In 2017, the Duke community suffered a tragic loss with the sudden passing of junior Bobby Menges after a battle with brain cancer. As his fellow bassist in the Duke Jazz Ensemble, I was Bobby’s friend along with many others who beloved him.
Beyond the university’s memorial service to remember and honor Bobby, brothers of Bobby’s fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, came all the way from Australia, Spain and other parts of the world to attend the funeral service in New York, exemplifying the incredibly strong support and connection they have with each other. PIKE brothers also continue to and funds for cancer research. With the tradition Shave for Schreiber, Buzz for Bobby—named after both Bobby and senior Mark Schreiber—that has raised over $100,000 for cancer research over time, the fraternity engages the whole Duke and Durham community to support a cause that benefits the entire world.
A few of the PIKE brothers also kindly shared their personal experience and reactions with me in response to the news. Many cried and were deeply saddened by the sudden loss of their close friend, but were able to feed off each other and the bonds of their brotherhood as a support system. Comforting each other brother in times of loss and agony, the actions of these PIKE brothers speak volumes about value of brotherhood and what it has meant to them since accepting their bids.
Today, it seems that the student body is forgetting about the virtues of Greek life displayed by the brothers of Pi Kappa Alpha. Students are instead preoccupied with broad misconceptions regarding the exclusion and lack of diversity within Greek Life. This week, I decided to do some digging within my own fraternity (Alpha Epsilon Pi) along with critical reflection to discover if the current portrayal of Greek life at Duke was justified. This is especially pertinent given Duke’s plans to reform housing and its obsession over the issue of homogeneity in Greek life that have come to the spotlight during rush season.
There is much more to a fraternity or sorority than a bunch of dehumanizing and blank white faces as characterized by The Chronicle and many other Duke students. The students of Greek organizations are human beings too, all with unique life experiences, personalities, and ways of thinking that far outweigh differences in skin color.
Using anonymous survey data as well as data shared by the AEPi fraternity, I also found that the common criticisms against Greek organizations and their living situations are often shallow generalizations. Sure, there may be some organizations that do not meet narrow standards of diversity set by many Duke students. However, statistics that reflect discrepancies in diversity compared to Duke’s student body by no means reflect proactive initiatives by Greek organizations to not admit certain people. Furthermore, the broad brushing depictions and statements about Greek life are inaccurate, and often perpetuate undeserving stigma to which Greek life opponents and critics would object when considering other organizations on campus.
It turns out that fraternities like AEPi actually adhere to Duke’s narrow standards of diversity, and help provide brothers with life-changing experiences. For instance, AEPi is comprised of brothers who identify as heterosexual and homosexual. One brother even said in his response, “Without Greek Life, I would have never found my gay mentors who helped me through the coming out process.” The data also showed that AEPi in total represents 24 different states and countries ranging from Kentucky to Switzerland to Singapore and many more. Furthermore, out of the 32 members that responded to the survey, 11 different religious preferences were given, with over 40 percent being Jewish. Given that AEPi is a nationally Jewish fraternity, this number isn’t terribly surprising. However, it still shows that fraternities can have a dominant presence of a minority group and still honor members with at least 10 other religious preferences.
AEPi and other organizations recognize that the financial situations of those rushing may present themselves as a barrier to entry. Thus, payment and scholarship programs are put in place to ensure that organizations seek to include members based on their personalities and not their ability to pay. Racially and ethnically, the AEPi fraternity mostly identifies as “White.” However, over 30 percent of brothers who answered were part of some racial minority that included categories such as “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “Indian,” “Black” and “Middle Eastern.”
In my opinion, these statistics are still an unjust evaluation of the true diversity that is present in Greek life. Yet a common criticism of selective living is that it is harder for the students involved to branch out and expose themselves to people with diverse backgrounds. Interfraternity Council President James Bradford even said, “When you are living on a hall with 30 white males, it makes it harder to have these experiences engaging with people different from yourself.” Contradicted by previously mentioned evidence, this argument is a fallacy that uses faulty generalizations about personal experiences that certainly don’t hold true for everyone in Greek life.
Furthermore, each person taking the survey was asked to provide a unique experience from his past. One wrote that he was a “first-generation college student from single parent household” while others talked about competing in a biology competition in Bali and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. The point is that we are all unique. Our backgrounds and life experiences are not solely defined by statistical categorizations.
Still, criticism about diversity continues to be used to advocate for . These proposed reforms impede the right to association, which is important to how we go about life and build both character and self-identity. It is in our nature as human beings to seek a sense of belonging. The experiment of random housing is performed by every new freshman class, yet the result is the same: students gravitate to the situation that is most appealing to them by joining Greek life, other selective living groups or independent housing. Deconstructing the link between selective living groups and housing will do nothing but cause an inconvenience to those who desire their right to associate in the first place.
Lastly, Greek life is influential to the futures of its members. Greek life has personally helped me grow intellectually, spiritually and as a citizen of the Duke community. I have realized that what extends beyond the job connections are the personal connections that last a lifetime and serve to comfort me in dark moments.
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The bonds formed by sisterhood and brotherhood can extend from picking out clothing together to becoming each other’s maids of honor and best men. No one denies that partying and social status are attractive aspects to Greek life. However, almost any brother or sister will tell you that it is camaraderie, sacrifice and love between one another that truly makes Greek life a special and lasting life experience.
Mitchell Siegel is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "truth be told," usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.