March 04, 2008

On Greeks and exclusivity

Knox's Greek system has recently been growing, and as a member of the Student Life Committee I've been a close witness to a lot of it. Some of the faculty has recently charged us (SLC) with looking at it, and so we compiled a report with all sorts of data about our local Greeks; and yesterday the faculty had a lengthy debate about it. I'm not sure what some of them hope to accomplish, because drastic measures like closing the Greek system simply aren't on the table, but much of the discussion was coming from a fairly small number of faculty members who feel very strongly anti-Greek.

Having spent so much time with SLC's Greek report, I've had a lot of time to form my opinions about the various aspects of the Greek system. One comment yesterday did give me pause, however; I was explaining (in response to a question) a bit about the familial relationships that many Greek students hope to (and do) find in their respective organizations, and Steve Fineberg coldly pointed out that this sort of argument is a typical justification for racism and other -isms, and not appropriate.

He's at least part right, of course, and at the time it shut me right up, but on reflection, I think that there's more to it. Of course, I don't believe that these sorts of "affiliative needs" are important enough to trump clear humanitarian concerns like race and class discrimination. And on the surface, he's exactly right—this sort of argument was used to perpetuate institutions like the all-white country club, and worse. However, one shouldn't judge an idea by the company it keeps, and it seems to me that this sort of tighter-than-friends bond has the potential to be a very positive thing, often realises this potential, and thus is not inherently problematic, as long as it isn't just a front for the discriminatory country club mentality.

That's why we need to, and did, look further into the data. We need to ask: is there evidence that Knox's Greek system discriminates on the basis of some protected class?

  • It does inherently discriminate based on gender. I won't lie, I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but I'm willing to give it a pass because I have yet to hear a single student complain about this, even when I prompted for it. This also, with a few exceptions, didn't seem to be the area that faculty had a problem with.
  • The fraternities pretty clearly don't (other than gender, as mentioned). Their ethnic and income profiles are a nearly perfect match for the student body at large.
  • The sororities might, slightly. I don't know if the divergences are significant, because I haven't run the full statistical analysis, but the sorority membership numbers are smaller and therefore more noisy, so it's a bad idea to read too much into them. If it is a true bias, it is at least a slight one, and one we can hope to work on to fix rather than simply condemn as irreparable.

The system is surely not perfect, but given that it is neither inherently bad nor irredeemable, I'm interested in working to fix it. And despite what some other members of the faculty might think, I think that where problems exist, just about everybody in the Greek system would be interested in fixing it too.

"I've also come to simply accept that I will never get an answer from tech support/sales at a cell phone company, radio shack, best buy, or a travel agency that is better or more accurate than what I could have researched myself. I will instead be lied to by someone who lacks any training in the product they support in order to decrease call handle times or increase sales. Even when you're REALLY confused and can't sort out the jargon that they publish it is still the wrong choice to call and ask these companies because they have no more information than you and they care about understanding it a whole lot less." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 12:46pm on 4 Mar 2008
Comments
As someone who was responsible for the formation of candidates during my time in a Knox fraternity, I have to admit I'm pretty frustrated that the anti-Greek faculty never once talk to me or (to my knowledge) any others in leadership in my fraternity about their concerns. Had they done so, they would have found out that many of us in leadership in my particular fraternity had come to Knox very anti-Greek and had had our minds changed by the kind of community and mutual responsibility we found there. Some of the other fraternities are a bit more stereotypical, but even there I think they would have found a surprising amount of diversity and significant departures from the stereotypes. The last thing I would mention is that at least in my time, the fraternities tried their best to live up to the expectations placed on them. The same cannot be said of the ad-hoc groups of friends throwing parties in the dorms. At least with the Greek system, there are shared values to appeal to and official responsibility to the College. That ought to count for something. Anyhow, I'm glad you're on this committee, Don. The Greek system is not perfect, but the irrational attacks on it by some faculty get in the way of effective changes to make it better. Posted by Chris T. at 1:00pm on 4 Mar 2008
Oh, and I thought of something else I wanted to add. The criticism that always seemed to come out of the anti-Greek faculty was that we were choosing people like us to pump out some stream of Greekified people, mostly white, mostly affluent, with mostly the same interests and ideas. I found exactly the opposite in my time in the Greek system. Our fraternity fit some stereotypes -- but it was three or four distinct groups that roughly fit three or four different stereotypes, each one made up of a diverse mix of ethnicities and class backgrounds. Being in a fraternity challenged me to work across all those differences in interests and background to forge something in common. I never got interested in the same things as the hip-hop-loving party faction in my house, and I doubt they ever got interested in the choir geek or gamer cultures. But we did create a common life together based on principles of love, truth, and honor, despite all our differences. And we've gone out into the world to try to live out those values. That is pretty powerful, and is exactly the opposite of what the anti-Greek faculty pretend we are up to. Posted by Chris T. at 1:12pm on 4 Mar 2008
I don't think it's quite fair to lump the anti-Greek faculty together as you've done; I can't deny there are some who simply hold a caricature in their head and argue based on that, but that is, I think, a small minority of them. Although some of them may have had bad experiences with Greeks elsewhere, all the anti-Greek faculty I've spoken with have some fairly specific anecdotal evidence of students who have had problems with the system right here. Some also have larger philosophical objections to gender-segregated groupings and the formative effects that this and other aspects of group mentality have on the teenage/college-student mind.

Most of your responses are addressing that directly. No need to set up stick men. (They're like straw men, only they at least have a little substance to them. ;)

Posted by blahedo at 1:38pm on 4 Mar 2008
Fair enough. To be honest, I have a few consistently anti-Greek, over the top faculty in mind when I use the term "anti-Greek faculty". So rather than lumping everyone with objections into some stick-man group, I'm incorrectly applying to term to a small sub-group. :-) The formative effects of gender-segregated groups are still an issue that weighs on my mind when it comes to fraternities. For all the good that being in a single-gender environment to hash out some life issues was, it did also reinforce some "common wisdom" about some other issues that was not helpful. In my own life, I found I simply had to push myself to be exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints. But that's not a systemic answer to a systemic problem, true. Posted by Chris T. at 2:10pm on 4 Mar 2008
I am coming to think that issues that worry me about the Greek system are very difficult to separate from the close-knit bond which you find as their strength. It is not unique to the Greek system either. We see it at the service academies, in police departments, and elsewhere. The issues which bother me are that in these groups, when someone within the group behaves less than honorably, others within the group may feel the need to ally themselves with the wrong doer, prevent outsiders from seeing the wrongdoing, or assist in the wrong doing. If someone within the group does not fall in line and protect the wrongdoer, that person, even if they themselves are a member of the group, will be persecuted. We have all heard about instances where some members of a group behaved in a way not acceptable to general society, and then the wrong doing is compounded because wrongdoing is covered up and witnesses and the victims are pressured to keep quiet and ostracized if they do not. We see this at every level from grade school to the military. The tighter the group bond, the more the pressure not to betray someone in the group no matter what they do. And make no mistake; the Greek system has long been a safe harbor for dangerous wrong doing. Setting aside the numerous allegations of routine rape and underage drinking which many of the anti-Greek individuals point to and many of the Greeks deny or dismiss, we can look to the hazing rituals college fraternities became notorious for. College fraternity hazing still goes on, and deaths because of it do make the news every so often, as do efforts to tone it down or remove it entirely. Most states now have anti-hazing laws and many fraternities have taken official positions firmly against hazing. But again, hazing is not unique to college fraternities. It is just an example of a wrong carried out at a fraternity. I don't think the solution is to not allow tight-knit groups. I do think that if a school have a Greek system, they must monitor it to make sure that it is promoting values consistent with the college's and not serving as a safe harbor for dangerous wrong doing. Posted by lee at 7:41pm on 4 Mar 2008
lee -- one thing that has always frustrated me, as someone who was a member of a fraternity founded in part as a statement against hazing at VMI, is that many universities do *not* have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to hazing. If a house has someone on the board of trustees or a big donor, they'll be allowed to re-colonize two or three times after cooling off periods, and every time the alumni come in and create a culture of hazing as soon as the house re-opens. Colleges have a responsibility to end that kind of thing no matter what the cost in alumni/donor support, and the national fraternities should not tolerate it either. (Even my fraternity, which has opposition to hazing as one of its highest values, has had chapters that haze. It blows my mind.) I also agree with what you say about houses protecting rapists and others -- but even the Roman Catholic Church has engaged in that kind of behavior, so I'm at a loss to suggest a systematic solution. :-( Posted by Chris T. at 8:33pm on 4 Mar 2008

As I said, all tight knit groups seem to face the problem of protecting wrong doers. I think this is worse when the groups, or sub-groups within the larger group have values which devalue certain groups. Those devalued groups become safe targets. You evidently know how difficult it is to force your own values onto a group.

Fraternities as single sex organizations set up women to be a devalued group, since they are already not members. Even if the Fraternity is founded with the value of equality of all men, even the female ones, the years when this was not the norm for Greek house, and the patriarchal bent to our society generally fight against it. And then there are the rapists.

College age rapists abound. They look the same as the average guy, mores the pity, as do those who would just look the other way and condone rape when done by someone they know. I know that there are many men who find either behavior inexplicable and abhorrent, but all too often I hear about and hear from the other kind. I have been shouted down and denounced for pushing the idea that positive verbal consent before an initial sexual encounter with someone would be a good idea.

Note: I was not saying it should be mandatory, just that it would be a good idea especially in light of Illinois law which states that lack of resistance does not constitute consent. But no, that is apparently an outrageous idea. Some have protested that they would never get laid if they did that. (Apparently they could not imagine that asking their partner if he or she was ready to have sex right now could ever be anything but a mood killer. Piss poor imaginations is what I think they have.)

I think that the motivation for hazing is similar to that of rape; there are those who enjoy it, whether just as a power game, or sexually it really doesn't matter. In the past, Fraternities have used hazing to tighten the group bond, and so now, even when there are Fraternities set against hazing, some will dredge up the practice once again. Because they can.

I don't have a solution for wrong doing done by close knit groups. One would hope the groups could promote positive values among its members, but this is not always easy. It is vital that we come up with an answer because although fraternities are not necessary, military, fire fighters, and police still are.

Posted by lee at 4:58am on 5 Mar 2008

I will mention that, having married into (where "married into" is looser than having actually joined) a coed Greek society, I am impressed by what Greek life can be. As an undergrad, however, I saw the other side of what Greek life can be.

Don, if you know of any students who *would* like to start a chapter of a coed society (Alpha Delta Phi, obviously), and there is no current ADPhi fraternity chapter at Knox, let me know. The society is looking to expand, and I am friends with those in charge of the expansion.

Posted by Greg at 8:08am on 6 Mar 2008
You might be interested in this recent story on NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17872719 I have never been a member of a Greek-letter organization, but the fraternity of which the greatest number of my friends were a part (to my outsider's eye) closely resembled this model, over 15 years ago. Note that this was at a university with a small Greek system and a reputation for an intense focus on academics. Posted by Sendhil at 11:31pm on 9 Mar 2008
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