Greek life, or some form of it, has existed in the United States for a century and a half, and it is definitely fair to say what it looks like today barely resembles its 1800s versions. What started as a way for students to enrich their college learning experiences through passionate debate has turned into something quite different, and this makes me wonder if nostalgia might be the only thing keeping it going.
Let’s start with some history. Phi Beta Kappa was the first fraternity in the U.S, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, with the motto “Love of Learning is the Guide to Life.” While the idea of advancing learning sounds great, from the start the organization wasn’t perfect, not letting women or Black people in any of its chapters for at least 100 years. After PBK dropped their policy of secrecy, other Greek organizations began to crop up.
Now, I would like to acknowledge a common argument I’ve seen about a myriad of different topics recently: the bad apple metaphor. Many proponents of Greek life mention all the good things that come from these organizations, but it is impossible to ignore the pattern of extreme negativity that has come from Greek life throughout the years. I would also argue that many of the pros to Greek life don’t really seem to come directly from the fact that the organization was part of this system. (e.g. Community service is something many groups do, and it has nothing to do with membership in a fraternity or sorority.) Back to the negativity I mentioned earlier, I see people point to hazing incidents, binge drinking, violence and other issues that have been frequently in the news, but those are all results of a systemic problem that has existed for far longer.
Kuklos Adelphon was a fraternity that spread through colleges all over the pre-Civil War south, and its structure (and even its name) was what the founders of the Ku Klux Klan used to form their organization. Any system that can be used as a blueprint for hate like that is a system that should not be accepted in society. It is absolutely no surprise that countless accusations of racism, sexism and violence are made against many Greek organizations, and the fact that despite numerous promises, the needed changes not actually happening also points to a deep, systemic issue.
Not far from here at Yale in 2011, the DKE chapter that both Bush presidents were a part of was banned from associating with the university for five years after a group of its members chanted a disgusting slogan promoting rape outside the school’s women’s center. After five years the fraternity was allowed back to campus, and almost immediately new investigations had to be opened up about misconduct. Lessons cannot be learned from temporary punishments like this, and too many administrations over the years have taken the stance that nothing can be done because these measures haven’t worked. Well, it’s long past time to start evaluating why the institution of Greek life needs to be kept at all. During its five-year ban from associating with the school, Yale’s DKE chapter did not cause any trouble, simply because it did not exist. It certainly seems like a drastic move for universities to take, as Greek life and the experiences associated with it seem to have been immortalized in American culture, but many of its positive qualities will still exist after the prejudiced system is dismantled.
Let’s look at UConn in the present-day. In 2016, after the tragic death of a UConn student, the university permanently expelled the Kappa Sigma fraternity from associating with the school. Since that incident, fraternities Zeta Beta Tau and Phi Gamma Delta were also permanently expelled for various incidents of misconduct. While it is a good thing these measures have been taken, the repetitive nature of these events proves that making an example of one in the group isn’t going to change the culture. Proactivity is the only way to stop horrible things from happening, while reactivity only serves to clean up messes.
Lastly, in the wake of two UConn Greek life-sponsored guideline-breaking parties making news in the past few weeks – one of which had allegations of a physical altercation – I raise these as further proof that the only solution that will ever actually be a solution is a permanent one. Not a temporary suspension, not moving certain organizations off campus, only a permanent dissolution of Greek life at UConn will be able to really solve the problem at hand.