This is the first article in a two-part series on race in the Greek system. A second installment on how Greeks are addressing the issue will appear on
On the Friday night before Halloween, Pi Kappa Alpha President Jared Averbuch watched something strange unfold at a party at his Washtenaw Avenue fraternity house.
It wasn’t the number of people – an estimated 1,500 cramming Pike’s dance floors, porches and narrow hallways – that was unusual.
It was their faces: a mingling of black and white on a level he had never seen.
And it wasn’t the festive “Get Your Booze On” emblazoned across the event’s custom-made T-shirts that made him smirk with pride.
It was the Greek letters above the slogan, the ones that listed Phi Beta Sigma, a traditionally black fraternity, as the party’s co-sponsor.
The feeling was something “you can’t put words on,” Averbuch said.
He described a gushing of energy and excitement so profound that its afterglow spilled out into the streets and stayed there for weeks.
This was the kind of transcendence of traditional racial boundaries that the diversity advocates in the University administration dream about.
But it takes a particular social allure – something the administration often lacks – to pull off an event on this scale.
Student organizations have a unique ability to break down the racial, ethnic and religious boundaries that often split the student body.
Of these groups, few are better positioned to create change than the University’s huge network of fraternities and sororities.
And now, according to executives in the Greek system’s four governing councils, the desire for action is taking hold.
Greek leaders are discussing social events designed to break down racial barriers, like the one at Pike, on an unprecedented scale.
This year, growing numbers of historically black and Latino fraternities and sororities are signing up for Greek Week, a seven-day torrent of Hellenic pride in March that has been traditionally dominated by majority-white houses.
Last year, a chapter of Pi Lambda Phi, a fraternity founded at Yale in 1895 to counter the racial exclusivity of the era, sprang up on campus.
Randal Seriguchi, vice president of the historically black National Pan-Hellenic Council, said change is overdue.
“This is time to wake up,” he said.
EFFECTS OF PROP 2
Averbuch might appear an unlikely candidate to usher in a new era of campus diversity: a white native of West Bloomfield, he wore a backward Michigan baseball cap, a polo shirt and a single earring in his left lobe during an interview last week.
But that’s the role he has found himself in.
Last Monday, Averbuch was inaugurated as president of the Interfraternity Council, the University’s largest governing Greek body. Over the next year, he will direct the council through the aftermath of Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that banned the use of affirmative action by public institutions in Michigan. The passage of similar initiatives in Washington and California has led to dramatic declines in minority enrollment at those states’ flagship public universities.
Two days before he took office, Averbuch reflected on the Halloween party’s success in the dim orange light of the Michigan Union basement.
“All of our big parties in the past have been the same,” he said. “A lot of people, dancing – it was like going through the routines. When there’s new people, people get excited to go out and make a new friend.”
He sat about 15 feet away from the area in the Union that many call the “Black Hole” because of its perceived status as a meeting place for black students.
“Even though we’re diverse, people think there’s a lot of segregation,” Averbuch said. But events like the last month’s party, he said, can fix that.
“It’s like integration,” he said. “(People no longer say) it’s one group of people over here, and one group of people over here.”
In an interview two weeks earlier, Seriguchi was more explicit.
“The thing is that minority groups here tend to stay with each other,” he said. “It’s sort of a hesitant attitude on their part to expand their horizons. I think the Greeks could play a larger role in changing that.”
The affirmative action ban has made these issues more immediate.
“It’s crunch time now, game time,” Seriguchi said, leaning forward in his seat. “People are seeing that now we definitely have a real thing against us.”
A BRIEF HISTORY
No matter how good the intentions, cross-council coordination can be a thorny task.
Since the University’s first two fraternities were founded in 1845, the Greek system has evolved into a complex and layered institution.
Today, it includes nearly 60 chapters and more than 2,000 members.
At its head are four councils, each defined by a specific set of chapters, mission statements and goals.
Averbuch’s Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Association are the largest. Together, they encompass the majority-white fraternities and sororities whose large houses populate the east and west borders of campus.
As late as 1959, some IFC fraternities had constitutional clauses barring members of certain races.
The Multicultural Greek Council is the newest. Its University branch was founded in 2002. It now consists of culture-specific fraternities and sororities with such as Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian-interest house.
Apart from their smaller size, MGC chapters differ mostly in their recruiting efforts, said Sejal Tailor, the group’s president.
While IFC and Panhell directly oversee their houses’ recruitment, multicultural chapters prescribe to more individualized guidelines and rules.
The smallest and most frequently misunderstood council is Seriguchi’s National Pan-Hellenic Council, which existed as the Black Greek Association until 2003.
On a national level, NPHC was founded in 1930 on the campus of the historically black Howard University in Washington. It united five historically black Greek houses.
Over the next 70 years, it added four more, forming what the group calls the “Divine Nine.”
“We all have the same purpose, in a sense: to uplift our community,” said Tony Saunders, president of the University’s branch.
The need for campus support is less visible than it was when Alpha Phi Alpha, the council’s first chapter, was founded on Cornell’s campus in 1906 in response to lynchings and beatings of blacks, he said. But it does persist.
“We still see the struggles (black students) face in terms of a support system on campus,” he said. “There’s definitely still a hole there.”
Because the council emphasizes history and requires a time commitment on par with that of a four-credit class, its chapters are usually include 10 to 14 members, most of them black.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time it will be majority African-Americans, due to people’s fathers or grandfathers or grandmothers who were part of the council,” Saunders said. “The history relates to them directly, so they feel more of an attachment to it than others might.”
Despite their culture-specific focuses, University policy prohibits MGC and NPHC chapters from discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity.
But even if they could, executives said, they wouldn’t. Most chapters consider fostering diversity a central tenet of their missions.
“We don’t want people to feel weird, like we’re not approachable,” Saunders said. “Historically, we’re African American; however, we want to serve the campus community as a whole.”
Tailor, a member of a traditionally South Asian sorority, agreed.
“There was a white girl in my sorority,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
When the four councils mesh, it is usually on the fourth floor of the Union in the cramped Office of Greek Life.
Amid countless lettered banners and brochures, fundraisers are planned, volunteers are coordinated and friendships are forged.
This is the hub of campus Greek activity.
From a shared office, Mary Beth Seiler and Chris Haughee, the director and assistant director of Greek Life, advise recruitment efforts, maintain alumni connections and channel the unending stream of Greek issues.
With them, B.J. Harmon, a third-year law student, specifically advises the MGC and the NPHC. As an undergraduate at Columbia University he was a member of an NPHC chapter and helped establish that school’s Multicultural Greek Council.
For Greeks, the office is like a bridge to the University. It connects them to it, but it doesn’t control their activities.
During an interview two weeks ago, Seiler held a neat yellow legal pad full of bulleted talking points. She was eager to discuss her office’s role in helping bridge cultural divides.
“I’ve always felt that our Greek community can be the model for diversity on this campus,” she said. But real progress has been limited to recent years.
“It really wasn’t until we got this space up here on the fourth floor (seven years ago) that we really started functioning together as a Greek community,” she said.
It was then that the University started providing its standard benefits package to council advisers. Until then, they had been compensated entirely by alumni donations and students’ membership dues.
The move signaled a shift in Greeks’ role on campus, Seiler said. It acknowledged them as a legitimate entity and lent the system credibility.
Along with a new sense of responsibility to the University, the separate councils now shared physical space. Proximity bred familiarity.
“If you start to see yourself as a community when you first join, it’s only going to get better,” Seiler said.
When students interact on a personal level, barriers crumble, Seiler said. Her office seeks to encourage this. But still, she said, it is up to the students how and when they want to interact.
Forcing partnerships and interaction would take away from the individualistic nature of the councils, a vital aspect of Greek life, Seiler said.
“That would be trying to make everyone the same,” she said. “We don’t do that.”
Still, the Greek system isn’t satisfied with the status quo.