Though it is one of the oldest traditions among universities, dating back several generations, Greek life often gets a bad rep from students who are not part of it and sometimes even from students who are. It is all too common to hear criticisms such as Greek life being superficial or that it is nothing more than paying absurd sums of money to buy friendship. As someone who is not a part of Greek life myself, I would regardless still like to defend it.
I’ll begin, however, by acknowledging that Greek life is not without flaws. In some universities it’s a token part of a racist establishment, as we saw in 2015 with Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s racist chant in Oklahoma or in 2016 with the nearly all white all blonde Alpha Phi recruitment video at Arizona State.
Greek life can also stand for the worst of elitism and class privilege in some places, as we saw in January of 2016 when Delta Gamma at the University of Miami was able to drop half a million dollars on a recruitment ad that promoted nothing but yacht partying and drinking on the coast. Such videos, which make lavish partying seem like the main call to Greek life, can make it very difficult to accept the argument that fraternities and sororities do any sort of community service as they claim to. That’s notwithstanding how fraternities and sororities alike charge hundreds of dollars per term to be a part of them. Some of them charge more than the average student’s monthly rent.
Greek life can stand for recklessness, as we saw last year here at my own school, the University of Oregon, when Greek life’s annual trip to Shasta Lake resulted in a catastrophic amount of littering and trashing of the place.
When I look at things such as this, I am hardly surprised when some of my fellow students tell me that they think Greek life is meant to be exclusionary or that the people in it are shallow. The examples I listed above seem to indicate nothing more than that Greek life really does stand for privilege, classism, and superficiality. It gets worse when you start to observe all of the Greek life incidences of sexual assault, which are too numerous to count. We’ve had several allegations of such things here at the University of Oregon in the last few years as well.
Yet despite its flaws, I think that Greek life can be a worthwhile endeavor. You’ve heard all of these stories in the mass media because they’re dramatic, ludicrous, and newsworthy. When you gossip with your friends about Greek life, you talk about these failings because they’re interesting and evoke strong feelings. What you usually don’t hear is the good that Greek life can do as well, primarily because it’s not exciting enough to talk about.
One of my closest friends was in a sorority at the University of California in Riverside, and participation in Greek life helped to increase her confidence and allowed her to become a more assertive, self-assured individual that now flourishes in her post-graduation job due to what she learned there. One of my friends here at the University of Oregon is in a fraternity that has strict GPA and extracurricular requirements, and that has forced him to learn discipline and responsibility. Nowadays he’s a very well-rounded, accountable person. In future he’ll do an excellent job in the work force.
See, I don’t think that Greek life is necessarily superficial. It can be, there’s no doubt about that. Plenty of people participating in it have said as much to me as well. Yet I think it can also help develop depth of character for people. While it might look scary from the outside, what’s you’re in it can be very empowering.
I also don’t think “paying for friends” is a valid criticism. There are dues in order to maintain the group’s activities. What’s wrong with that? Most club sports do that as well. The journalism program in my high school even did that, and we were an award-winning publication every single year. And see, if it helps you develop friendships and it helps some people fit in and find peace of mind, what’s so bad about that? A lot of folks struggle with creating their more mature or adult identities as they grow up. Too many people agonize over feelings of dejection and loneliness, of feeling like they belong nowhere or are worthless, meek, lacking the confidence to make a difference in their own lives. Growing up is hard, especially when you’re making the hormone-filled transition into adulthood. For a lot of people, Greek life is what helps them get through that hurdle. There is nothing wrong with that.
Some Greek organizations are racist, but not all of them. There are fraternities and sororities that are very inclusive of all kinds of people, even some that accept folks from the highly oppressed trans community. I’ve seen sororities where no one race is the majority and fraternities where minorities in a community can find and bond with one another to feel a tad safer in a place where everyone is different from them.
Some Greek organizations blow half a million dollars on advertisements and partying, and that’s wrong. Yet many have affiliated charity organizations that help with things such as cancer research and fighting homelessness, and the alumni of these Greek organizations go on to become successful people who can donate large sums of money to these causes. Even Alpha Phi at Arizona State, which itself blew the same amount of money on partying and ads as Miami’s Delta Gamma, has an attached foundation for research into assisting with cardiac diseases.
I won’t defend recklessness such as trashing Shasta, especially for any groups who didn’t even try to hold clean-up rallies at the end. I won’t defend the absolute epidemic that is sexual assault at thousands of Greek life parties every year. What I will say is that not all Greek organizations are guilty of this. Many of them do commit more time to charity work than partying. Many of them have very active anti-assault campaigns and events within the organization. The takeaway from knowing this is that it isn’t Greek life itself, but certain Greek organizations that have lost their way and forgotten what a fraternity or sorority is supposed to stand for or accomplish. Besides, are representatives of Greek life the only ones responsible for these crimes? Certainly not. Other organizations are every bit as complicit, for example many athletic groups.
I think that what we need to realize here is that Greek life has a great deal of potential for good, but that it is the same as any individual person is – imperfect. I believe that we could all try to be a little bit more understanding, and all try to be better people. When it comes to Greek life, there is room for improvement if more people are willing to take an active role in bringing about change. Some people really are just jealous of Greek life that they aren’t part of, while some Greek life people really are just terrible. Yet we can do better.
My hope is that after reading this, next time someone bad mouths Greek life you’ll stop them and talk not about its failings but about how it can improve and what you can perhaps do to help. Whether you’re part of it or not, we all share a responsibility to better ourselves and one another.
While we all may just be college kids for now, one day the generation running this world will be ours. Greek life or not, we have a duty to each other.