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Greek Life: Where does it come from and where is it going?

Katherine Weaver January 30, 2018

Fraternities and sororities are a common way for American college students to meet friends, get involved on campus, and build a network. Why, then, are prominent universities such as Michigan and Florida State taking steps to effectively ban Greek organizations and their activities? The answer lies in a series of toxic events that have gained national attention and have caused a serious reassessment of these organizations and their impact on college students.

The fraternity as we know it today first began in the United States in the early 1700’s. The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa (now a national honors society for students studying the liberal arts) was founded at the College of William and Mary as a secret society for students to gather outside of the classroom setting. Since colleges were all-male institutions at this time, the fraternity was only open to men. By the mid-19th century, many national universities were home to various fraternities, with some even having their own “lodge” to host meetings and events; this would eventually morph into the modern-day fraternity house.

Today, fraternities (known as Greek organizations) exist at more than 800 universities across the United States and Canada; these include sororities which started in the mid-1800’s as “women’s fraternities.” Though they have become somewhat more transparent over the years, the secretive nature of Greek organizations have propelled them to a sort of elite status among college students and the general population. Due to the prevalent nature of these groups, members become part of a network that grants them access to the the upper echelons of American society. Indeed, according to statistics from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, 76% of U.S. senators and congressmen are former members of Greek Life; 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs share that distinction as well. The professional and social network given to members is just one of the positive elements of Greek life; many fraternities and sororities have a national philanthropy organization that they hold fundraisers for throughout the year.

However, there exists a dark side to these organizations that has become more and more evident as of late. The heavy drinking culture of fraternities and the intense procedures many groups inflict on their new members as “initiation” have led to recent tragedy; an especially publicized instance took place at Penn State University, in which a pledge of a fraternity died after falling down the stairs of his fraternity house. The brothers who left him to recuperate (and discovered him dead the next morning) are currently on trial for involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

Another flaw that has been pointed out in Greek organizations is that they are largely homogenous and exclusive in terms of their members. Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, many fraternities and sororities were segregated and refused to accept non-white members; though these bans have long been outlawed by national councils, the cultural interest organizations that formed as a way to include students of color remain one of the main forces for inclusivity in Greek life. When it comes to mainstream fraternities and sororities, many critics have noted their lack of diversity.

Greek life at Temple is overseen by the Office of Student Activities, which falls under the umbrella of Student Affairs. Temple has a variety of social fraternities and sororities as well as multicultural organizations. However, there exists a degree of separation between those who feel they can join and those who find them inaccessible. One of the latter groups is international students. One Temple student, Shriyash Bajaj, stated that he felt that the social fraternities appear to not be as open to international students as they are to domestic students. Bajaj is a sophomore student at Temple from Nepal. He says that fraternities are a very American entity and that he hadn’t seen any of them in person before coming to Temple, only in movies and pop culture. As to how they can improve their inclusivity, Bajaj suggested that fraternities can “definitely try to change their recruiting strategy such that people who don’t know what Greek life is can understand it and see if they are interested.”

Though fraternities and sororities contain benefits and downfalls for college students, the amount of conversation they have generated has led to a new analysis of the purpose of these organizations. As universities make decisions regarding the  future of Greek life on campus, it can only be hoped that the necessary changes will be made to ensure that they are run in a way that includes all students, especially international students.