Why I Oppose the Greek System

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for years now but never have. I thought that writing it would result in my ostracism from society at Northwestern. I no longer think that that’s the case, though even if it were, I don’t really care. So here it finally goes.

First, here are some premises on which I’m basing my argument:

  1. Just because a particular system has certain positive qualities or results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  2. Just because there are individual components of a system that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  3. Just because a system benefits those who are part of it does not mean it is good for society as a whole.
  4. Just because a system does not cause certain issues, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue.

To wit:

  1. Just because the Greek system has some positive qualities and results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  2. Just because there are individual Greek chapters that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  3. Just because members of Greek houses benefit from the Greek system in certain ways does not mean that the Greek system is good for college campuses or for society as a whole.
  4. Just because the Greek system does not cause issues like binge drinking, sexual assault, eating disorders, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue. As I’m going to argue, creating such an environment is exactly what it does.

It won’t be possible to understand (let alone agree with) the rest of my argument if you do not understand these premises, so make sure to read them carefully before trying to shoot down my argument.

That said, here, in no particular order, are the reasons I oppose the Greek system.
  1. Greek organizations have a long and illustrious history of discrimination on the basis of race, class, appearance, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and, obviously, gender. Whether or not they continue to do so today–and this is a subject of much debate–I don’t believe that one can support such a system without ambivalence.
  2. The very nature of a Greek organization lies in its exclusivity–the social power of current members to accept or reject prospective new members. Exclusivity has the effect of making something seem more desirable than it actually is, thus skewing potential members’ reasoning for joining Greek organizations. At a time of life when young adults should be learning how to base their self-esteem on internal rather than external valuations, the Greek system tells college students that their worth on campus is based on the arbitrary judgment of a group of older, cooler students. Desperate for validation from their peers, students are often devastated when they fail to get into their top-choice house.
  3. They lack diversity–not just racial, but mental. Every existing psychological study on the subject shows that, when given the chance, people will choose to associate with those whom they most resemble. This means that Greek organizations are essentially doomed to put similar people into boxes together rather than exposing them to diversity, because that’s how human psychology works. This is why it’s often so easy to stereotype particular Greek houses–the “awkward” house, the “douchey” house, the “slutty” house, the “Jew” house, the “prep” house, the “jock” house, and so on. Although stereotypes are usually overgeneralized, there’s usually at least a bit of truth to them, because birds of a feather flock together. And I think most people would agree that we go to college to meet people unlike ourselves, not to stick to what’s most comfortable. As regarding gender, some research suggests that spending lots of time around people of the other sex is healthy. If men lived together with women, for instance, they might gain a better appreciation for how sexual harassment and assault affects women, and perhaps they would be less likely to, say, march around campus chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” But in Greek culture, men and women interact mostly in a drunken setting, which doesn’t exactly promote dialogue.
  4. On a related note, Greek organizations judge potential members by superficial factors. Yes, yes, I know, they all claim not to judge people by appearance. However, how on earth do you decide if you want to live with and be emotionally close to a person after making small talk with them for a few minutes? There’s something wrong with this. Even if they’re not explicitly picking people based on appearance, they are picking them based on their ability to seem cool or otherwise socially acceptable, and in my opinion that is superficial. (I often hear the argument that people are picked for Greek organizations based on “social skills,” which are invaluable for adult life. This may be true. However, I also oppose discrimination based on “social skills.” There will be a future post on this.) Regardless, this isn’t even to mention that many Greek houses, particularly sororities, do explicitly judge people in a nasty, catty way. I know of a house at Northwestern that passes around a plate of cookies to potential recruits, and automatically disqualifies them if they take more than one.
  5. Most of the recognized benefits of Greek organizations, such as camaraderie, networking, and philanthropy, could easily be achieved through other avenues. College campuses are distinct from the rest of the world in that they provide nearly limitless outlets for making friends, giving back to the community, and advancing your career. Anyone who claims that they “need” a Greek organization to find these opportunities is either lazy or brainwashed. See Premise 1 above–although Greek organizations certainly have some good qualities, I do not believe that these qualities justify their continued existence.
  6. A Greek organization relies on psychological manipulation to forge a bond between its members. If you think the purpose of hazing is to provide some entertainment for older members, you’d be wrong. Or at least partially wrong. Undergoing physically or emotionally grueling situations is known to increase emotional connection between members of a group. That super-tight bond you see between members of a Greek organization isn’t a coincidence, and it was achieved unethically. Not all Greek organizations haze, but many (if not most) do–in fact, a recent study shows that at least 90% of students who have been hazed do not believe that they have! An eyebrow-raise next time a Greek member proudly tells you “Oh, we don’t haze” may be warranted.
  7. By definition, Greek organizations discriminate against transgender, intersex, genderqueer, or otherwise non-gender conforming people. While activists are fighting to establish a vision of gender that includes more than just “male” and “female,” Greek organizations, unlike most other social clubs, are still gender-segregated. Although Greek organizations will often claim to be accepting of trans individuals, what happens when a member of a Greek house decides to transition? Or, better question–what about people who do not identify as either male or female?
  8. Greek organizations elevate social life above academics in terms of importance. I’ve witnessed professors tripping over themselves trying to schedule exams and other academic events around Recruitment, Rush, and other Greek events. I’ve witnessed mass outcries on campus because a chemistry exam coincided with Gone Greek Night. This is ludicrous. I don’t know when college students began to assume that they have some sort of God-given “right” to certain social opportunities at college. You have a “right” to an academic education. Everything else, you need to seek out on your own.
  9. Greek organizations promote an old-boys’-network style of career advancement. Many Greek organization members proudly tell me how helpful their chapter is in connecting them to alumni and job opportunities. But since whole point of going to college is to have access to such opportunities, it’s fundamentally unfair that certain students receive more access just because they were cool enough to join a social club. No, the Greek system didn’t cause nepotism–refer to Premise 4 above–but it does promote it. As I see it, there’s enough inequality in the world as is. We should not be institutionalizing it in our universities.
  10. One word–groupthink. When your entire life revolves around one organization, this creates an environment in which nobody can publicly disagree or “cause trouble.” In Alexandra Robbins’ brilliant investigation of the Greek system, Pledged, she describes how sorority women refused to let one of their sisters accuse a fraternity man of raping her because their sorority and the man’s fraternity were partnered in some way and they didn’t want to compromise the relationship. This also partially explains why sorority women (sometimes) allow each other to barf up their meals, and why fraternity men (sometimes) allow each other to sexually assault women–they’re afraid or otherwise unable to speak up. Although these problems are thankfully not as prevalent at Northwestern as they are at other schools, having your entire social life controlled by one organization is never a healthy thing, because it means that you have to keep your problems to yourself or face social exclusion.
  11. They are financially prohibitive to many (if not most) students. Yeah, yeah, there’s financial aid available. But that doesn’t erase the problematic fact that one should never have to pay money to have access to friendship. Given that Greek houses also provide access to career-related networking and, on occasion, academic resources of dubious ethicalness, the fact that all of this comes at a price of hundreds of dollars a semester is just another way that class divisions are perpetuated at universities. Furthermore, membership in a Greek organization requires a sizable time commitment, and students who have to work to pay their way through college often (not always) cannot commit to it.
  12. Greek organizations promote binge drinking. There’s not much to say on this point. Even if nobody’s literally shoving alcohol down your throat, many Greek events come with the expectation that one pregame and/or get drunk. Much like sexual assault and eating disorders, this is the sort of issue to which Greek organizations love to pay homage by having special events about how to drink safely, etc. However, unhealthy drinking habits are entrenched in Greek culture. This is another great example of Premise 4 from above–while college students are certainly going to drink no matter what, examples like Europe show us that binge drinking is absolutely not unavoidable. It’s quite possible for young people to drink in a safe and healthy way. But Greek organizations are helping to keep the binge drinking tradition going strong.
  13. Although most Greek organizations do not encourage or promote sexual assault, eating disorders, discrimination, or other issues, I believe there is something inherently wrong with a system that has still produced so many examples of dangerous, violent, and/or prejudiced behavior. It’s certainly wrong to stereotype all Greek organizations as being hotbeds of this sort of stuff, but we need to seriously ask ourselves why it’s happening at all. Every time one of these terrible incidents hits the news, a Greek member is always quoted as claiming that this is “an isolated incident.” Then why does it keep happening? (For instance, at least one student has died of hazing-related injuries every year since 1970. Where’s the outrage?)
  14. The strongest moral argument for keeping Greek organizations around–philanthropy–is fatally flawed. First of all, as I mentioned in item 5 above, one does not need to belong to a Greek organization in order to participate in philanthropy. Not only are campuses absolutely full of philanthropic events of all kinds, but it really isn’t too difficult to find such opportunities on one’s own. Second, with the exception of programs like GreekBuild, the sorts of philanthropic events that Greek chapters tend to have basically consist of people paying admission to some fun event. Why not just call it what it is–a fun event–rather than pretend that the whole purpose was to be charitable? Furthermore, throwing money at a charity rarely solves actual societal problems. What helps is meaningful, time-intensive contribution to an actual cause. But it’s hard to find that kind of time when you’re too busy partying and hosting bake sales.
  15. Another major argument for the Greek system–tradition–is just, for lack of a better word, stupid. People love to pay homage to tradition. I know plenty of people who found it very important to join the very same Greek organization that their parents did before them, even if it’s at a different school. Alumni would probably have heart attacks (or roll over in their graves) if the Greek system were abolished. But why? Why do we need to keep around an outdated system that originated in the 19th century? Somebody give me a good reason. Why don’t we create a new system, a new tradition? Why don’t we create a tradition of improving the social climate on our campuses rather than keeping them the same as they were decades ago? When someone pulls out this argument, you know they’re just grasping at straws–when you ask “Why?” and someone answers, “Because,” you know they have no real reason.

Finally, some caveats. Do not accuse me of these things, because you will be wasting your time.

  1. I have nothing against individuals who are involved with the Greek system. I don’t judge them. I wouldn’t emulate their choice, but that’s as far as it goes.
  2. I have never been involved with Greek life in any way, not even Recruitment/Rush. I have never been rejected from my favorite sorority since I’ve never wanted to join a sorority. Nevertheless, I’m involved in many campus groups, have plenty of great friends, and have an active social/dating life. Therefore, the reason I oppose the Greek system is not because I’m “just jealous.” (To those who are unfamiliar, this is a common claim Greek organization members use to try to delegitimize arguments against the Greek system.)
  3. I fully respect the experience of anyone who claims to have had a wonderful time in his/her own fraternity/sorority. However, as you can see in Premise 2 above, just because there are some great Greek chapters does not mean the overall system is healthy and just.

This is the bulk of my argument against the Greek system. I hope I have shown that even when the Greek system benefits its own members–which it does not always do–it is a mostly negative force in society as a whole. The positive things about it, such as philanthropy and fun, could easily be achieved through other means, and the negative things about it cannot be repaired without completely altering the Greek system as we know it.

I believe that universities should be, and have the potential to be, spaces of equal opportunity for advancement. I believe that they can be melting pots of people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and opinions. I believe that they are places where people can grow both intellectually and psychologically, and begin the process of becoming confident, self-motivated individuals. I believe that universities have the power to change themselves for the better, and that they can work to solve the various issues they currently face, whether concrete like binge drinking and sexual assault, or abstract like lack of intellectual openness. I believe that the Greek system undermines universities on all of these counts, and many more.

Resolved: the Greek system is unethical and should be abolished.

Why I Oppose the Greek System

41 thoughts on “Why I Oppose the Greek System

  1. 1

    Thank you thank you for writing this! I’m utterly horrified that the Greek System is slowly being imported into Canada, when it was previously an America-only thing, especially since I just came here and didn’t want that to come with me across the border. I am glad there’s a huge pushback against it in Canada though, it would appear it’s too late in the U.S.
    I might also add that when you criticize the charity of choice for a sorority (I knew one that supported the charity I love to hate, Autism Speaks) they don’t listen to your criticisms, instead, they get angry and defensive, eventually ending in a “It’s tradition for us to support them!” Marvellous tradition at it again.

    1. 1.1

      Wow, I had no idea it’s trying to make its way to Canada. It doesn’t sound like it’ll gain a foothold, though. Canada, unlike the US, doesn’t have quite as strong of a tradition of segregating people, methinks.

      Northwestern students also love to support Autism Speaks; I haven’t done my research about that charity (though I haven’t given money to it, either). Would you like to point me to some resources about it and why you don’t like it?

      1. When it comes to resources on opposition to Autism Speaks, a few good facts are a healthy place to start: Point out that they are radically outside of the norm of disability charities by having *no* autistic representation on their board of directors or any other positions of power within the charity, that they only give seven cents of every dollar donated to them to helping autistic people, the rest goes towards research and cushy salaries for their execs (Their Chief Science Officer’s salary is mind-boggling by charity salary standards) that they are not recommended by the Better Business Bureau, and once you have established that foundation of them being a crap charity, you can delve into the real problems with them, such as the fact that one of their former execs (Who now heads the Autism Science Foundation) talked about wanting to kill her autistic daughter on camera, that they were at one point among the biggest purveyors of the “vaccines cause autism” myth, that they regularly portray autism as being on par with cancer, diabetes, and AIDS, and have compared autism to a death sentence, with their ultimate goal as an organization being the eradication of autism through the discovery of a pre-natal autism test.
        There’s more, you can find them by trawling through the disability blogosphere, but those are the biggest ones.

          1. I suspect it’s because they have a selective type of cognitive dissonance which makes them believe that all autistics are either children, or are too incompetent and stupid to know what’s best for themselves, so it’s up to them to call the shots. It’s exceedingly condescending.

  2. 2

    1)and don’t forget to mention how the sororities are treated differently from the fraternities (at least at Northwestern): sororities have to have a house mom and are not aloud to have boys sleep over or host parties, whereas the fraternities can do whatever they please including hosting alcoholic parties and leaving no choice for the intoxicated sorority girl but to go up to *his* room–basically giving the power to the testosterone-filled boys.
    2)also, another specificity in terms of their differences: to apply to even rush, a girl must upload a picture of herself, whereas fraternities require no such thing.

    Also, in terms of the ‘philanthropy’ that they do, they do it just to put a checkmark to say that they did their ‘philanthropy,’ when actually they barely make any sort of profit (from their events that they host) to contribute to their charities.

    Through my years in college, I’ve also witnessed [then] ‘nice’ boys go through the frat system and become disgusting entitled pigs. period.

    Sadly, this ‘tradition’ is so deeply instilled, especially at Northwestern, that I don’t see it being rethought or changed any time soon.

    Thank you for writing this.

      1. also, in terms of analyzing it via Psychology, my freshman year I noticed that the girls/boys from my floor who joined the greek system were those that did not have friends on our floor (either they just didn’t fit in with us, or we just didn’t like them as people). Now, consider how dangerous it is to put girls/boys with insecurities into a group that gives them a sort of power. They’ll become bullies of sorts. I do not have a link to research backing this up (I haven’t looked for research on this, but it’s common sense and I’m sure somebody has researched this in a way that may not specifically involve the Greek system, but it’s the same concept), but either Tolstoy or Dostoyevskiy once said that you should never give power to somebody who has suffered (just look at some tyrants from history). It may be especially dangerous to have a greek system in place at a nerdy school like our’s because most likely, we were nerdy in high school and never really got to experience a ‘crazy’ social life or the feeling of being ‘cool’ and ‘popular,’ that a greek system–by its exclusivity–does; now we have a bunch of kids running around campus with a new-found feeling of ‘coolness’ and being better than others.

        If there’s [good] research to back it up, there’s no reason the administration shouldn’t take these things into consideration….well, except things aren’t that easy since a University is political and wants a lot of money from alumni…

        1. I’d definitely agree 100% with all of that. And, in general, I think it’s very important to analyze these sorts of things from a psychological perspective. That’s what usually gets lost in all the mumbo-jumbo about “tradition” and “values” and whatnot.

  3. 3

    Hey Miriam! Great post, very well organized! I noticed that you didn’t have a source for point number 12, so, here you go! 🙂

    H. Wechsler, G.W. Dowdall and A. Davenport, et al. Correlates of college student binge drinking. Am J Public Health, 85 (1995), pp. 921–926 http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.85.7.921

    Weitzman, Nelson, and Wechsler Taking up binge drinking in college: the influences of person, social group, and environment. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32(1), (2003), pp 26-35 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X02004573

    These are correlative studies, so I think you’d be hard-pressed to use causative language, but it’s a VERY strong correlate of binge-drinking behavior. It could be that students who have backgrounds that are also strong correlates of binge drinking (such as binge-drinking in high school, being student athletes, viewing partying favorably, etc.) happen to be more likely candidates for greek-life just as easily as it could be due to active promotion of the behavior from the greek organizations themselves. There aren’t any easy answers due to the sheer abundance of contributing factors, but at the very least, no one can deny that members of greek organizations are more likely than their peers to engage in unhealthy drinking behavior.

    Props! Good luck with the rest of reading week and finals!!

  4. 4

    Thank you for writing this! The Greek system is HUGE at my school (justified in the fact that apparently we are the home of the first ever fraternity – I apologize on behalf of my college) but there are rampant problems. One sorority was shut down this year because of drug use and another fraternity was closed all last year because somebody nearly died at a frat party. (As it is, all sororities and frats can only hold closed, invite-only events until further view by the Panhellenic council. Something like that.)

    The thing is, nobody seems to view this as a problem – the response has been more of a “oh man, they SHUT DOWN all the frats? that sucks!” than anything else. I don’t really know how it works at other schools, and my school is pretty much a party school (so this is just speaking from my own experience) but drinking, especially drinking to excess, is something that people expect as part of the whole “college experience”, and the Greek system is a big perpetuator of that belief. Leading to events like people dying, or nearly dying. The “alcohol education” provided by the Greek system (hell, even the schools) is not enough.

  5. 5

    It isn’t only sororities and fraternities that encourage similar people to be friends. EVERYBODY does this, even if they are not conscious of it. Read the psych studies out there – over and over again people will bond much more strongly with the people that they can relate to. First they will do this on a superficial level and then a deeper level. But examine your own social life and I am sure you will see that most of your friends hold the same political views as you, maybe some similar philosophical ones, and they probably have similar interests to you as well.

    I think it is a broad and vapid generalization to say that sororities encourage things like drinking and eat disorders. You are making the fundamental argument here that everyone who joins a sorority is weak and will give into these “norms.” But I also think that your argument is essentially way too simplistic. If sororities (or fraternities) encourage things like anorexia and binge drinking, this is also the manifestation of broader social norms. To be skinny and to drink a lot are things that we are definitely pressured by.. But not by sororities but by COLLEGE CULTURE and SOCIETY IN GENERAL. You may argue that sororities PROPAGATE this behavior, but the root of all of these problems starts in society – just look at advertising. Don’t tell me that one of the main reasons girls because anorexic is being there’s pressure from girls around them. This is oversimplified. It doesn’t take into account individual differences, past history, macro societal forces.

    There are definitely some points of your argument that make sense and are somewhat strong, but overall you don’t see the truth but simply to be right.

    Some other points:
    – Sororities lack diversity because our school lacks diversity.
    – We live by stereotypes. It is easy to stereotype groups of friends as well as sororities for the very reason that people who are similar will befriend each other. There are stereotypes about everything (women, races, etc) and most of the time they can be wrong. But they exist so they we can make snap judgments on large groups of people. As long as you have a big group of friends you will have a stereotype about that group.
    – I don’t think you can make the argument that greek organization promote binge drinking if you aren’t in one. It is college that promotes this sort of attitude and while the greek system certainly doesn’t help it, I think most of us would still frequent bars and play beer pong if we didn’t have greek organizations we were part of. While you can say that there is a strong correlation between greek organizations and drinking, you can’t say that one causes the other.

    By the logic of your argument, you could also say this:

    Just because college has some positive qualities and results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
    Just because there are individual colleges that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
    Just because members of colleges benefit from the Greek system in certain ways does not mean that college is good for society as a whole.
    Just because college does not cause issues like binge drinking, sexual assault, eating disorders, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue. As I’m going to argue, creating such an environment is exactly what it does.

    I agree with some parts of your “essay.” But I do think it is oversimplified.

  6. 6

    Now, I hate fraternities and sororities a lot. Seriously, I cannot stand them. You raise some interesting points but I think some other things need to be considered. The post says “Just because a particular system has certain positive qualities or results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.” That’s true but the opposite is true as well. Just because a system has certain negative qualities or results does not mean that it is broken.

    Greek organizations are discriminatory and exclusive. No doubt about it, but this is by design. Exclusivity necessitates discriminatory practices. Sure, frats are for men and sororities are for women and transgender people don’t have an organization like that, but no one is stopping them from having one. One could also make a case that universities as a whole spend a lot of time on being exclusive by discriminating against students with certain GPAs or extracurriculars or legacies.

    This post says that philanthropy in the greek system is flawed because it just gives the proceeds from parties to charities. Claiming that this isn’t good enough is not is not an argument against it. It’s something positive and whether or not it redeems the system is irrelevant, it shouldn’t be dismissed in this way. Doing good that isn’t efficient or optimized isn’t the same as not doing good. This might be more of a problem with how charities use their money but that’s a problem with the charity and a mistake many organizations and individuals that aren’t greek haven’t made. Also, this sort of philanthropy is a function of the market they interact with. “Hey guys, wanna build a house for the impoverished?” or “hey guys, wanna have a party and use the money to just buy the impoverished a house?” The first is a win for the impoverished and maybe the greek groups (that warm fuzzy feeling they get), but the second is a definite win-win.

    A lot of this post is reasons any collective organization or group is bad. People generally don’t attack religious homeless shelters for giving the homeless soup and a bible. The military also has a lot of these features: it’s voluntary, it brain washes you, there’s violence, there’s groupthink. Country clubs are financially discriminatory in the same way. So are gyms, grocery store co-ops, costco, Netflix, and IMDB Pro. Restaurants won’t feed you unless you pay and I’d be willing to be that if you went to a homeless shelter dressed well with hundred dollar bills poking out of your pockets that they might not feed or house you. Everyone, individual or group, behaves in a discriminatory manner.

    An “old boys club” mentality with how greek organizations will hook members up with jobs after college is also mentioned as a problem. It’s true that it doesn’t benefit anyone other than the members but that’s the point. Why be a member if you don’t benefit? Sure, it’s unfair that other students who don’t or can’t join who don’t get the same access, but then you’d have to say that the Russian Student Association should never help it’s members get jobs if not being Russian or eastern european excludes you. You’d have to say that no organization built around any common interest, heritage, or religion (I’d say that heritage and religion fall under interests) should help its members.

    It’s also unfair that the kids with cars can drive to more networking events and so can the ones who live closer to public transportation, but no one is saying that students should not have cars. A fraternity is a networking organization in a very pure sense. One pays for access to the community that uses the money to ensure that the network continues to exist. Social events incentivize members and strengthen the network. If everyone could join, then there’d be no point.

    Hazing and binge drinking are bad, but they’re both voluntary and life style choices in a way. No one has any right to restrict someone drinking or being abused when they seek it out and consent. The sexual assault stuff is bad, no question. That’s not a reason to get rid of the greek system though. If students boycotted the frats where sexual assault took place, they would either have parties by themselves or be proactive and try to prevent it. Marina mentioned that how NU’s greek system treats sororities relative to frats. The students should boycott this system if there are so many negative features or if these ones are that bad. I’d bet that the frats that run the greek system would help get rid of the house moms and other rules very quickly if the sororities boycotted their parties.

    I’d say that most of this post is about the negative aspects of collectives in general and doesn’t make a case that the greek system as a whole is broken. It’s at least not much more broken than any other voluntary collection of people. I think that’s what’s important to remember here: these groups are voluntary. No one is coerced into joining a frat or sorority or going to their parties or events. Yeah, a lot of them are homophobic, racist, superficial, and/or douchebags, but those are their choices to make and there will be consequences that they’ll have to deal with.

    I think there’s an important issue that hasn’t been addressed here that I think is most relevant. The fact that they call themselves “greek” is for the most part inaccurate and it prevents people actually from Greece or who are of Greek heritage to form groups without people thinking they’re talking about frats or sororities.

  7. 7

    Thanks for writing this. I joined a Greek house at NU and later chose to deactivate, partly for social reasons (I was closer with my non-Greek friends), but also for moral reasons. Even if I could excuse my decision to myself (“The system doesn’t change who I am”), I didn’t want to “rush” other students into a system I didn’t believe in.

    I’d add to your ideas one more: Northwestern would be a more fun, rewarding school to go to without the Greek system. Everyone in the Greek system has friends outside their house, and we non-Greeks have plenty of friends in the system. But most of us also can think easily of people we’d like to spend more time with–and who would like to spend more time with us–except that a Greek house has become so much a part of one or both of our social lives that it doesn’t happen.

    This is a school, like most, with some driven, creative, intellectual, passionate people. I would love to see what all the energy currently being put into the Greek system could produce if people followed their own passions rather than subscribing to a system most of its members make excuses for and few love.

    I hope one day someone will run for ASG on the platform of getting rid of the Greek system–opposition would be loud, but it’s a conversation a lot of us would like to take part in.

  8. 8

    There is one portion of this post that I would like to address — philanthropy.

    During my three years as an active sorority woman, the Greek system at my school (which was relatively small — about 1,000 Greeks total out of a 25,000 undergraduate population) raised more than $100,000 collectively during our Greek week events. Most of this money was raised during our Dance Marathon — a 24-hour dancing event similar to the Relay for Life events held across the country for the American Cancer Society every year. This money was given to organizations that were agreed upon by the Greek community as a whole prior to Greek week, and does not include the funds raised by the individual chapters for their own philanthropy projects. And even though these were just monetary donations, it’s difficult to put down $100,000 raised by college kids in a three-year period — because it’s impressive!

    My sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, supports the victims of domestic violence as our philanthropy — and as active members, we were required to spend time at the local women’s aid shelter doing odd jobs, babysitting, cleaning, and basically whatever else was asked of us. We also held a spaghetti dinner each year to raise money for the shelter, and as part of our recruitment, had potential members help pack boxes of supplies and make cards of support for the women in the shelter. My experience was typical at my university, with many Greek organizations dedicating time more than money to causes close to their chapters. Even though I have graduated and moved to three cities since my sorority days, I still find time to volunteer at women’s shelters, and a big part of that is to continue to honor what is so important to an organization so important to me.

    I’m not here to argue about whether or not Greek life is important on a college campus. And I also recognize that you’ve acknowledged differing experiences and exceptions to the rules. However, I think it’s important to note that for most Greeks, our philanthropies become more or less ingrained in us — and to dismiss the charitable giving (financially, physically and emotionally) overlooks a part of the Greek system that works well, not just for the organizations themselves, but for the communities they function in, as well.

  9. 9

    Before quibbling about what good or bad Greek societies do, I’d like to know what they are for. In my experience of trying to understand American culture as a foreign student, nobody has been able to explain to me what they are for in the first place.

    1. 9.1

      They aren’t “for” anything. They’re for a select group of people to make friends and have fun. In terms of origins, they mostly originated to keep white, upperclass men apart from the lower classes/races.

    2. 9.2

      The answer varies from group to group. The sorority I was in in college was founded as a music fraternity — and over time, morphed into an inclusive organization for women who were academically interested, had character, were financially responsible and showed leadership ability. Other groups were created to, as the author notes below, separate upperclass students from lowerclass students. To say that’s the norm now, though, isn’t accurate.

      In terms of what they’re for — they’re no different from any other club on campus. If you didn’t see the purpose of joining — for instance, the social aspect doesn’t seem like fun, the philanthropy doesn’t interest you, you don’t like the people in a certain house, or you don’t want to adhere to the rules — then you wouldn’t join. Similarly, if you were a Republican student, you probably wouldn’t seek out the Campus Dems for membership.

      1. Where I went to college, we had a music club for people who were interested in music, maybe even more specific clubs dedicated to different genres of music. We did not need to call them “Greek societies”. I am assuming being a Greek society dedicated to music is somehow different from just an ordinary music club? In other words is there something specific that this present culture of Greek societies can achieve that regular clubs cannot?

        “who were academically interested, had character, were financially responsible and showed leadership ability” – these are all admirable qualities but it seems rather pointless to form a club based on such an amorphous set of virtues. How do you even pick people that you think are qualified to join…conduct a selection test?

        Your second paragraph is redundant in the context of my question. It goes without saying that one should feel free to join clubs, participate in activities, read books, eat food, select friends, pets, partners, careers, hobbies, and favorite celebrities, according to one’s preferences. For example, I do feel like joining a tautology Greek society now 🙂 : http://xkcd.com/703/

        1. LOL Kinjal, you’re a genius.

          And I agree. Something just smells fishy to me about making moral virtue a prerequisite for joining a club. That’s MUCH more of a grey area than clubs for, say, people who like sports or music or who want to do photography. It’s just wrong. Who defines morality, anyway?

  10. 10

    While you told us about a lot of things that are wrong with the Greek system you haven’t told us what the Greek system IS.

    I doubt that it is nearly as monolithic as you imply. Are you talking about Greeks in Greece, or about Greeks who have emigrated to other countries? It sounds as though you are talking about the “Hellenic Communities” that proliferate in the Greek diaspora, and yes they are often as chauvinistic narrow-minded as ytou dsecribe, but that is surely not all there is to being Greek, and isn’t tarring all Greeks with the same brush (which is what happens when you don’t define what the “Greek system” is) just as racist and ethnocentric?

    1. Pen

      Nothing in this post places a stigma on people from Greece or with Greek ancestry. Greek life is made up of sororities and fraternities on college campuses. If the first paragraph didn’t make that clear, the links certainly do.

  11. 11

    I may be a rarity. I didn’t go to college for diversity. I went to find people like me. I had been out of place, the Different One, all my life and i was looking for other maladjusted geniuses like myself. College provided them nicely, esp going to a school where the average IQ was 140 and the average ACT was 30. I was very ordinary, even a little slow, instead of a freak.

    I think that probably holds true for a lot of bright kids from small towns.

  12. 12

    As a university professor who is also an immigrant, I have to confess that I’m baffled by the Greek system and especially by the prestige it enjoys. Sororities and fraternities get support and resources on campus before every other student organization. I’m a faculty advisor for the Spanish Club at my university. Our club conducts educational activities, everybody is welcome, and there is neither hazing nor drinking. And still, we have to fight for ever $100 in funding.

    I believe that belonging to clubs and organizations is a hugely important part of student life. However, I see no value of belonging to an organization for the sake of belonging. Unless an organization is united by a common cause, by a set of activities that serve some goal, it becomes an end in itself. This is why silly and dangerous hazing rituals arise. A weak collective identity – such as the one members of Greek organizations have – needs to be reinforced through pain. In more egregious cases, it needs to be inscribed on the members’ bodies.

    The Greek life is a vestige of the times when the system of higher education in this country was reserved for the white members of the very rich classes. There is no doubt in my mind that it will eventually die off. The world is changing and the student life has to change with it.

  13. 13

    Great post. As a townie, we used to dare each other to crash the parties. I used to crash them a lot (the key is to do it late, when most of them are already drunk and don’t care) and I was stunned at the expensive digs and how they brazenly TRASHED them like spoiled brats… also they usually had great food, high class drinks and designer drugs. The reefer was top notch (my friend was dealer-to-the frathouses).

    Townie, I think, is likely dated slang = means a non-student living in a college town. I learned a lot as a townie, and it was my first introduction to classism.

  14. 15

    While I understand your frustrations with the Greek systems, the issues you brought up are true of most student organizations on campus (INCLUDING, but not limited to, SHAPE, A&O, SASA, Sailing Team, Frisbee team, all of which have plenty of non-, even anti-Greek members). I think Lindsay H, Mike and Aliaw made a lot of good points that you should address. As a journalist, I’ve learned that a real editorial must account for the opposing view, and so far I haven’t seen that. I might be able to take your position a little bit more seriously if you make an effort to address their concerns.

    1. 15.1

      First of all, that’s just simply not true. I’m involved with many campus organizations, and most of them do not discriminate on the basis of gender, encourage drinking, or haze people. There are undoubtedly some organizations that do, and I oppose those as well. However, they at the very least have a higher purpose, such as providing concerts on campus or giving members the experience of being on a sailing team.

      Second, I don’t see how the existence of non-Greek groups that also have some of these problems make my points any less valid. What, if “everyone’s doing it,” it must be okay?

      Third, I never claimed to be a journalist, and I never called this an “editorial.” This is my opinion. You can agree with it or not; it doesn’t matter much to me.

      1. Miriam, you’re great. As a brazilian anthropologist (by its 25 – laugher) I am most impressed with your reflexion, it’s clear, concise and a huge step towards understanding american “university culture”. It’s shocking how ‘university/academic culture’ can vary so differently from country to country, and I just feel it (and understand deeply what you mean) when you say “could we just build up a different pattern?”. Let us say that I share analougous feelings to some brazilian institutions as well.

    1. 16.1

      Hey there,

      If this is legit, I’d love to speak with you. But I tried to look you up on FNCU’s website and I don’t see you anywhere on it. What gives?

  15. 17


    What a great post! I was once involved in the NPHC (African American Greeks) pledge process. My room mate and I both realized how silly it was and dropped the line. Nights we would be up until 3am reciting information about the fraternity while getting hit with paddles and canes. Not to mention spending our hard earned money to buy the fraternity brothers chicken, beer, food.. etc.. just to conform into a group. It’s mind boggling how much people will sacrifice on my campus just to join a greek organization and put their health at risk.

  16. 18

    A very interesting read, and a good way to give voice to many of the issues that I have seen with the Greek system at my own school over the 4 years that I’ve been there, with several more on the way.

    The biggest thing is that no matter how well meaning one puts the issues that an outsider sees with the system, the issues that are eating away at the system that will eventually cause its collapse and death, the Greeks will jump up immediately and start shouting a person down. Even if the issues are true and are hurting the system, they will ignore you and shout you down with all the “good” things that they are doing. In my personal experience there is very little good in the system, and a large amount of bad.

    Now, I’ve been largely outspoken about the Greek system at my school, my sister is in a sorority and knows my grievances, I’ve gotten into many heated debates with both frat boys and sorority girls about the issues that I have seen rampant in the system. Almost entirely they boil down to “But we do philanthropies!” “I wouldn’t be in college right now if my sorority hadn’t put me back into shape with my grades!” “Tradition!” as well. My personal favorite is the middle one, ignoring the fact that they would not have had the bad grades had they not been in the sorority in the first place! They would not have dedicated the time to the sorority that they should have done studying, they would not have gone out to the parties nearly as much had they not felt compelled to go to because of their sorority – and the fact that it was a frat party.

    This summer I met one of the most amazing girls that I have ever met in my life, the biggest downside to her was the fact that she was in a sorority – a fact that eventually lead, in part, to her ending our relationship as significant others, though we are still good friends. She told me this summer that prior to her working at our camp that she came in thinking that we were all going to be nerds, geeks, weirdos, losers, etc. All things instilled into her by her sorority, and all these thoughts were destroyed within the week of her being at this camp. Her sorority had instilled in her the idea that those who are not in the Greek system are somehow “below” those who are. That they are lesser beings, a worst form of indoctrination I have never seen. Now as to part of the reason we are no longer in a romantic relationship? Part of the reason given is “different friend groups,” meaning I am not in a fraternity, “spend time with my sorority,” isolating herself from other groups of friends for the temporary benefit of the Greek system. And my favorite? The fact that I’m outspoken about the system itself and the issues that I see inside of it.

    I have done a fair amount of research on the Greek system, especially as it concerns to my school, and I have learned something interesting. The Greek system was never intended to be what it is today, it was not meant to become just a social club where college students could get drunk, take advantage of women, and be generally stupid. No, it was created as a place for males to live near campus, for those who did not live in the city where the university was. The dormitories at the schools were female only, and often times the schools would be closed to the male students after dark. The solution? The males banded together and created – or purchased – houses of their own near campus, near enough where they would be able to get to their classes easily and on time. They were a housing solution for those who had no housing. That was it. What has been a solution to a problem has become a problem in and of itself.

    It is not that the system is broken. It is that the system is diseased. There exist many social clubs that are exclusive, however none of them are as diseased and have as many issues as the Greek system does. The system is like an olive tree that has been left to its own devices, it has been left to the weather and to disease. That tree still produces a small amount of good fruit, but it produces a small amount to begin with, and the majority of what it does is not fit for consumption. There are diseased areas of the tree, they are missing leaves, and there are shattered limbs. The tree needs to be pruned, taken care of, and repaired. What we have now is but a shadow of the glory it could be, a glory that once was, and at its current pace – a glory that shall never be again.

  17. 19

    The fraternity I was in (and am still technically a member of) was kinda full of bullshit too, but

    It’s called Alpha Phi Omega, a “national co-ed service fraternity”. Service projects are open to non-members, there’s no drinking allowed at fraternity events, and anyone can join if they complete the “pledging” requirements, which in my chapter were 20 hours of service and chairing a project, and the pledge class as a whole had to run a service project and do a craft project (kinda stupid, but fun). A lot of people were unable to meet the requirments but were let in anyway because they tried but just didn’t have time to do all the stuff. They always tell people to put school and work first. Our chapter was not very racially diverse but I think that’s because the school itself was not. People in the chapter had different like political beliefs and different religious beliefs, though.

    I say it still had its bullshit because there was an initiation ceremony and an induction ceremony, both of which required you to be in the dark and have other people lead you around while you were supposed to have your eyes closed (but I kept my eyes open because fuck that). And once at a regional conference, a former active member was giving a speech and he said something like “Service isn’t really the point of APO; the point is to get you to grow as a person, and service is the carrot we dangle in front of you.” At that point, I had been in APO for four years and I was getting fed up with it because I felt like we were doing any worthy service projects, and that was the last straw for me. I joined APO because I wanted to help people, and I tried and tried to get my chapter to do bigger service, but they always said my ideas were too hard. Also, it has shit like a secret password and secret handshake.

    They had rules against hazing, and they didn’t do anything like the other fraternities, but I felt like the ceremonies where you had to close your eyes and stuff were kind of hazing.

  18. 20

    I totally agree with everything stated. I just want people to know there’s an alternative: I am an active member of a SERVICE sorority, which is not Panhellenic, and the difference I see between the organization of which I am a member and other sororities is massive:

    -Our sorority is not exclusive to women or those who identify as female; we allow men, non-gendered, and transgendered members as well, and have chapters with all genders.
    -We do not discriminate on the basis of age, race, marriage (or anything else). We have members of color, older members, and married or divorced members in my chapter alone. No other sorority on our campus has diversity of race or age, and none of them allow members who are married.
    -We do not allow drinking or drugs of any kind at any event with our name attached to it (of course, people can do whatever the hell they want in their own time). There’s just not the huge pressure to get shmammered.
    -Our dues are pretty much entirely dedicated to the service we do.
    -Our whole reason for existing is philanthropy and charity that is *service* driven–that is, while we have fundraisers, the majority of our events involve us going and spending our time and energy to serve others.

    I think social sororities/fraternities exist for people who were cool in high school and feel the need to continue to feel better than everyone else, or people who weren’t cool in high school but now have the chance to be cool with mommy and daddy’s money. That doesn’t mean that’s the situation of every person in the greek system, it’s merely what I’ve observed as the majority attitude.

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