Is it Great to Go Greek?

A critique of the Greek system in the US and Canada

Bold and visible, Greek Rows are lined with historic manors and architectural feats; across 800 US campuses, fraternities own roughly US$3 billion worth of real estate. Power is derived through visibility and exclusivity on campus and online, through both literal and digital visual markers of wealth. By monopolizing and capturing an enticing social space that embodies a stereotypical college experience of parties and life-long friendship, the predominantly white (PW) Greek system maintains relevance amongst college students.

Greek life parties are one of the main ways in which students at US colleges engage in party culture, with large fraternity house basements providing ample opportunity for drinking below the age of 21. It’s therefore not unreasonable to suggest that Greek life has played a notable role in spreading COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, particularly on college campuses and particularly with the mass return of students to campus in the US. COVID-19 cases on college campuses during the 2020-2021 academic year were largely sourced from the unmasked and not socially distanced gatherings by Greek life members, including events organized and publicized by the Greek Letter Organizations (GLOs). Although – according to a former-McGill Greek life member – the commitment and pressure to be social in this capacity is less applicable to Canadian GLOs, multiple University of British Columbia (UBC) frat parties have violated public health regulations. 

“Just as roads are built for types of vehicles, pathways are built for types of students. The party pathway is provisioned to support the affluent and socially oriented… built around an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.”

Such a socially-oriented conception of the “college experience,” according to sociological researchers Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, is exemplative of what they call “the party pathway.” Their book, Paying for the Party, examines how colleges maintain inequality, based on their research of an unnamed university in the Midwestern United States (MU, Midwestern University). They find that the “college experience” is not universal, but socially classed, coining the term “pathway” to describe “when the university structures the interests of a constituency into its organizational edifice.”

Armstrong and Hamilton describe the unnerving centrality of frat parties, mixers, and the expansive calendar of Greek events to be exemplary of the “party pathway.” Many students in this pathway have familial wealth and are able to pay full university tuition without aid. Majors characterized by “a heavy focus on appearance, personality and charm” are provisioned  by the university to enable  the party scene. They allow a student to be relatively successful post-grad, despite spending proportionality more time socializing than studying. Armstrong and Hamilton look at  why a student would prefer the notoriously cockroach-spawned, no-AC, hair-stuck-in-communal-shower-drain party dorm compared to a dormitory with more resources, explaining that these dorms are desirable because they have a reputation for being social hubs, “havens for people with similar backgrounds, interests, and orientations toward college.” Part of the party dorm’s desirability stems from a student’s desire to experience “true college life,” a notion that often correlates with affluence and what they call “the socialite experience” of college. 

The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in 1776 at William and Mary College, and excluded anyone who was not white, cisgender, and wealthy. PW GLOs grew in popularity in response to increasing university diversity, and thus for the purpose of exclusion on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality. It was not until 2013 that the last sorority formally desegregated. These exclusive GLOs mean that only certain demographics are granted access to the connections provided by a membership, connections in “high places” that are often already provisioned by white generational wealth.  This perpetuates a cycle which guards access to power, from homogenous university-level pledge picking to Supreme Court nominations based on frat-sorority siblinghood nepotism.  

Lawrence Ross, historian and member of the first historically Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, writes that “Greek organizations resisted class and race diversity. Frats were a way for white upper-class men to separate themselves from an increasingly diverse student population” in his book Blackballed: the Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. Ross writes of the Divine Nine, nine historically Black GLOs made to socially and academically support Black students, and help them succeed after college through an alumni network. 

However, statistical evidence shows that participation in Greek Life by white and Black students is not reflective of student body demographics in most US and Canadian universities. Such disproportionate participation suggests that PW Greek Life is unwelcoming to BIPOC students, and that the rush process is explicitly or implicitly discriminatory against BIPOC students who rush. Recruitment is subjective, partial, and is supposedly conducted based on personality. But one sorority girl at MU admitted, “sororities have the reputation of selecting on the basis of attractiveness.” A largely homogenous selection of those who are afforded pretty privilege, inextricably linked to white privilege. Brianna (she/they), a member of a sorority at McGill, conversely described that what drew them to their sorority was the chapter’s diversity: “No two people look the same or are from the same place, have the same life experiences, but you can tell that they were all really united in their common values.”

“Greek organizations resisted class and race diversity. Frats were a way for white upper-class men to separate themselves from an increasingly diverse student population.”

BIPOC students within GLOs at Vanderbilt, UPenn, Columbia University, Whitman College, to name a few, have written of their experiences of being tokenized within their respective GLO in university publications. A common thread between their stories is that they are aware of, sometimes explicitly told of, their token status but nonetheless choose to participate, as they believe the benefits of Greek Life ultimately outweigh the institution’s racist history and microaggressions one would experience – benefits such as the professional network it allows one to make. Brianna, while acknowledging “access issues” to membership, namely economic, described sorority involvement to be a “super valuable networking opportunity.” The Abolish Greek Life movement describes Greek life as a “pipeline to power:” 85 per cent of Supreme Court Justices since 1910, 63 per cent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900, and, historically, 76 per cent of U.S. Senators, 85 per cent of Fortune 500 executives are fraternity men. 

Social GLOs, gendered according to the binary and allowed to exercise gender-based exclusion, are places of gender expression and performance. That is not to say all trans students are barred from or have negative experience in GLOs. Brianna, a non-binary member of a McGill sorority, believes sororities to be spaces of anti-patriarchal gender expression.

“I’m someone who’s lived my life as a woman, and I’m a comfortable femme identifier to a degree. […] I think for lack of better terms, […] we need spaces for women. I do not feel the same way about fraternities. I think those are bad. I think they’re bad because affluent men do not need a space, whereas women and non-men, gender diverse people do need a space.”

Brianna, McGill sorority member

Armstrong and Hamilton describe the frat house and frat party as spaces of toxic and competitive masculinity, measured by excessive drinking and relations with women.  In a 2015 qualitative study titled “Gay and Greek: The Deployment of Gender by Gay Men in Fraternity and Sorority Life,” Anthony Clemons observed that “there are strict rules of hegemonic masculinity embedded in fraternity life where members value heterosexuality” which “leads gay men in fraternities to conceal behavior socially labeled as “gay” and therefore non-masculine.” Homophobia within Greek Life manifests itself through microaggressions, slurs, and compulsory heterosexuality. A 2019 study, based on the assumption that “fraternity culture perpetuates traditional masculinity ideologies,” was inconclusive in its findings about whether the fraternity selected for such men, or whether the members were socialized to perform in a toxic masculine way due to the fraternity environment. 

In an MU article published in 2010, a fraternity member spoke of “the trusty 1-10 system for rating girls.” A rating of a nine, for example,  “will get you mad points out the wazoo […] raise your self-esteem, popularity, and other girls will suddenly find you more attractive.” According to Armstrong and Hamilton, such a rating system is exemplary of “how men and women gain rank in peer cultures: Both derive status via the type of erotic attention that they can attract. The more attractive, desirable, popular they are considered by their opposite-sex peers, the more likely they are to have a power position – and vice versa.” Social capital is derived through how attractive a sorority member is to the male gaze. After all, fraternities hold the parties as there are rules in place barring sororities from keeping alcohol in their houses; “because men were often the party hosts and women the guests, men dictated who got into the party, what their guests wore, and even how much they drank.” Frats’ social power coupled with their atmosphere of rape culture, contributes to the increased likelihood of sexual violence to occur within the frat house. The monopoly that fraternities have on campus party culture, especially in the US, make them an unavoidable place for women who want to engage in larger social or drinking events. 

The first Canadian GLO, Zeta Psi, was founded in 1879 at the University of Toronto and opened a chapter at McGill University in 1883. UBC, with ten fraternities, eight sororities and thousands of students involved, houses the largest Greek system in Canada — numbers that reach nowhere near Greek life participation at US universities. At the University of Alabama, over 10,000 students, 34 per cent of the student body, are part of the Greek life community. There are reasons as to why the Greek life system is a much more prominent part of college life in the U.S as compared to Canada. For one, McGill University and University of Toronto admin do not recognize fraternities and sororities as official campus groups; Queen’s University has had an explicit ban on GLOs since 1993, and UBC students claim that admin keeps them at “arm’s reach.” Alexander Panetta of CTV attributes the higher prevalence of Greek life in the US than in Canada to the higher drinking age and to more students studying away from home: “Ronald Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, making it harder for anyone under 21 to score booze in a commercial establishment. It just so happened that campus clubs were sitting on a few billion dollars’ worth of private property, accumulated since the early 19th century – frat houses. These houses have provided a sanctuary for insobriety in a way Canadian kids might not appreciate,” and are able to dominate the social scene.

Internal initiatives within GLOs do exist to address sexual violence and their historically discriminatory practices and outcomes. Brianna spoke on the several systems their sorority has in place to reform issues that have historically been a problem within GLOs: the position of VP inclusivity and accessibility at Greek Week, a Vice President and director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at their chapter that “work on facilitating workshops and opening discussions […] to increase accessibility in Greek Life,” a mental health chair, removing legacies, and the “inter-Greek letter council which is working on combatting sexual violence within sororities and fraternities at McGill specifically,” an informal IRP (Involvement Restriction Policy) and a “list of standards that fraternities and sororities need to abide by, predominantly focusing on sexual violence, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.” Brianna described McGill chapters with a “soft power” of blacklisting a chapter that has been involved with a violation of these standards. Blacklisting means “not to interact or mix’’ with the violating chapter “until the issue with the member had been resolved.” GLOs “are not recognized by SSMU [or McGill], which means that we cannot get access to the IRP,” Brianna said, “and if something happens to a sorority or fraternity member, whether it be on campus or in a sorority house or in the McGill community, we cannot report it through McGill, so I would like to say that McGill kinda screwed us over in that regard, but we’ve taken matter into our own hands.” This blacklist initiative, after fizzling out, is coming back this year so there has not yet been an “opportunity to implement it” – “we have some of the fraternities,” but “not all of them,” “on board and actively participating in working on this initiative.” 

Those in support of abolition say that reform is not enough. The Abolish Greek Life movement took root in the summer of 2020, championed by former sorority and fraternity members, college students, alumni, and activists who believe that the oppressive, exclusionary, and often violent system of PW Greek Life cannot be reformed, and should instead be banned to create more inclusive and equitable campuses. With branches at 52 US universities, their work largely consists of “uplifting the voices of students harmed and victimized by fraternity and sorority life” through social media, and helping current fraternity and sorority members deactivate from their chapters. Abolition, however, is difficult and perhaps “isn’t possible, at least in the near future, because of the way it’s so ingrained within our school culture and student organizations,” Mississippi chapter member Taylor said, in a 2020 interview with Vox

“The Greek system is in the financial interests of a university, and although this is less of the case at McGill or in Canada considering the proportionally lower GLO membership, the vested wealth of GLOs cannot be ignored.”

Many of these fraternities and sororities have been on campuses for decades, and that’s led them to accumulate a strong alumni network that can be tapped as donors,” said Noah Drezner, a professor of higher education at Teachers College, Columbia University who researches alumni giving, “Greek alumni are disproportionately represented on trustee boards and in administrative positions.” The Greek system is in the financial interests of a university, and although this is less of the case at McGill or in Canada considering the proportionally lower GLO membership, the vested wealth of GLOs cannot be ignored. 

Greek Life has been embedded into pop culture and into a collective conception of the “college experience” – to separate Greek life from the university experience is difficult and another obstacle to abolition.The structure and bureaucracy of Greek Life, a unified front across US and Canadian universities through the North-American Interfraternity Conference and National Panhellenic Conference, make it difficult to dismantle; it is highly structured and hierarchical. However, this should not prevent us from seeking out the ways we can reduce the harms perpetuated by Greek life, whether it be a call for total PW Greek abolition, abolition of PW frats, or further reform efforts.