for a comment, sorority and fraternity members claim that Greek leadership is trying to change the system. But it isn’t easy.
“The guys, after I left (the fraternity), told me that they were in the process of trying to fix everything. But they were running up against opposition from alumni who were expecting (the frat) to continue with the same traditions that they were a part of,” Michael said.
Baer echoed the frustration of trying to reshape an institution that has had 170 years to calcify its traditions.
“I wish I knew how to fix it.”
At the Panhel mass meeting, I stand toward the back of the ballroom. I’m always a wallflower, but today, I’m also an old, sweaty upperclassman who doesn’t want to block the fresh recruits from the view of a table that might have info about their future home and their future sisters. I can’t see exactly what’s written on the posters and am only gleaning bits of what the older girls are saying to the mass meeting attendees. (I hear something about grilled cheese for charity, which sounds amazing from every angle.)
If any of these girls took a look at my banged-up Moleskine or heard the tinny of some Neutral Milk Hotel song playing from the earbuds dangling around my neck, they’d know I definitely don’t belong in this room right now. Maybe I never belonged. But I’m here now, so I might as well grab a pamphlet and listen.