Merging perception and reality
Released last week, the Duke Inquiries in Social Relations report aims a critical lens at campus culture, bringing data and thoughtful analysis to bear on some of Duke’s most divisive cultural issues. The report explores topics ranging from the prevalence of gender violence to perceptions of various campus groups, and we commend the student research team for producing an expansive and well-researched study. The entire report is worthy of a careful read, but the sections on student identity, in particular, shed new light on social divisions that have long sundered campus.
The report indicates that only 53 percent of students in greek organizations identify with the “on-campus reputation” of their groups—70 percent of students in Selective Living Groups and 71 percent of athletes identify with the reputations of their organizations. Why do members of greek organizations feel less comfortable with their groups’ reputations than do members of other campus organizations?
Not all greek students endorse their group’s values or embrace its culture. Each year, the pressure to affiliate—intensified by the preceived horrors of independent living—edges students who do not identify with greek culture into fraternities and sororities. Some affiliated students manage to maintain an ironic distance between themselves and their organizations, allowing them to participate in greek life without fully endorsing the culture it creates or attitudes it fosters. And, as we have suggested in previous editorials, many greek students consider popular conceptions of greek life – especially those that reduce the culture to affluence, alcohol abuse and gender violence – to misrepresent the actual attitudes and behaviors of students who belong to greek organizations.
Yet fraternities, in particular, continue to elicit much ire, and greek men still attempt to defend themselves against criticism, real or perceived. Interestingly, the DISR report suggests that members of greek groups are not wrong to believe that others on campus have negative opinions of them and their organizations. Non-greek women hold fraternity members in particularly low regard, and their opinions of greek men seem to grow worse over time. This finding forces us to ask whether or not there is something about fraternities or their members that negatively affects other students, particularly non-greek women. If there is not, then what accounts for the poor reputation of greek organizations?
We have criticized elements of Duke’s greek culture in the past, and while we maintain that selective living arrangements segment and stratify campus, we also recognize that much of what we consider potentially toxic about greek culture neither applies to all greek students nor represents the totality of what greek life is and does. Regardless of where students fall on greek life, the DISR study reveals that student perceptions of greek groups and their members vary widely, a revelation that is as troubling as it is unsurprising.
In the space between perception and reality breeds animosity, division and defensiveness, feelings that salt the wounds sustained in fights over Duke’s campus identity. We hope the data furnished by the DISR report will encourage students from different corners of Duke’s social world to communicate with more frequency and clarity. Doing so will help students avoid misperception and begin to resolve real problems.