Last Thursday, I sat in Hill Auditorium along with thousands of other Greek life members listening to the University’s top administrators. I sat next to my best friends and role models, whom I love and respect, but when my gaze wandered past the faces around me, I was ashamed to be a member of the entire Greek life population.
At this point, I know I’m not alone in lacking Greek life pride. Interfraternity Council President Alex Krupiak said it at the conclusion of the meeting. Students interviewed by the Daily said it afterward. My own sorority’s former head of recruitment said it a few days later. And I’m certain if most members of Greek life sat down to write their own ideas into some concrete form, they would also say it.
This lack of pride isn’t just because of this past January’s ski trip, or just because the campus climate survey on sexual misconduct results told us that Greek life members are 2.5 times more at risk to be sexually assaulted than non-Greek students, or just because of any of the negative headlines that were screened in the PowerPoint as we all took our seats.
In my experience, Greek life members often critique the system (and by system I mean both the chapters and the recruitment process) as being weird, enormous and bizarre, but it has “introduced me to my very best friends so I couldn’t imagine not being a part of it.”
I heard those words when rushing during my freshman year, I’ve texted those very words to high school students who have asked me advice on whether to rush or not rush, and I believe those words are accurate and fair. In an entirely unnatural and fun way, you can efficiently be exposed to mass amounts of people. That in itself is simultaneously exhilarating and comforting for certain people, especially when entering a very large undergraduate population.
But these accurate, fair and seemingly harmless words are exactly what’s so detrimental to our Greek life system. It’s easy, in fact natural, to identify and be proud to stand with the individuals who surround you: your friends and the people you look up to. The values those individuals stand for are what you stand for, and if you and these individuals make up the group — your chapter — then you are proud of your chapter.
But when it comes to the larger picture — 32 Interfraternity Council fraternities, 16 PanHellenic Association sororities, 12 multicultural organizations and nine National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations — you do not know the values of members in every single one of these chapters, and therefore it becomes a lot harder to know if you’re proud of the community as a whole.
In 1913, French engineer Maximilien Ringelmann coined this fundamental idea in social psychology: as a group becomes larger, each individual member of the group becomes less productive. That Greek life’s size is negatively contributing to productivity is an argument I wish I could be making. But size isn’t really the crux of the issue. Yes, many members of Greek Life are strangers to each other, but so are thousands of other University students.
The problem with the Ringelmann effect lies in identifying group goals. When it comes to joining Greek life, it feels like there’s a lack of a concrete, common and unifying end goal. In fact, some of the best advice I have received when wondering why I’m a part of an organization like my sorority is to not take it too seriously.
When I get disheartened that an initiative doesn’t launch or not enough girls show up to the events I plan, I remind myself that I joined this organization for fun. It isn’t a job that will help further me along my career path. It isn’t a class that will transfer to a letter grade on my transcript. I’m choosing to learn from it: conversational skills, time-management skills, networking skills. It’s a positive experience in my life but it isn’t my entire life or a portion of my life that I’m dedicated to more than other organizations or jobs I have on campus. I’m not saying this is true for everyone; there are some leaders who are working really hard, but for the majority of members I believe it is.
As part of the very large institution that is the University, your goals are to grow as a leader, student, person, what have you. As part of my sorority, my goals are to grow as a leader and organizer, understand myself through getting to know different people and provide a community for younger girls. As a part of the community of Greek life my goals are to … what?
Answering that third question is a lot harder than answering the previous two. This blank is the reason for the disrespect, the lack of change and the apathy I saw in my fellow Greek members on Thursday.
The newest idea that came out of Thursday’s meeting was Schlissel’s call to action: to save the University’s reputation, because if we do not, it will devalue our own reputation as Michigan graduates, as well as that of those who came before and will come after us. The call to action feels like the closest thing Greek life has ever come to in terms of a collective goal.
It’s troubling considering the Office of Greek life has done a ton of work to answer my question. They have outlined strategic goals of what Greek life should be accomplishing: unity, safety, public service and tradition, to name a few, and outlined plans of how these goals will be accomplished. These goals and detailed plans aren’t really focused on when freshmen are deciding to rush or not rush, when bid-day pictures are posted or when weekly chapter meetings are held.
Schlissel ironically pointed to the fact that leadership and change must come from our student leaders: the presidents of each of the four councils. Something Greek life does pride itself on is being a student-governed organization, and it’s pretty impressive when you think about it. Hundreds of young adults dedicate hundreds of hours a week to systematically categorizing themselves (even using complex coding systems to do it) into social groups, creating rules to be followed and a police force to enforce these rules.
But this leadership and organization that students are motivated to participate in is just a sliver of pride that needs to be utilized more. Though I know council presidents have been working hard to generate change, it does feel as if the Office of Greek life has done the planning for us and that administrators are overseeing us. That combination inspires no member of Greek life.
I believe the common reasons for joining Greek life — please hear me when I say are not at all the wrong reasons — are to meet new people, attend events that get you out of your dorm room freshman year and give back to the community through service and philathropy. But very rarely do these initial reasons evolve into the highly important goals of bright, driven University of Michigan students. Very rarely do students take on sorority or fraternity leadership positions with the same sincerity that they take their summer internships or their job recruiting.
The people sitting in Hill Auditorium Thursday evening are not apathetic people, but they do not prioritize their chapter in a professional way. Neither do I. I care about it in a way where I take the good relationships it has given to me, but I look at it as a social institution, just one part of me, not my entire life and learning environment. I know I can escape it if I don’t want to tailgate one Saturday morning, so it doesn’t force me to look it in the eye and work for policies that promote safer tailgating.
That’s the heartbreaking thing about Krupiak’s final statement, because though his chapter means the world to him, it just doesn’t mean enough for so many members. University students are doing a lot and, frankly, their social organization isn’t going to keep them up late at night thinking of ways to innovate (though it might keep them up for other reasons). It isn’t a student organization or an internship or a class that they are passionate about. It isn’t creating enough collective good for the masses to take enough pride in it to change it.
Claire Bryan is an LSA junior and a senior editorial page editor. She is also vice president of membership programming of Alpha Chi Omega sorority.