Part two in a two-part series on race in the Greek system. Read the first installment in our archives.
When Randal Seriguchi, the National Pan-Hellenic Council’s vice president, talks about the Greek system’s capacity to cultivate campus diversity, he is more blunt than most executives.
“It’s kind of inherently known by students that Greeks have a great deal of influence within the student body,” he said. “But I don’t think a lot of Greeks exercise that influence – correctly, anyway.”
Seriguchi seems determined to change this.
A movement toward integration that encompasses all four Greek councils is growing – from the culture-specific chapters of the relatively young Multicultural Greek Council to the centuries-old majority-white houses of the massive Interfraternity Council.
Jared Averbuch, president of the IFC, said the integration movement is occurring on two fronts: across the Greek system’s four councils and within its individual chapters.
Ask Greek executives to identify the key to an integrated system and most will tell you it is interaction between the different councils. Press for specifics and the conversation will inevitably wind toward Greek Week, the mid-March burst of activity that transforms campus into a playground of volleyball tournaments, Diag dunk tanks and dance contests.
Traditionally, Greek Week has been the domain of the mostly white Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association. But other chapters are increasingly eager to join in.
Last year, Kappa Alpha Psi was the only historically black group to participate. Even this was a step forward, said Tony Saunders, the president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council.
Kappa Alpha Psi partnered with Alpha Chi Omega, a Panhellenic Association sorority that was initially unfamiliar with the other’s mission and history.
Over the course of the week, Saunders said, the sorority’s interest in the fraternity blossomed, setting a positive precedent for future involvement.
According to Seriguchi, at least four NPHC chapters will participate next March.
Multicultural Greek Council President Sejal Tailor said that MGC chapters were also enthusiastic, but that the chapters’ small sizes often constrict their ability to build adequately large teams to compete in the Greek Week activities.
This year, Brian Millman, IFC’s vice president of public relations, and his Panhel counterpart, Andi Reich, said they were aggressively reaching out to MGC and NPHC chapters.
Both described an increasing trend toward integration within the councils, citing mutual programming.
Over the past year, NPHC has planned and staged involvement with K-Grams and the School of Education, often incorporating the other councils.
“Historically, this has never happened before,” Saunders said. “All of our four councils getting together and doing actual work together to benefit the broader U of M community – a step in the right direction.”
Seriguchi, for example, maintains a list of planned joint programs, including a Chinese auction – a raffle-like fundraising event.
With time, he hopes it will involve all four of the Greek system’s councils – regardless of their cultural or ethnic focus.
Reid Benjamin, president and main founder of the year-old University chapter of Pi Lambda Phi, lives with three of his fraternity brothers in a Wilmot Court house’s living room.
Since its birth at Yale University in 1895, Pi Lambda Phi has billed itself as a “fraternity in which ability, open-mindedness, farsightedness, and a progressive, forward-looking attitude would be recognized as basic attributes.”
Near the end of fall semester last year, Benjamin and a group of Mary Markley and Alice Lloyd residents brought the chapter and its mission to the University.
Yesterday, gathered in the living room were 12 of the fraternity’s 32 members, a broad spectrum of skin tones and talents. One was a champion bowler, another an expert piano player, another an accomplished aeronautics engineer.
Most, he said, stray far from the “Animal House” stigma associated with traditional fraternities.
Each member of the house’s pioneering class had flirted with a more traditional role in the Greek system.
Pi Lambda Phi is different, he said.
Boyer was raised in a suburban school in Rochester, with one black student in his graduating class. Now, he said, he’s found his role reversed. Next year, he’ll be the lone white student in a house of four.
LSA freshman Keith Binion, who is black and was raised in Detroit, attended a Grosse Pointe high school. After four years, he was tired of juggling two divergent racial landscapes: Grosse Pointe and Detroit.
Early freshman year, he considered joining Phi Beta Sigma, an NPHC house. But Pi Lambda Phi’s diverse atmosphere won him over, he said.
Some fraternity members struggled as they sought to provide anecdotes about the house’s diversity.
“You have to kind of extract it from us,” Benjamin said. “We’re not really conscious of it.”
Diversity, they said, is not their explicit goal. Diversity should proceed naturally from their commitment to “unity without conformity,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m never conscious of the race of my brothers. Except when I tell Hecky (Powell) that he hates white people,” said LSA sophomore Dustin Frankel, motioning to Powell.
Laughter filled the living room.
As with most friends, Benjamin said, humor brings them together.
“What you just saw Dustin do just there – that’s a good example,” he said.
LSA sophomore Tony Nguyen said one of the best bonding moments the fraternity brothers had had as a group was a night they spent making racial jokes.
Some may decry their joking as insensitive, but they say the atmosphere of familiarity and brotherhood disintegrates the barriers and hostilities that might otherwise exist.
Somewhat ironically, the most effective weapon for engaging the damage wrought by stereotyping and labeling may itself be a label: Greek.
In Angell Hall a few weeks ago, Seriguchi was on his way to Greek 101, a not-for-credit class designed to introduce Hellenic leaders to University Greek life.
It’s programs like this one, where Greeks foster personal relationships, that are integral to success in bridging racial division in the system, the NPHC vice president said.
“If you’re cool with people, you’re more likely to call them for events you’re doing,” he said.
Many executives cited Pike’s Halloween party – where hundreds of Greeks and non-Greeks of several races mingled – as evidence of what can proceed from personal bonds.
Averbuch and Jarrett Smith, president of Phi Beta Sigma, the traditionally black fraternity that cosponsored the Halloween party, met through LeaderShape, a six-day program run by the Office of Student Activities and Leadership to nurture students’ organizational skills.
“It makes me feel like the Greek system is trying to collaborate,” Tailor said of the party’s success.
Like all student organizations, the Greek system is constantly pressured by its leaders’ often chaotic academic schedules and impending graduations. Imprinting new traditions on institutional memory can be daunting.
To combat this, Averbuch suggested making the Halloween party an annual event.
Tailor said she would leave her successor with tips on formalizing MGC’s relationships with the other councils’ leaders.
The Greek system’s wide social appeal and more than 2,000 members make it a more viable instrument than most campus groups, Averbuch said.
“All we have to do is provide a vision,” Averbuch said. “We have all the resources.”