Why does Greek life matter? How do stereotypes still perpetuate other people’s views of it, and are they right? Does it do more harm than good? What can I do?
I’ve been pondering these questions and more on a daily basis since news broke that a grand jury is bringing charges against 18 members of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity for their involvement in the events that led to the death of 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza back in February.
The details from the timeline of that night that were presented in the jury’s findings were so intensely disturbing, I read them through hot, tear-filled eyes. As a member of Greek life myself, I felt betrayed and sick to my stomach. Continuing news updates and reactions from people all over the Internet deadened the weight. I spent days trying to articulate my thoughts on the situation, and even still I feel like there is so much more I could say.
In the days since the charges were reported, I am astonished by the number of online comments from people who are calling for fraternities and sororities to be completely dismantled. They say that these organizations serve no purpose other than to foster the hazing, binge-drinking, rape culture environment that is prevalent at many colleges and universities, and society would be better off if frats and sororities didn’t exist at all. Eric Barron, President of Penn State, wrote an open letter to the school’s Greek community where he reviewed the administration’s past interventions to change the adverse behaviors and expressed disgust and surprise that Beta Theta Pi, a “model fraternity,” could fall prey to the cycle. He imposed new measures for all 82 official fraternities and sororities to follow from now on and predicted that if not, it would result in the permanent end of Greek life at Penn State.
One particular opinion piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer struck a nerve with me. In it, the author agrees with President Barron’s questioning of the future of fraternity life and takes it one step further by explaining the storied history of misogyny, sexism, and assault in fraternities as reasons for why they should be eliminated.
The main reason I take issue with this article (and many similar ones that have been published in the last few weeks) is because it skims over one very basic, very important fact: This is NOT limited to Greek life.
In my opinion, toxic masculinity is at the center of what happened at Beta Theta Pi that night and what happens in fraternity hazing rituals (I cringe at even referring to them as “rituals” because they don’t deserve to be associated with honor and the so-called values of these organizations). Acting tough in even the most extreme situation to prove yourself, staying quiet and internalizing fear or guilt in order to “man up”, the bullied becoming the bully…these behaviors are taught to boys at a young age and drilled into the way they experience the world growing up. When they become men, the pressure of performing masculinity to fit society’s ridiculously rigid mold makes it easy for groupthink to take over in risky situations, or for men to objectify women and degrade themselves to prove that they are strong. Toxic masculinity has dominated nearly every aspect of the patriarchal system we live in for decades upon decades. It is one of our country’s many systemic, institutional weapons of inequality.
Using reductive Greek life stereotypes as your justification to get rid of fraternities may tug at the roots, but it will not improve things overnight. It will not remedy a complex cultural problem that extends beyond the Greek bubble and pervades Western society as a whole.
An op-ed piece from a Philadelphia Daily News columnist evoked even more outrage from me as I read the headline: “Why didn’t the women call for help?” Yep, seriously. Because why look at this tragedy as a moment to educate the Greek community and reevaluate what our society is or isn’t teaching young people when you can just blame the women who were at the function, right?!
The author goes on to say that women are “supposed to be the more nurturing gender, instinctively prone to help,” which, aside from being blatantly sexist and ignorant, conveniently places the blame on the Trilogy guests for not helping and therefore indirectly contributing to Piazza’s death. This cannot be explained by an oversimplified statement like “No one helped, someone died, they’re all cowards and Greek life is despicable.” It’s not that easy. The lack of action from the brothers and female partygoers failed Piazza, and the fraternity certainly bears full responsibility for what happened, but I think this goes beyond a gendered individual or group level. This was a failure of the college experience, of friendship, of respect and care for other human beings, and those are basic concepts that have to be taught from the beginning. That’s why this story is so gut wrenching.
But even with the bleak state of events, I believe this is a defining moment for Greek life at colleges and universities across the United States. It is heartbreaking and extremely difficult to grasp that things had to get to this level in order for attention to be brought to hazing and other internal problems plaguing some organizations, but this is an invaluable learning opportunity for students, parents, and college administration members.
I can only speak from personal knowledge and experience, but I know firsthand how positive and life-changing being a member of a Greek organization can be. My university has over 25,000 students and my sorority, Alpha Xi Delta, has given me a tight-knit place to call home within the larger community. I was timid, lonely, and thinking of transferring schools before I went out for formal recruitment, and now I look back on that girl as a completely different person.
I am more confident in my classes, my other extracurriculars, my career field, and everyday life because of my sisters. They are my roommates, confidantes, and friends, the ones who motivate me when I’m at rock bottom and the ones who celebrate every success with me. My sorority has connected me to countless people and resources I never even knew I needed and helped me experience the joy of giving back, both through philanthropy service events and through my position on the executive board. It has made me want to achieve more and try my absolute best to live out our values — courage, graciousness, and peace — every day for the rest of my life. When I entered college I never imagined such a constantly high level of commitment for anything I joined, but all of the time and energy I put in is worth it, and I have been rewarded with incredible growth as a sister, student, and person.
I also know that not everyone who goes through the Greek rush process has this kind of experience. Unfortunately, for many organizations, the instinct to work hard to achieve and maintain a successful reputation on campus is overshadowed by the negative stereotypes that many of them end up playing into: binge drinking, partying, sexual assault, hazing. Underneath that dangerous and lethal culture, though, lies the potential for leadership and positive legacy that attracts so many students to Greek life in the first place. The potential to become a more self-aware, self-assured person who is always striving to be better than they were, a person who wants to enact change in a way that is bigger than themselves, a person who knows what they are capable of and plays to their own strengths to empower those around them. That potential still exists, and it cannot be abandoned.
So instead of closing down all fraternities because, according to the Inquirer, they apparently “teach men that they must degrade women — and debase themselves — to cement their tough-guy bona fides” (a gross generalization that does have a grain of truth but is untrue for many fraternal organizations) then why don’t we try to change what they teach? If Greek life was shut down entirely, it would only drive members to create underground groups with even less moral structure and regulation, which would surely make matters worse. Why don’t we restore oversight, acceptance, and integrity to the organizations that have existed without them for so long? Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I truly feel that with a comprehensive overhaul of the Greek system and fraternity member programs and a long-term effort to remedy this warped sense of “brotherhood”, it can be done.
Penn State Interfraternity Council’s Executive Board penned a succinct, well-written, mature response to Barron’s letter that lays out some steps to achieve this; it is a perfect example of the open attitude that is needed going forward. They noted that the school has been without a Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life for nearly two years, which is a significant part of the problem. They expressed the need for student inclusion in policy conversations with the administration, and they directly encouraged the Greek community to take responsibility and staff and alumni to fully support members in their Greek life experience.
The letter has a tone of hope that a large-scale, collaborative effort at all levels will lead to significant cultural change, that a plan of action needs to be in place so one day standards will serve as a preventive measure, not a reactive one after a student’s death. And I couldn’t agree more with every word. It’s time for reflection and action to bring back a focus on the fundamental values of each fraternity and sorority. Greek members, it’s time to remember why we were created in the first place and think about what each of us can do to fulfill the promises we made when we joined. This is our defining moment.
“The fraternity experience” failed Timothy Piazza like it devastatingly failed many students before him, but it cannot fail any more. Greek life is a microcosm of the many problems at hand within college culture. It is just one part of the storm, not the eye. And getting rid of it won’t make the skies clear up. In fact, it would take away a vital source of social connections, academic and professional development, leadership opportunities, and a sense of belonging for young people across the country who are finding their place in the world. I know those may sound like empty buzzwords but trust me, we truly care about them and we need mentors who do, too. We need people to believe in us like we believe in our organizations and what they can become.
Instead of giving up on something that is broken, let’s come together to fix it.