Greek life culture change: It’s time to diverge from classic stereotypes

Illustration of students from a fraternity and sorority repainting a house with Greek letters on it
Olivia Staser/File

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Content warning: sexual violence and sexual harassment

Who comes to mind when you think of someone in Greek life? Maybe Bluto Blutarsky from “Animal House,” Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde” or Steve Stifler from the “American Pie” franchise?

All of these characters are archetypal embodiments of individuals in Greek life, perfectly representing the stereotypes that many associate with the classic “frat bro” or “sorority girl.” These stereotypes are rooted in a centuries-old history of elitism and intolerance. And while Greek life has evolved to better embrace diversity and progressive values, there is still a long way to go. It is time to put aside the classic stereotypes and step into 2020.

What needs to occur is a widespread culture change. The thing about this type of change, however, is that it isn’t going to happen in a semester, or a year or maybe even a couple of years. Altering foundations and deviating from historical standards doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye.

Culture change occurs when passionate individuals and groups work together toward a common goal over a significant period of time. It doesn’t happen from the dedication of one person alone — it is about each individual taking the next step in the right direction, constantly pushing toward positive change and holding those around them accountable to being better.

There are a lot of positive aspects of Greek life to build off of, and clearly I wouldn’t be in this position of asking for change if I thought there was more bad than good coming out of the system. Many students develop extremely close bonds with their fellow members over the course of spending a full four years together. A community that currently includes about 3,600 students, the Greek system brings individuals from around the world together into a tight-knit family.

I have seen friends blossom socially and become comfortable in their own skin. Older students in fraternities and sororities serve as mentors, in terms of both personal development and academic achievement. Philanthropy events frequently raise hundreds, even thousands, of dollars toward charities of the houses’ choosing.

Speaking personally, I have gained the family I never thought I would have as an only child. Out of everything, the deep connections are what stand out in my mind. I’ve been the shoulder to cry on, and I’ve cried into the shoulders of others. My friends and I have gotten each other through the toughest of times, and I know that so many people will always have my back.

However, the best value that a member of Greek life can hold is awareness of the downfalls of the entire system. There is a general absence of diversity caused by the significant costs and culture of intolerance often associated with membership. Cases of sexual assault are not rare, and it is clear some fraternity houses perpetuate a culture that lacks respect for women and marginalized communities. These are well-known issues about the system that must be addressed.

There is a lot students can do to push Greek life in the right direction. Some of what I would like to accomplish next year include establishing mandatory pre-recruitment (pre-rush) programming regarding the topics of sexual violence and sexual harassment, or SVSH, bystander intervention, substance safety and inclusivity; creating a framework to help fraternities change their internal house culture after SVSH incidents; and increasing the availability of scholarships to make Greek life more accessible to students of all economic backgrounds.

At the end of the day, I will never say that Greek life reform is the most significant task to improve life for the students on this campus (in fact, it’s far from it). All I can ask is that you do not confine the entirety of Greek life to a monolith.

Generalizations are not only untrue — given that UC Berkeley has probably one of the most economically and socially diverse Greek systems in the country — but also unfair to those within the system who are striving to do away with the negative aspects that so often come under fire (albeit rightfully so!).

Change is not just being called for by those not in a fraternity or sorority, but also by those that are part of this community. The change that we need, however, is not shutting down the entire Greek system; the change we need is internal reform.

Whether or not the campus officially recognizes houses, Greek life will exist in some form or another. In my opinion, it is best that it stays recognized as an institution. As an official institution, it can be held accountable by external factors such as the LEAD Center, as well as by required SVSH and substance safety education conducted every semester.

I recognize that from the outside, I embody all the stereotypes widely associated with Greek life. I am a tall, white, heterosexual, cisgender male — something I have received criticism for as an ASUC senator-elect. On top of that, I am from Southern California and have never wondered where I might sleep that night or where my next meal would come from.

However, I think that the first step in making Greek life more accessible to all students is a recognition on the part of those who fit the classic stereotype that change needs to happen. I recognize my inherent privilege, and I vow to do all that I can control to rid Greek life of disrespect and intolerance, with open ears to input from students both inside and outside the system.

Michael Savides is a rising junior and an ASUC senator-elect at UC Berkeley.