Standing in the late afternoon sunlight amid a crowd of university students, I observed the scene before me. Music blared from a DJ stand I couldn’t see, swallowed in a mass of bodies decked out in maize and blue. A friend of mine from high school was in town, and an old soccer teammate of his invited us to visit his frat before we headed off to watch the Wolverines take on Michigan State.
The first thing I noticed was the blue tarp surrounding the frat house’s backyard, which served to both maintain the frat’s privacy and give the backyard an atmosphere of exclusivity, like an improvised club for the University of Michigan “a-listers.”
The second thing I noticed was that, as I pushed through the crowd, the faces I passed had the same skin tone as me. Despite not knowing any of the fraternity members or “brothers” there, I was well aware of the reason I could waltz in as if I belonged. Being a white person myself, I was all too comfortable in the company of a group that I blended right into.
When you’re in the moment — EDM tunes blaring in your ears, solo cup in hand — it’s easy to see how the privilege of being a part of “the brotherhood” is appealing to so many university students across the country — a privilege that has historically created homogenous groups of campus “cool kids,” a privilege deeply embedded in systems of racism, homophobia, classism — the list goes on.
Greek life gives students the opportunity to choose their social circle, but it’s not unique in that sense. Social hierarchy is synonymous with Greek life, but beyond the explicit measures of social standing, like the ranking systems that determine the “top” frats and sororities, many student organizations on campus operate in a similar way, positioning themselves in relation to their peers.
Involvement in student organizations is a means for students to tout their status, whether it be a sorority or the ski and snowboard club.
To investigate this, I spoke with LSA sophomore Alina Malin, a member of the a cappella group The Compulsive Lyres, one of over a dozen a cappella groups on campus.
Malin explained that when it comes to a cappella at the University of Michigan, an organization that features “rushing” loosely similar to that of Greek Life, “Certain groups are very driven by competition … and certain groups are all about the social aspect.”
“There are certain groups that tend to compete more, have more funding and have worked toward performance quality over other things,” Malin continued. “There is a hierarchy in terms of performance ability because that’s measurable.”
However, while a cappella and Greek life both have hierarchies, for Malin, the similarities end there. “People don’t really join a cappella to get social standing,” Malin said.
So, competition among different a cappella groups may not be the popularity contest that is Greek life, but you’re still going to end up with people rushing what they perceive as the “best” a cappella group.
To be certain of social hierarchy’s heightened relevance to Greek life, I spoke with an anonymous member of the business fraternity Phi Gamma Nu about their experience. The interviewee chose to remain anonymous out of a concern for the potential social ostracism they might face for speaking up about social dynamics among the business fraternities.
Explaining their fraternity’s position in comparison to the other business frats, they said, “We would be considered kind of lower than everyone else.”
“Within the business frats, they’re called the tri-frat … It’s DSP (Delta Sigma Pi), PCT (Phi Chi Theta) and AKPsi (Alpha Kappa Psi), and they were the first three established at Michigan,” the interviewee said.
Hence, Phi Gamma Nu hasn’t been around for as long as these “top” frats and is not afforded the same prestige.
Getting into one of the top frats can mean a lot to prospective members. “That’s a big mentality people have when rushing,” the interviewee explained. The rushing process involves interviews, in which, according to a Reddit post on r/uofm, those rushing get “grilled pretty hard.”
Being in a business frat is an opportunity to establish connections that will last into post-college life in the workforce. In other words, “They all do the same thing, it’s just different social cultures, but people still perceive a ranking even though it’s just there for the sake of having a hierarchy,” the interviewee said.
Whether that hierarchy truly matters or not is up to the individual. As this person told me, “I view them kind of as friend groups, and when you’re rushing, you should see which friend group you want to fit into best.”
Lucy Brock, an LSA junior and member of the sorority Sigma Kappa, echoed this sentiment.
Speaking about the people who she has grown close to in Greek life, she said, “We’re just kinda there to have fun and make friends.”
“I think social status is given a lot of weight because you join the organization to represent (it), and so you want to be proud of what you’re representing,” Brock said. This drive to represent one’s broader community arises in many of the student organizations on campus, be it a sorority, club sport, improv group, activist organization or even the a cappella groups and business frats previously discussed.
I spoke with a resident in the John Nakamura House, one of Ann Arbor’s sixteen cooperative houses making up the Inter-Cooperative Council, about how the presence of power dynamics in even these cooperative living environments is reminiscent of the power imbalances implicit to Greek life. The interviewee elected to remain anonymous, concerned that they might face social retribution for speaking so openly about the ins and outs of co-op life.
“I have to speak very carefully,” they warned me. “There are positions within the house that hold a lot of influence on other people’s lives.” They gave me an example: “There’s a job where you get to choose who does what chore,” — a practice prevalent throughout all cooperative houses under the houses’ founding principles of ‘mutual cooperation’ and ‘distribution of economic result.’ That is, all hours of labor are split up evenly amongst housemates. Nevertheless, there is still one person elected to execute how those hours are distributed.
“No matter what kind of living environment you’re in, that kind of position will have power associated with it,” they said.
Many see communal living as an alternative to the rigid structure of Greek life, but this person confirmed that the truth is more complex.
“I think a lot of people do think co-ops tend to be very liberal and free spirited, but I also know a lot of people in co-ops who think that they are the exact opposite.”
I asked the Nakamura House member if Greek life gets unfairly singled out for hierarchies when these same, albeit less-obvious, social rankings seem to exist in co-op life as well.
“I would say no,” they quickly responded. “Although, house members that have been (living in the co-op) longer do get priority for picking rooms … That is the way in which the hierarchy is institutionalized, but (the social hierarchy) is not anything close to a frat.”
There was one area in which this person saw co-ops getting increasingly similar to Greek life.
“There’s been a lot of complaints that the ICC is getting richer and whiter,” they said. “I look at the co-ops, and I see who is in them, they’re all white.”
Fraternities and sororities, a staple of American college culture, epitomize the societal segregation that prevents minorities from ascending to the inner circles of the wealthy and powerful.
In an article for The Atlantic, Maria Konnikova explains how. Historically, fraternity men make up “76 percent of U.S. senators” and “85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.” It is no surprise, then, that from the beginning, “The fraternity system was a product of America’s elite: the white, the Christian, the wealthy … the male.”
Since then, Historically White Fraternities and Sororities have garnered a reputation of barring entry to students of Color to preserve the homogeneity that their organizations were founded on.
Hence, Greek life and hierarchy are inseparable in the conscience of college students, and for good reason. But if hierarchy exists elsewhere — in co-ops, a cappella and beyond — and the only thing stopping us from seeing that is the lack of a website like Greek Rank to track the standings of the different organizations, then the rest of us can’t act as though we don’t contribute to perpetuating hierarchies on campus.
Even the democratic principles of co-ops fall short when it comes to power imbalances among members.
Greek life is just an outcome of the way we all think — a way of thinking that reinforces injustice for those at the bottom of the college-life hierarchy. Whether or not we buy into the criteria that makes some organizations “better” than others is up to us.
Statement Columnist Connor O’Leary Herreras can be reached at email@example.com.