By Gus Murphy
44 years ago, the May 15, 1970 issue of The Lawrentian was dedicated to the status of Greek life on campus. “Frat localization thwarted; faculty considers elimination,” “Abolish National Greek System” and “Hardly worth the hassle” were a few of the headlines. What was being considered was the elimination of national Greek organizations on campus.
From the tone of the articles many students felt strongly that they should go. “At this point, the primary consequence of refusing to make substantive changes would likely be a slow death of the last vestiges of a somewhat anachronistic social institution.” If the University was not to abolish the groups entirely, it seems like significant changes were about to be made. This was 44 years ago! What has changed?
I was a member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity for most of my first three years at Lawrence. I did build relationships that remain important to me and that I may not have made were I not in the group. I did see members open up to the group in ways that people only do with those they trust. I did participate in community outreach that had a positive impact on me and those we were serving.
What I did not see was how the practices most characteristic of Greek life—gender segregation, secrecy, exclusivity, rituals—contributed to these ends. These aspects not only limit the beneficial capacity of Greek organizations but also outweigh that capacity with the potential to negatively affect their enveloping community. It is troubling to me that, as our campus shows awareness of social issues at large, these groups in our immediate community are allowed to remain the way they have for so long.
There are many student groups on our campus doing remarkable things. Sustainable Lawrence University Gardens (SLUG), for example, maintains a garden, collects compost from restaurants around Appleton, gives tours to elementary school classes and is involved with Riverview Gardens, a local community-supported agricultural organization devoted to helping people in need.
SLUG gets a lot done and has developed one of the most tightly knit communities on campus. Students devote large amounts of time to the organization, assume leadership positions and even pursue sustainable agriculture after Lawrence.
If a group like SLUG can do so much for its members and community without exclusivity, secrecy or even a system of membership, why are these practices such important parts of Greek organizations?
Despite the common assertion that the primary purpose of Greek organizations is for community service—be it by strengthening friendships or through donations of money or time—this aspiration is often thwarted by an organizational structure that is discriminatory and cumbersome.
For every member brought into the fold of a fraternity or sorority, more are left to wonder what traits made them unwanted. For every community service outing, many more hours are wasted filling arbitrary positions and fulfilling duties to the national governing body. That the Greek organizational structure runs counter to its stated objectives betrays the truth that it is primarily a social body.
Of course, cliques are not unusual, people gravitate to those who share their interests or sense of humor. In many ways, student groups like Art House, Gaming House or Co-op, groups that serve the interests of their constituents, fulfill a similar role and can be similarly exclusive in less obvious ways. We are all prone to act on prejudices, especially when choosing friends.
Greek organizations, however, institutionalize these prejudices. I was bid into Sinfonia because I was interested in music, and maybe more so because I was a part of the incumbent members’ friend group.
Why weren’t the women who were just as involved with music and just as funny and interesting also given a bid? How can it be on a college campus—and especially on one so outwardly progressive as Lawrence’s—that systemic gender discrimination is a celebrated part of social life? While we denounce and seem to understand the roots of gender-based social issues, we see and participate in it here on our campus and pass it off as “college life.”
These issues are not due to the Greek members but rather the Greek organizations. Students are not in control of these organizations; the rules and guidelines are given by massive national organizations terribly unequipped to adapt to the individual campuses that their chapters serve. The reprehensible behavior inevitably associated with Greek life is much more due to the flaws in the groups’ structures than any individuals’ actions.
Lawrence is always becoming more broadly aware of social inequities. Issues stemming from gender constructs are everywhere, and are more likely to originate off-campus than on-campus. However, this community is the one of which we are a part, where we can affect change.
For all of our awareness and willingness to speak out on social media, we also need to take the initiative of direct community action. If we want to affect change, if we believe in social equality for all people, we must start here.