An Inescapable Loop: Bureaucracy, Identity, and Diversity In Greek Life

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On August 3, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “Do Fraternities have a Place on the Modern College Campus?” It went on to examine the swell in media attention brought on by issues such as the University of Oklahoma SAE racist chants. While the article noted the positive aspects of Greek life, much of its focus was upon the negativity currently making headlines.

I currently work as an academic advisor at a large public school in the South. I grew up in the Midwest and attended graduate school out West. Two aspects have been very evident through these experiences: bureaucracy and an active Greek system. These two clash. Bureaucracy is confusing and restrictive to those of us working within it. Policies are often outdated or informal, resulting in issues getting tossed aside and dealt with in the future. It can take weeks to get a printer set up, let alone oversee, evaluate, and reformat Greek Life. Task forces, such as the three North American Interfraternity Conference ones mentioned in the article on hazing, sexual assault, and alcohol, take months to reach a conclusion. Bureaucracy is here to stay, and this can be painful for both professional staff and students.

Higher education is currently a hotly-debated issue across the country. In a time of decreasing public funds and rising tuition at schools, data-driven decisions have become the standard with regard to evaluating program worth. Research means everything, yet numbers often tell an incomplete picture. As the article notes, Greeks often have higher GPA’s, retention rates, and levels of campus involvement. These positives are not discussed beyond a brief acknowledgement. These positive aspects, much like the negative ones, are often boiled down to a number. Anecdotal stories mean little. Each can be an isolated incident without examining it from a scholarly perspective, examining it within theories on student development, and drawing conclusions based upon previous studies. This process is drawn out, but it ensures that study results are as unbiased as possible.

It is my own experiences and memories that drive me professionally to pay the opportunity and support I had forward. My fraternity time taught me the value of civil discourse, personal identity, meeting deadlines, and other lessons that serve me to this day. I understood the value of campus involvement and holding myself and others to higher standards. Most Greeks experience similar lessons. These lessons often do not come in classes or trainings. They come from talking about relationships with a brother in a McDonald’s parking lot, spontaneous weekend road trips, or cramming in the library at 2 A.M. Events such as these are not easily quantified, but they are at the center of why the Greek system disproportionately produces exceptional students. Through voluntarily joining, Greeks seek out these experiences and truly understand the value, both now and in the future, of campus involvement. This is an identity Greeks create themselves, one steeped in history, ritual, and traditions hardly matched by other student organizations.

“Diversity” is another buzzword that floats around campus administration these days. College campuses serve as microcosms for life after graduation. Diversity plays a large part in this and can be a powerful tool for learning. Personal identity is still valuable. The right to association that Greek life offers is a powerful identity in a realm that increasingly focuses upon squashing it. Society changes quickly, and the continuity of an identity as a Greek identity is powerful. It links us to a storied past and the promise of a successful future. The “lifetime brotherhood” is often touted as an undergraduate. The ideals of Greek Life provide a springboard towards future success. Destructive actions may gather national attention, but it is the countless success stories that truly portray the importance of Greek Life.

Public perception still influences higher education administrators. For the vast majority of chapters, little will change, as they already practice good standards. A positive social media, campus, and community presence will also sway mainstream thought in a positive manner, though this will take time. Greek offices, national offices, and individual chapters must also reassess the dynamics of their identities. Student demographics are increasingly becoming more diverse, first-generation, and low-income. These are the students that look for an identity on campus, and Greek Life is perhaps the most prominent place to find that. Values, not backgrounds, should matter with them joining.

My final semester of college, a member of a different fraternity died after passing out from drinking. Hundreds of members from different chapters gathered in freezing temperatures for a candlelight vigil. While media only covered the unfortunate death of the student, the Greek community remembered the vigil honoring the memory of a truly amazing person. This event did not stop partying on campus. Students will never willingly turn away the thrills and memories of college partying. It did spark conversations on how to more responsibly drink, though. College prepares students for the real world, and, unfortunately, this lesson came too early for many.

Though an alum for several years now, I still take pride in my Greek identity, despite many saying I should not. I work daily to improve the lives of students in my department and at my school. My job is not always the most glamorous, filled with emails, meetings, and creating reports. These tasks are the reality of working in student affairs. I would not trade it for anything. The times a student’s face lights up when they are cleared to graduate, collaborate with me to start a new organization, or gain acceptance to the university never cease to amaze me.

There are certainly negative elements of Greek Life, but it is not the norm I have known, either as a student or staff member. A racist chant draws more attention than the shy student elected chapter president. One hazing death stands out against the thousands of philanthropy dollars raised. A self-selecting membership process is viewed as bad due to its exclusionary nature, rather than as a tight-knit group of people bound together by common ideals. Is it perfect? Not even close, but the ideals and higher standards of Greek Life certainly do have a place in the modern campus.

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