Similar to fashion trends, sorority and fraternity chapters cycle in and out of campus communities across the nation each year. Greek Life representatives say that the desirability of the University’s Greek system puts it on the upward end of the cycle and draws more chapters to Ann Arbor.
Despite the popularity of sororities and fraternities on campus, it’s not uncommon for chapters to leave and return after a few years. Throughout the past five years, two Panhellenic Association sororities — Alpha Epsilon Phi and Zeta Tau Alpha — and eight Interfraternity Council fraternities — Pi Lambda Phi, Delta Tau Delta, Sigma Pi, Sigma Chi, Alpha Tau Omega, Theta Delta Chi, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Beta Theta Pi — have returned to campus after brief dismemberments.
Sororities AEPhi and Zeta returned to the University Greek system in 2008 and 2009 respectively, according to assistant director of Greek Life Chris Haughee.
Over the past few years, Haughee said there has “definitely (been) a growth in both number of members and number of chapters.”
The return of the IFC fraternities spans from 2005 to today. Pi Lamda Phi returned in 2005, followed Delta Tau Delta and Sigma Pi in 2006, Sigma Chi in 2008, Alpha Tau Omega in 2009. Theta Delta Chi returned to campus in 2008 and rejoined IFC in 2010, Tau Kappa Epsilon returned in 2009 and Beta Theta Pi returned in 2010. This fall, Acacia fraternity will also return to campus.
LSA junior and Panhellenic Society Vice President of Public Relations Sarah Smith, who is also a Michigan Daily columnist, said the Greek community at the University is growing with each passing year.
“We’re doing more,” Smith said. “Not only are we getting more new members, but our councils are becoming more active with events, programming and philanthropy. It’s a great time to be a Michigan Greek.”
This year, the University accepted its largest freshman class ever. Compared to previous freshman classes, Smith said more of them decided to join a fraternity or sorority and “go Greek.”
Dissolving a chapter
Most fraternities and sororities on campus are part of a larger national organization and must adhere to the policies and procedures set up by that group.
Haughee said the decision for a Greek letter organization to leave campus usually roots from risk management issues and the national organization’s decision to remove the chapter. It’s generally not up to the University to determine which chapters can stay on campus.
Smith said it’s not that something is “fundamentally wrong” with a chapter that makes them leave and come back, but rather a desire to start over.
Haughee clarified that the two councils — Panhel and IFC — ultimately determine whether or not a chapter exists in its organization, but the national organization dictates if the chapter remains.
“It’s like a franchise like McDonalds or Starbucks,” he said. “You have a lot of McDonalds all over the country, and all over the world some of them are a lot better than others. Now applying that to fraternity and sorority life, sometimes the quality isn’t there so the franchise chooses to shut it down and reopen it with a potentially new owner. It works the same way.”
Haughee added that many national organizations have spoken with some of the local chapters and the Office of Greek Life at the University to map out a strategy for a future return to campus.
He said the alumni base is also paramount to the success of a chapter’s return, adding that that they are often the “key players.”
Smith said regardless of the reason for departure, the chapters always desire returning to the University.
“They always want to come back provided they can support a chapter (at the University),” Smith said.
Re-building the bonds
Smith said a chapter’s return is not simply a matter of improving its image and presence on campus.
“That can be a thing, but its not so much about the name or reputation of the chapter,” she said. “If the national organization feels (the chapter) is not a safe environment, or if they feel the problems are increasing, (nationals) will choose to remove the chapter and come back later. It’s about keeping the members safe.”
LSA junior and Panhel President Taylor Schmidt agreed. Schmidt said chapters may get rid of their negative image over time, which helps a chapter return to campus.
“I don’t think there is any redemption that they are trying to fulfill when they come back,” she said.
Smith echoed this sentiment, saying a chapter may have a certain reputation when its founded, but five years later, it can be completely different.
“They could recruit different men or women,” she said. “They could start to abide by or not abide by policies. It totally depends on the group of people in the organization. I don’t think they are concerned about looking better or coming back with a better image because that image can change.”
Smith said chapters that return are often motivated to join the local councils rather than existing outside of them. The benefits of being a member include recruitment assistance, participation in Greek Week and protection and assistance.
“There’s also a sense of community that comes with being a part of it,” Smith said.
The new Panhellenic sororities
The process for returning sororities is “complicated,” Haughee said. New chapters require approval from the National Panhellenic Conference and the local Panhellenic Association. Additionally, the starting chapter must acquire a house and prove it can fill it with enough women.
Meg McAvoy, LSA junior and Panhel’s vice president of internal recruitment, said returning chapters go through a modified process during Panhel’s recruitment in the fall. Those chapters meet in the Michigan Union and make themselves known to potential new members.
“You can’t host formal recruitment without members,” McAvoy said. “What they did is they took representatives from around the country and gave presentations in the Union and would recruit women after formal recruitment ended. The following year they’d participate in formal recruitment like all the other chapters.”
Interested women can either drop out of formal recruitment right away and pursue the new chapter or wait until the end of the recruitment process to show that they want to join. Eligibility of members is determined through interviews with adult representatives of the organization.
Smith said the reason that a particular process exists is because members are essential for recruiting in the traditional way with amenities like party sets and invitations.
During the next couple years, Smith said there are no plans for further expansion in Panhel, mostly because of the lack of housing.
“It’s really difficult to find houses,” she said. “We’re also pretty comfortable with our numbers right now. If our chapters start getting a little bigger, and we feel the need for another chapter to come in to put some of the membership weight on them, then that’s what we’ll do in the future.”
Schmidt said because Zeta and AEPhi have completed all the steps in the returning process, all the Panhel chapters are now “viewed as equals.”
Smith said there is not a downside to joining a sorority that has recently returned versus one that has been on campus for a long time.
“They do the same things as the rest of us,” she said. “There is an appeal to new sororities in the sense that they’re your chance to really make an impact on your organization. You really have a say on the direction that your group goes since everybody is new and you don’t have old chapter members that have been there forever.”
However, Smith said others might be less inclined to join a returning chapter because the process during the first few months is not ironed out since the organization is still “adjusting to things.”
Smith added that all chapters in Panhel have the organization’s full support.
“It’s not like these groups are just new sororities that spring up out of the dirt,” she said. “They still have a rich history like all sororities and have symbols and traditions that they share, as well as a great amount of support from their national organization.”
Despite potential competition when seeking new members, Smith said existing chapters on campus are happy when other chapters return.
“I don’t think other houses feel threatened really by other sororities coming back because we already have a lot of us,” she said. “So we are happy with our own chapters, we’ve become members there and we are happy to see others succeed.”
McAvoy said one of the best parts of joining a chapter that has newly returned, such as AEPhi or Zeta, in its first year is the age variety of the joining members.
“They have seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen,” she said. “While the house may be new, there are so many different types of girls that are joining. Since they’d only have one pledge class, it puts everyone on a more equal playing ground.”
Smith said it’s exciting when new chapters join the community.
“Obviously we feel a sense of connection with our sisters and our groups, but I think there is a bond that exists with all Panhellenic women and all Greeks,” she said. “The more members that we have, the more opportunities we have to make friends and make connections.”
Additions to the Interfraternity Council
Haughee said in the six years he has worked at the Office of Greek Life, there has been an expansion in IFC every semester. This is due to the increase of fraternities nationwide and a more comprehensive procedure for chapters that return or start on campus.
According to Haughee, there are three main ways chapters join the IFC: National organizations spearhead the expansion, groups of students reach out to national and local organizations to seek help in starting a chapter or a small group outside IFC chooses to enter the council.
Beta Theta Pi fraternity is one chapter that returned due to a push from nationals last fall. According to Haughee, the national organization made the decision for Beta to both leave and return to the University and has been supporting the chapter through each step. Haughee added that a key role in Beta’s success could be attributed to the constant involvement of its national organization and alumni board.
“A cohesive unified group of alumni can make a big difference,” he said.
Sean Jackson, LSA sophomore and IFC vice president of public relations, said Beta has been successful in its return to campus thus far.
Haughee said Pi Lambda Phi fraternity is the perfect example of a group looking to begin a chapter.
“In the fall of 2005, 18 men who did not find their comfort zone with the existing chapters got together and said ‘Hey, let’s do our own thing,’ ” he said. “They researched and found their comfort level in Pi Lambda Phi and came to the office saying they had a group of guys that want to start a fraternity and have already spoken with the national organization.”
Haughee said Theta Delta Chi fraternity — which existed as a small group, but decided to become part of the council in 2010 — exemplifies a chapter’s wish to join a council.
LSA junior and IFC President Jared Jaffe said the most challenging aspect of returning IFC chapters is trying to rush new members. Existing chapters have the necessary experience, while new chapters have to play catch up.
“They have to try to figure out everything when everyone else already has it figured out,” he said.
Jackson said working with the chapter’s national organization is a great way to assist and facilitate the new chapter’s return.
As with the sororities, Jaffe said one of the main appeals to interested members in joining a newly-returned IFC chapter is the possibility of becoming a founding member and making the chapter unique.
“Every house has something specific to it,” he said. “If you are a freshmen, instead of joining something that has its own identity and being formed by it, you get to use whatever you are as a person to make the house be what you want.”
Jaffe said his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, is known on campus for being into sports and Triangle fraternity has a large interest in engineering. By joining a new chapter, the members wouldn’t find a place where they fit, but rather create a place of their own.
Jackson said having new chapters return to campus doesn’t cause competition with the existing fraternities, but rather creates incentives for students to join the Greek community because it provides another option for them to pick from.
Jaffe added that though no competition exists in the newly formed or returning “little guys,” there is always a bit of competition among the pre-existing fraternities that serve as the “heads” of the Greek community.
An undercurrent of competition exists in many aspects of Greek Life, Haughee said. He explained that a few years ago, the competition among IFC chapters was much more apparent, but it has now died down due to the reformed structure in its expansion process.
“If we were having this conversation four or five years ago there would be a much larger sense of competition with the new chapters and the existing chapters that isn’t there now because of the structured growth IFC went under,” he said.