Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
Greek life at the University of Richmond is unlikely to be shut down in the near future. Many alumni count their experiences in Greek life as some of the most memorable and valuable of their college years, and they are consistently some of UR’s most generous donors. Regardless of what anyone thinks of them, familiar campus names including Jepson, Tyler Haynes, Queally, Gray, Freeman, and Whitehurst were all members of fraternities at Richmond. Greek alumni also reside throughout the ranks of faculty and administration, including on the Board of Trustees.
Fraternities have a huge influence upon the social experience of many students. If you accept the premise that UR isn’t getting rid of these organizations, it is clear that they are in need of some serious attention. First, while not exclusive to Greek life, problems of acceptance and inclusion have been repeatedly highlighted through the Abolish Greek Life movement and various articles in The Collegian. Second, with the diminished use of lodges as a social space, fraternities have little reason to remain recognized, on-campus organizations. Why pay dues to your national organization and deal with regulatory oversight from the Center for Student Involvement when you can function just as effectively off-campus, save money on dues and avoid regulatory oversight? It’s a no-brainer.
Greek life organizations are only as good as the people in them. Becoming better will only be a result of changes in individual behavior, and that onus is not lost on Greek life leaders. But like any community of people and organizations, it is directly shaped by policies, resources and its environment. UR plays a large part in the direction and culture of Greek life, and needs to make a decisive commitment to strengthening the Greek life community. The administration needs to fully support the community’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by promoting recruitment to all incoming students, increasing financial accessibility to membership and opening new chapters. The other necessary step is recentering social capital back on-campus by eliminating unrecognized off-campus organizations, encouraging the construction of residential fraternity houses and bringing back popular, community building Greek life events to campus.
Supporting the Greek life community’s DEI efforts
The easiest thing UR can do to increase diversity in Greek life is advertise it to all students. Students primarily learn about Greek life through the grapevine, leading to misconceptions and inaccurate stereotypes that help perpetuate the lack of diversity. To counter this, UR should expose first-year students to Greek life during orientation and support inclusive recruitment by sending information about recruitment to all students via email. In doing so, Greek life would be marketed equally to everyone, as opposed to students relying on informal social networks that hamper efforts to attract different types of people.
The argument has been made that to be equitable to all student organizations, Greek life should not receive such special treatment. This facile attempt at DEI fails to account for Greek life’s outsized influence and differentiated status among student organizations. Unique challenges require unique solutions and making positive changes requires making uncomfortable decisions. Failing to advertise Greek life to all students will maintain the glacial pace at which it integrates with an increasingly diverse student body.
Another crucial aspect of Greek life’s DEI efforts focus on financial inclusivity. The Interfraternity Council waived all fraternity recruitment fees starting in spring 2021, but those fees are only a fraction of the significant cost of membership in a Greek organization. UR should support the financial accessibility of Greek life, as cost is a huge barrier to socioeconomic diversity. Different types of successful models for this exist.
Vanderbilt University has a need-based “Experience Vanderbilt” fund where eligible applicants can receive up to $500 for the extracurricular activity of their choosing. The University of Southern California’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Leadership Development has a plethora of scholarships for which Greek-affiliated students can apply. UR is not lacking generous alumni who are interested in supporting the student experience and making Greek life financially accessible.
The administration should also encourage the addition of new or returning chapters to campus. Growing Greek life makes it less exclusive and increases representation of diverse backgrounds, ideologies, majors and personalities. Accordingly, it increases welcoming social opportunities for a broader swath of the student population and spreads social capital across a larger number of students.
Recentering social capital on-campus
The administration has only taken surface-level steps to remove UR’s chapters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Chi and Theta Chi. While they are no longer officially recognized and have lost their respective lodges, they are fully functioning organizations that collectively hold a great deal of social influence. The majority of sororities associate with their members and attend their parties. In order to improve Greek life, the school must be able to regulate and support it, which means they must take aggressive action to eradicate unrecognized fraternities.
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These organizations’ power rests in their ability to throw parties off-campus, maintain relationships with sororities and ultimately recruit new members. It will be difficult for UR to shut them down because the school is able to exercise little to no control over those activities.
Indeed, any attempts at shutting them down are unlikely to be successful unless the school also takes action to bring the social nucleus of fraternities back on-campus, making recognized fraternities the obvious choice for potential new members. The administration can best achieve this by facilitating the construction of residential fraternity houses and sponsoring popular, fun community-building Greek life sponsored events. This has the multiple benefits of transferring social capital away from unrecognized fraternities and reconnecting Greek life with the campus community.
In May of 2001, the Board voted to establish “male and female residence halls on both sides of the lake.” As men began to move to dorms further from the lodges on the Richmond College side of campus, the lodges became less valuable to fraternities as administrative, academic and social gathering spots.
Other campuses don’t face the same problem of unrecognized fraternities because chapters’ social capital resides in their on-campus houses and their recognized status. Unrecognized chapters are unable to survive. If UR is serious about making fraternities safer, more inclusive and more beneficial to the campus community, they will allow and encourage fraternities to construct large, residential fraternity houses. This will shift the social center of fraternities from off-campus to on-campus, it will allow UR to oversee and regulate social events and it will create real value for fraternities that can be leveraged to enforce good behavior.
The other way UR can increase the value of recognized fraternities is by sponsoring community building events that are able to be hosted exclusively by on-campus fraternities. So long as they are designed to be open to all students, events like Pig Roast and Greek Week will contribute enormously to the value of belonging to a recognized fraternity. Such events are fun, make memorable social experiences accessible to all students and help strengthen the bonds between Greek life members and the rest of the campus community. Take a look through old yearbooks and you will find mentions everywhere of organizations coming together to support Greek Week to make a positive difference. Did you know Trick or Treat Street and Color Wars were once sponsored by Greek life?
To be clear, no one person or office has the unilateral ability to implement these solutions. The CSI will have to work in partnership with individuals and departments across UR, including the Board, the vice president of student development, communications, the Office of Development and many more. By actively supporting inclusion efforts and recentering Greek social life on-campus, the administration will be able to fix many of the existing issues with Greek life at UR. They will be able to increase oversight, foster a values-based culture of campus engagement and grow the fraternity system beyond a relatively homogenous group of men to be socially and demographically representative of the entire campus population. This will create a healthier environment that provides better opportunities for all students.
William Bartnett, firstname.lastname@example.org, was the President of the Interfraternity Council during the 2021 calendar year.
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