Can Greek life survive?

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Katie Jocelyn /Staff

During the first week of spring semester — “Welcome Week,” as it’s popularly known — the women of the Panhellenic community at UC Berkeley were forbidden by the presidents of their sororities from attending parties at unaffiliated fraternities and at the apartments at 2722 Bancroft Way, which previously housed Sigma Alpha Epsilon before the chapter’s dissolution by its Nationals last spring. The presidents were following the mandate of the newly-inaugurated Panhellenic Council, or PHC, which had warned that “(The) Cal Alcohol Task-Force (would be) doing walkthroughs of the events to be sure no women are present.”

The crackdown was yet another battle in a continuous series of skirmishes between unaffiliated fraternities — which are not subject to the same safety regulations as affiliated ones — and the PHC, which has increasingly demanded the implementation of improved safety standards within these unaffiliated fraternities, notwithstanding their status with the university.

In recent years, the stakes of this long-brewing tension have mounted. Last spring, after UC Davis student Vaibhev Loomba’s death from acute alcohol poisoning at Zeta Psi in November, PHC placed sanctions on the unaffiliated fraternities for a two-week period. Without the implementation of appropriate standards of fire, alcohol and sexual safety, PHC warned, no Greek woman would set foot in the house of an unaffiliated fraternity.

The two weeks ended, the fraternities in question complied with the demands of PHC, and Greek life went on as usual. And then, at the end of finals week last semester, former UC Berkeley student Jeffrey Thomas Engler was found dead at Pi Kappa Phi. He had fallen from a significant height, the coroner’s report said, and alcohol had been a contributing factor.

Engler’s death catalyzed a renewed effort in the long war to make Greek life safer. According to the list of Welcome Week rules sent via email by sorority presidents to their chapters, it was in part the occurrence of this second tragedy — little more than a year after the first — that inspired the new round of sanctions against unaffiliated fraternities, though it is noteworthy that Pi Kappa Phi is, in fact, affiliated with UC Berkeley.

How, non-Greek readers might wonder, is an organization like PHC even able to dictate where its member organizations’ women can and cannot go?

In short, if a chapter disregards the rules set forth by the All-Greek Social Code, they stand the chance of being reported to the university or to the sorority’s national level. If the chapter is in violation of the UC Berkeley code of student conduct (in which recognized student organizations are legally treated as students) or their national organization’s bylaws, the corresponding punishment can be anything from social probation — which limits the social events the chapter is allowed to organize and participate in — to the chapter’s total dissolution. Note, though, that specific individuals alone cannot be punished for going to the interdicted fraternities. The rules state that if there are above a certain number of women from one sorority at any given location, then the gathering can be considered an official illicit “chapter” event.

How, non-Greek readers might wonder, is an organization like PHC even able to dictate where its member organizations’ women can and cannot go?

What this rule effectively does, though, is ensure that women only go to these forbidden houses alone or nearly so. Considering the emphasis on the “buddy system” and “safety in numbers” in most personal safety education, the prohibition then seems counterintuitive to the striving to protect Greek women’s safety.

Wishing to grasp — or perhaps justify — this contradiction and understand more about this bitter struggle for safety that has been underway longer than my tenure in college, I contacted both the president of the Panhellenic Council and the president of Zeta Psi, asking if they would be willing to be (separately) interviewed in order to explain their perspectives on the issue. I informed both parties that I would also be seeking a conversation with the other.

The PHC president politely declined to be interviewed, citing the “sensitive nature of the situation.” The Zeta Psi president did not reply to my messages.

I was initially surprised. Why would the leaders of two organizations central to the hot-button question of Greek life and student safety — highly relevant in our community and on a national scale — decline the opportunity to voice their perspective on said issue? Was it because they did not wish for their voices to be published in concert with the other’s? Was it because they themselves were unsure of what exactly their stances were or of how to express them? Or was it simply because they did not wish to exacerbate tension by talking to the press?

For all my speculation, I can’t know why either party decided not to talk to me. What I do know, though, is that their refusal is yet another example of an ongoing failure by Greek students at all levels of the system to establish an open, honest multifaceted conversation about the system in which we participate.

Certainly, there have been little progressions and little victories here and across the country in addressing the many problems that plague Greek life — binge drinking, sexual assault, racism — but a sweeping, impassioned, unified reform movement that looks the problems built into the structure of the system itself coldly in the face?

Hardly.

In October, I watched a crowd of Greek women walk out, offended, of an alcohol education — presentation by University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth A. Armstrong in which she put forward data collected at an unnamed state university in the Midwest. She discussed a variety of findings, including the disproportionate social power of fraternities based on their ability to provide alcohol to undergraduates, the way in which social status within the Greek system affected women’s treatment of one another and evidence suggesting Greek women belonging to “lower-tier” sororities faced worst sexual treatment from fraternity men than women of the  “top-tier.” Furthermore, the arrangement of this tier system, she explained, was primarily based on exactly what one would expect: beauty and money.

The presentation was hastily cut off by PHC, and the uproar following it was so great that the then-president of PHC was forced to send out a conciliatory email to all Greek women half-apologizing, half-explaining the necessity of the kind of deeply uncomfortable discussion Armstrong was attempting to begin.

Certainly, there have been little progressions and little victories here and across the country in addressing the many problems that plague Greek life — binge drinking, sexual assault, racism — but a sweeping, impassioned, unified reform movement that looks the problems built into the structure of the system itself coldly in the face?

As a part of the Greek system here, I can confidently say that after more than nearly two years of membership, I have observed almost every single one of the same patterns of inequality discussed by Armstrong. And, yes, this status quo is horrific, but to outright deny its existence is not only willfully ignorant, but counterproductive to the sort of positive change that we all wish to see. My question is: How was it that data collected at a school similar to ours, composed largely of interviews with collegiate women like us and presented by a highly respected sociologist from a renowned research university, deemed too radical by a crowd of UC Berkeley students?

The primary problem, I think, is that the conversation is a socially risky one. For Greeks to criticize Greek life itself is to criticize the social milieu in which they move. The desire to refrain from doing so is understandable. As an illustration of this, when I contacted the women of my chapter to ask if anyone would be willing to talk to me for an article about the Armstrong incident, no one responded. For this article, I posted on the UC Berkeley “Free & For Sale” group on Facebook entreating any and all Greeks to submit to a few questions via email about their feelings on the future of Greek life, if the possibility of changing it fundamentally exists and if they felt it needed to be changed in some essential way at all.

 My question is: How was it that data collected at a school similar to ours, composed largely of interviews with collegiate women like us and presented by a highly respected sociologist from a renowned research university, deemed too radical by a crowd of UC Berkeley students?

The group has nearly 30,000 members; assuming nearly all of those are current UC Berkeley students (one must be a part of the UC Berkeley network on Facebook to join) and that there are currently about 3,400 campus Greeks, statistically speaking, about one in 10 people in the group were eligible to respond to the request I put forth. Of that 10 percent, one woman contacted me. I sent her my list of questions. At press time, I had not received a reply.

Another explanation for the general pattern of silence in the Greek community is perhaps inertia, stemming from the knowledge of how futile one person striving for change would be. Greek organizations are not democracies and they don’t pretend to be. As a tiny fraction of the total membership of these massive organizations, an individual student holds little to no legislative power. A measure of it is held by UC Berkeley PHC, Interfraternity Council and the executive boards of each fraternity and sorority, but all of these bodies are ultimately subject to the rules of the National Panhellenic Conference, the North American Interfraternity Conference or the executive boards of each individual organization, all of which are typically separated from direct contact with undergraduates by several layers of bureaucracy.

The greatest problem of all may be that Greek life’s focus is, by the very nature of the thing, on tradition and history, not dynamism. It is an institution quite literally designed to preserve the old and pass on ways of life from one generation to the next. Is it therefore realistic to believe we can create the kind of change that could transform Greek life from an old-fashioned institution that creates more social problems than it manages to solve, into an egalitarian, accepting source of empowerment and achievement — not merely for the rich, white and beautiful, but for anyone?

Or does this popular form of college socialization indeed lack the adaptability necessary to survive the next 20 years amid a student rhetoric that is becoming increasingly hostile to elitism, racism and genderism?

Considering the Greek tendency to stay quiet, perhaps the best we can hope for is that these questions will be asked — even if they will not be easily answered.

 

Camille Jetta is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]