Failing Out: Greek Life on the Brink

Examining how Greek Life found itself in crisis and how it can grow stronger given its tumultuous history, both historic and recent.

Graphic+by+Irene+Falgueras.

Graphic by Irene Falgueras.

** TW: contains topics of racial and sexual misconduct


Greek-Letter Organizations in Review

It’s hard to ignore the branding “oldest private school in Florida” on banners flying around campus. It’s also hard to ignore Stetson’s crest emblazoned with the year of its creation. Stetson University was founded in 1883, and 40 years later in 1913 a group of young men–who presumably had been introduced to Greek organizations from colleges in Georgia–started a fraternity at Stetson University. They called it Nu Sigma and formally petitioned Sigma Nu to grant them a charter at Stetson University. They received a charter, threw in money, and purchased a house on Minnesota avenue, where Sage Hall stands today. 

 

The same year, the Stetson University Society for Women applied to become a Pi Beta Phi chapter, the organization’s first in the state of Florida. One of these founding members was Harriett Hulley, the daughter of then Stetson President Lincoln Hulley, and the fraternity for women created the first house on what would become sorority row. Thus was the creation of Stetson Greek Life–one of the oldest Greek systems in the state of Florida, at the oldest private school in the state of Florida, published in the oldest college newspaper in the state of Florida. Essentially, Tradition, with a big T, is a cornerstone of Greek-life culture. As a result, Tradition is a cornerstone of Stetson’s culture. 

 

For those not in a Greek organization, and even those in one, you might be unaware of how these social orders came to be. Understandable –it’s all pretty convoluted. Fraternities were originally established as book clubs: philosophical roundtables of like-minded men. Phi Beta Kappa, for example, was established by a group of revolutionaries upset with the curriculum at William & Mary. The first sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, was created with the exact purpose–to provide a social literary club for young college aged women. 

 

Every organization has its own unique history, founders, symbols, and often reasons behind their names. Every organization also has a noble founding, be it from abolitionists, to individuals disgusted by hazing, to an attempt to reconcile after the Civil War. Today, however, after years of media abuse, tragic accidents, and disgusting incidents of racism and misogyny, fraternities and sororities are often seen as nothing more than debaucherous, elitist, racist pyramid schemes where people pay for popularity and get away with whatever they want. 


The Catalyst for Consideration

In early March of this year, Stetson University’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Involvement, in sponsorship with The Inter-Fraternal Council and Panhellenic, invited speaker Dan Faill to facilitate a keynote presentation addressing the stereotypes surrounding Greek Life. His presentation was centered on how the Greek-life system can overcome its previous failures and be a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming environment. 

 

The event started off relatively smoothly as the speaker recognized the traditional flaws and faults of Greek Life like cultural appropriation, over-sexualization, alcoholism, and sexual misconduct. But things started to turn sour when the chat box slowly became littered with insensitive and irrelevant comments and jokes during the Q&A section of the event, and when the discussion pivoted to Divine 9 organizations. The Divine 9 is the common name for National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), nine historically all-black fraternities and sororities formed at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The chat box was full of questions asking what the point of these organizations were, why they existed, and why we would want them at Stetson. The speaker also touched on highly sensitive issues and showed somewhat graphic images without introducing trigger warnings, which sparked a debate. Altogether, many Greek affiliates left with the impression that the mandatory event was useful, but chaotically handled. 

 

More than one sorority member voiced her concern about the lack of trigger warnings before serious topics like sexual assault and racial abuse. The failure of the moderators to remove trolling commenters in any reasonable time frame gave the impression that the facilitators were ill-prepared to handle a large virtual event and ensure its success. In all, these oversights made the speaker’s presentation seem more outdated and less professional. 

 

Unfortunately, many Greek affiliates were further dissatisfied by the emails sent out the following morning. The Greek community received an email from Renee Dubois, Associate Director of Campus Vibrancy, and appreciated how it admitted to the administration’s lapse in properly handling the event. While apprative, many Greeks took issue with the campus-wide email which seemed to shift the blame off of administration entirely. While very few objected to its intent or overall message, many disliked the scant amount of context that was provided considering the email was sent to all staff, faculty, and students. 

 

The email apologized for the lack of trigger warnings and reprimanded the Greek members who chose to write the hurtful or otherwise disrespectful comments in the chatbox. This response led many non-Greek students to voice their frustrations online or elsewhere about the ineptitude or toxic nature of Greek Life at Stetson, which many affiliates felt were unfair in this circumstance. Greek community members felt that the email unfairly implied that the event soured because of the speaker’s ignorance and implicated the Greek community as a whole rather than taking more responsibility for poorly facilitating the event. The fraternity men who made the disrespectful comments deserved to shoulder the blame for the event’s unsatisfying outcome, but so too should the facilitators as Dubois admitted in the Greek community email when stating that “we could have stepped in sooner…[w]e recognize the missed opportunity.”

 

In other respects, many Greek affiliates found themselves having to relate their experience with the speaker over and again to all the students, faculty, and staff members who had no idea what happened, but nevertheless received the concerningly-worded email. It is disappointing, then, to hear Greek affiliates saying that the event and its aftermath did more harm than good for the community. 

 

In fact, some of the most vocal criticisms of Greek Life at Stetson come from within the Greek community itself. They, of course, have seen firsthand how toxic masculinity and femininity have negatively shaped how friends and classmates live their college lives. One sorority member revealed that a number of her sisters have been treated inappropriately or taken advantage of by brothers of a fraternity on campus, yet are afraid to report the incidents for fear of damaging the reputation and relationships between the organizations. No one should be put in a place where they have to weigh the risks of damaging the reputation of a Greek chapter in order to prevent them from seeking the support and justice they deserve. The truth is that so many of us are aware of the dangers and incidents of harassment, racism, elitism, and discrimination which permeate our Greek system. 

 

But they have also seen the benefits from being Greek, too. Affiliates build lifelong friendships and are often connected to thousands of brothers and sisters across the country who share their values and ideals. They find a home away from home which supports them through all the difficulties college life brings and pushes them to be involved and become a proud member of our Stetson community. 

 

But how do you assign values to the benefits on one side and the harmful culture drawbacks on the other? You really can’t understand the full risks of college life, much less choosing to go Greek. The problems we see in Stetson’s Greek and adjudication system is a reflection of the same issues we see in society as a whole. The problems of Greek Life are the problems of white America, U.S. higher education, cultures of toxic masculinity, and drug and alcohol abuse. The way that we deal with Greek Life members on college campuses is a reflection of the same way we try to hold members of society-at-large accountable. 

 

For those of us whose stomachs turn and feel blood rush to your face when you hear about systemic problems of injustice and of offenders escaping accountability, we need to be upset, we need to call for and work to bring change, we need to have uncomfortable conversations, we need to hold ourselves and each other a high standard, and we need to call each other out every time if we truly want our world and community to improve. 


National Progression

The national conversation regarding the future of Greek Life carries a bleak tone and may introduce a dark reality for thousands of fraternity and sorority men and women across America. Colleges across the country have been dismantling Greek systems after headlines have been dominated with hazing-related deaths, alcohol abuse, and sexual misconduct coloring Greek culture. The removal of these systems have raised alarm bells at organizational headquarters and the two conglomerate governing bodies that set legislation for most of the Greek organizations in America: The North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) and National Panhellenic Conference (NPC). 

 

The war for Greek Life entered the courts as schools like Harvard, Yale, and Wesleyan seeked to end single-sex organizations. To date, all NIC and NPC organizations are single-sex, so when the most prestigious university in the United States attempted to ban Greek Life, it was a perfect place for two governing bodies to plant their flag and draw a line in the sand. After years of litigation, Harvard lost. NIC and NPC took a victory lap, but it didn’t last long.

 

Shortly after, in the summer of a pandemic and mass reckoning with racial injustice, an Instagram movement was born. From the University of Southern California to New York University, college student Instagram feeds were littered with stories of misconduct by fraternity and sorority members. The #Justice movement provided an opportunity for victims of sexual misconduct and racial abuse at the hands of fraternities to come forward and anonymously share their stories. 

 

But how do you assign values to the benefits on one side and the harmful culture drawbacks on the other?

It didn’t take long until a similar page was started at Stetson. Justice at Stetson, an Instagram account created for people to anonymously submit stories and experiences of racism, abuse, and sexual harassment did not just stop at Greek Life however–it appeared to call out the university’s administration as a whole. The page criticized not just the men who enable such abuse, but also the system who many believe refuses to do anything about it. This is a common criticism at Stetson. Individuals become frustrated that organizations are free to do seemingly whatever they want and face little to no consequences. To address this concern, and get some answers as to why this may be the case, we sat down with Director of Community Standards Barbs Hawkins. 


Accountability and Equity

From the view of the Office of Community Standards, it’s difficult to determine whether or not a student has committed misconduct without evidence. Students may feel frustrated due to reports not resulting in punishments, but Hawkins encourages the students to remain adamant and continue reporting misconduct: “We can’t follow up on everything, but there are times where we need the reports to get a sense of what’s going on.” Unfortunately, due to reports often coming anonymously or without any attached information Hawkins stated that, “Many times we can’t follow up on these reports.” According to Hawkins, students will engage in conversations that organizations are being held to a higher standard, yet aren’t filing completed reports.

 

Tangible reports are what separate hearsay, however credible, from hard-soil evidence which can lead to disciplinary actions and sanctions. It is dangerous to have a defeatist approach to any judicial system, but especially to one which directly affects the safety of so many students.

 

Yet, it is not uncommon for students to feel frustrated that organizations aren’t held responsible for the actions of individuals. According to Hawkins though, “It’s difficult to determine the line between organization and individual.” The central theme of our conversation was determining where that line was. On instances such as hazing or unregistered events, the organizational leadership is most likely aware and is held responsible. In situations like Title IX violations, racist or xenophobic conduct by members, or vandalism, it’s difficult to punish the sum of the whole. Hawkins remarked that Greek-Letter organizations, or GLOs, have internal mechanisms to punish individual members for misconduct such as the ones described, but Hawkins also called attention to the Code of Community Standards Review Board, which meets every two years, suggesting that they should spend time establishing a new code specifically tailored for organizations. The board, which is composed of students and administrators to review the Code of Community Standards (CCS), discusses amendments and changes. Most recently, the board implemented new language to define racist and xenophobic acts that are punishable under the CCS.

 

Renee Dubois was passionate about these problems in our conversation as well, and we dove into what members of the community had shared with us. “I’m in this line of work because I see the values fraternities and sororities bring to college campuses” Dubois stated. “Looking beyond alumni donations,” the Associate Director of Campus Vibrancy remarked, “we see the trend of higher academic achievement and greater campus involvement from our Greek affiliates.” On holding organizations accountable as a whole, she stated that “Accountability includes everyone, the University, the [Greek] Chapters, the [IFC and Panhellenic] Councils, and National organizations.” 

 

She shared with us that IFC is currently planning on implementing its own internal judicial board, a mechanism that allows another step of punishment to be handed out to fraternities: “Fraternity presidents have indicated they wanted to hold each other accountable,” she said. Trust appears to be lacking between GLOs and the university, and in our conversations with members of Greek Life, multiple individuals indicated that they don’t trust the office of FSI to have their best interests in mind. Greek students overwhelmingly saw the administration as a source of fear or distrust, with one student saying “They act like they’re pseudo-cops and try to make our lives as difficult as possible.” In response to those fears Dubois simply stated, “My goal is not to get a chapter in trouble, I am a resource.” Expounding on that statement, she added “Building trust is the most important. If they don’t trust FSI we can’t start the work of changing cultures.” 

 

Culture, which in the case of GLOs refers to the direction of leadership, attitudes, and personalities within a chapter, is a key concept when thinking about how organizations are prepared to challenge the status quo. Leadership positions within fraternities and sororities only last one year, and it’s incredibly difficult to change long-standing culture within a single year. Dubois acknowledges this problem: “Transitions are important” she said. But to root out the problem, Dubois thinks that, “It starts with recruitment and how chapters market themselves. Next semester we’re planning on IFC and Panhellenic-planned Greek 101 programming to start educating on these issues.” 

 

On the amount of diverse organizations at Stetson, Dubois made it incredibly clear that the university is in active conversations with NPHC organizations and informed us that in spring of 2020, a Latino Greek-letter fraternity was slated to begin on campus recruitment. This would have been the first Latino-Greek Letter organization in Stetson’ history. “We’re looking to add more diverse options for our students,” she said. “These organizations add value.”

 

Another issue which drew criticism, specifically from the women in the Greek community, was the difficulty they faced in getting events approved. Members from three different sororities told us how they felt their experience getting sisterhood and formal events approved was unnecessarily difficult. Members worked diligently across campus to hold in person or hybrid events in the Spring semester which complied with COVID-19 restrictions, but were rejected or had to wait to hear back for an unreasonably long time. 

 

“We would submit an event request or a follow up email,” two sophomore sorority women explained, “and we wouldn’t hear back for several days or weeks even. We know it’s not easy for them and they know it’s not easy for us, but we just expected more communication so that we could work through [the restrictions].” Several women pointed out how students are allowed to sit around a table outside while maskless and that intramurals were allowed to take place, yet even limited and distanced events were tough to earn approval. “Ten sweaty guys can run around right in each other’s faces without masks on, but we can’t have a formal event outdoors while we’re on campus,” one frustrated sorority member said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.” 

 

Clearly, there is a need for more robust and collaborative channels of communication among the different organizations within and around the Greek community as well as towards the wider campus. When different groups aren’t in the know about decisions and decision making policies, it is easy for confusion and frustration to build.


Grading Greek Life

The lack of visible action from the Greek student leaders and the infrastructure designed to help and hold them accountable is what has stirred much of the criticism from both within and outside of the Greek community.

 

When we asked individual members of the Greek community about where the responsibility lies to hold organizations accountable, the responses varied. One member of Panhellenic expressed how the infrastructure above individual chapters like IFC, Panhellenic, and FSI has not been suited to the task of effectively regulating misconduct: “Accountability starts from the top down,” she said. “If people at the top are doing their jobs well, then individual chapter leaders will follow suit.”   

 

The system is built on the same issues that plague white America: sexism, racism, classism. Culture plays a huge role, you have people in frats at Stetson walking around campus thinking they’re better human beings because they wear some letters on their chest.”

So far, she has been impressed with the discussions led by Renee DuBois, who oversees Greek Life at Stetson: “She’s worked really hard with IFC and the Panhellenic Council to communicate that change needs to happen and that we need to do better,” she said. “But these conversations have been informal and there needs to be more going on. We need to do better because we still have so much work to do if we want to empower real change.”

 

It’s not just administration on the student-life side that has been under the microscope, but IFC and Panhellenic, too, which are run by Greek student leaders. “I really think that the Panhellenic and IFC communities need to come together more, because they are worlds apart on the executive council level,” she explained. “With all due respect, the fraternities don’t seem to care as much as the sororities do. The culture won’t change unless we come together to tackle these important issues.” 

 

Many in the Greek community feel that these oversight bodies can do more or do better, and also feel that the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Involvement isn’t robust enough to deal with all these challenges. “I really feel like FSI needs a board of people working to better guide and educate Greek Life the same way IFC and Panhellenic have executive boards, instead of it all falling on Renee [DuBois],” a member of Panhellenic said. “Because right now it’s not working. There’s a huge disconnect between IFC, Panhellenic, and FSI.” When asked about where she saw the trajectory of Greek Life heading, she said, “If we continue the way we are, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an abolish Greek Life movement very soon.”

 

When asked about the pushback towards Greek Life as a whole and at Stetson, another member associated with Panhellenic warned about the dangers of cancel culture: “A responsible and just Greek community would benefit Stetson as a whole,” she said. “Cancelling Greek Life will not solve the issues and is harmful because there are so many of us within the community who are trying to make the system more inclusive and safer for women,” she added. 

 

When asked the same question, a fraternity president responded similarly yet aired caution: “The system needs to be less elitist. This is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, but look, the system is dying and it’s obvious why.” He continued when asked about specific problems that, “The system is built on the same issues that plague white America: sexism, racism, classism. Culture plays a huge role, you have people in frats at Stetson walking around campus thinking they’re better human beings because they wear some letters on their chest.” 

 

When asked if he thought his organization was making positive progress he responded, “For sure, we’re proud of our ethnic and intellectual diversity. We’ve established new diversity and inclusion guidelines, we have mandatory Title IX training and alcohol abuse training. We want our members to grow and succeed, not just have a place to drink and get away with awful things.”

 

The fact is that individuals and organizations alike are often defined by what they allow to happen. This is precisely why the way forward must be brought on through each chapter and individual in Greek Life: the members of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. “What really needs to happen is a cultural change,” said a member of panhellenic. “We have the tools for training and education available to us, we just need to use them more.” 

 

“As a whole, Greek Life needs to become more action-oriented,” she continued. “We need to be self-reliant to tackle the issues and negative stereotypes of sexual assault, racial discrimination, and addictive behavior.” Our Greek community desperately needs to be one that actively works to undo past injustices and reestablish the Greek community as a union of students both the university and the affiliates should be proud of. “The responsibility falls on the individual Greek members of Stetson,” she concluded. “After all, we help create the experience and environment of Stetson.” 

 

Utilizing the plethora of campus training and educational resources is a great step towards changing this culture– they just need to be adopted by Greek chapters and incorporated into their own education programs. Fraternities lag behind sororities when it comes to diversity and inclusion as well as education on Divine 9. In fact, many people have seen Sigma Gamma Rho’s plot behind Sampson Hall but are unaware who it belongs to and the fact that it is a sacred space which should only be used by the sorority’s members and guests. 

 

One member of panhellenic suggested that diversity and inclusion training should be mandatory for chapters and that it should be a formal standing committee at the higher levels: “Especially with what’s happened in the country after the murder of George Floyd, the zoombombing incident last semester, the @justiceatstetson Instagram page, with our previous director of alumni relations, and Proud Boys putting out flyers around town,” she explained, “we need to do more than just put out statements. We need to outline actionable steps and follow through with them, holding each other accountable along the way.” 


Pass or Fail

Greek Letter Organizations should be scrutinized; after all, the goal of each and every one of them is to form its members into better people. In theory, Greek affiliates should be the academic and moral leaders of campus, yet recently the reputation has been anything but. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of Greek affiliates going against the narrative, especially at Stetson where the Greek community is more closely knit and both looks and feels entirely different than it would at a state school. 

 

The successes of Greek Life are the development and support of young adults and the building of the leaders of the next generation. Chapters can find the passion in volunteering with nonprofits and giving back to their communities, as well as becoming a ground to build up the voices of student activism. 

 

The Greek community is capable of being so much more than the stereotypes we see in Hollywood or on Barstool and TFM. There will always be some people who embrace and reinforce them and others which fight against them to create a safer, more diverse system. Many of us in Greek Life sympathize with the tired calls for reform. It is up to us, all of us, to listen, learn, organize, and most importantly, act. 

 

All too often, the majority of statements, opinions, and actions you hear about Greek Life on a national scale are overwhelmingly negative. And sometimes chapters seriously deserve the worst of our outrage. But don’t forget that Greek affiliates really are a population. There are thousands of chapters scattered among campuses in every corner of the country. And a good amount of these chapters have been at a college for more than 100 years, each one having their own evolving culture and traditions. It might not be wrong to say Greek Life is facing a crisis of culture in step with American society. 

 

If fraternities and sororities want to keep their traditions, they have to actively redefine the image, face previous shortcomings, and address the system’s ongoing flaws. We must continue to learn and push ourselves to become better brothers, sisters, friends, students, and leaders. We need to improve our Greek Life system and engage all areas of Stetson’s community in the process. But how can our communities believe in those trying to change a flawed and oppressive system from within, if you don’t hear about their efforts? Trust is built through communication and action, and Stetson Greeks need a healthy dose of both if we don’t want to fail out entirely.