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A Greek legacy's case against selective housing

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m what they call a “legacy,” but not the kind that gives me a leg up in university admissions. 

Instead, it’s one that means I would be judged a bit less critically were I to rush Duke’s chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha, the sorority my mother joined in college.

While I would have gladly accepted a boost in my chances of admission to Duke, I chose not to cash in on my birthright advantage to join the ZTA sisterhood, nor did I desire to rush any other selective living group. 

“Why?” you might ask, especially when the more selective your social affiliation, the more well-known, well-connected, and socially desirable you are—or at least that’s how it goes at Duke. Maybe if I weren’t at Duke, I would have decided to adopt the same three Greek letters my mom did.

But here, pledging a sorority means not only upholding the means of harsh social stratification reminiscent of my high school years, but also living with my sisters and thereby having my social life almost exclusively revolve around my sorority and its social engagements. In my eyes, that would put me at a great loss in embracing the entirety of what my college experience should offer me: exposure to diversity in all of its forms (and thus a bit of healthy, collegiate discomfort), intellectual stimulation inside and outside of the classroom, and an enlightened worldview in which I could be humbled by looking past the trivialities of title and appearance and first impressions that, as I have come to realize, dominate Duke’s social culture. If I were to live with a sorority, or another selective living group for that matter, my first-year self worried that I would have missed out on all of this.

The truth is, however, that while I might be exposed to a different population of Duke students than I might otherwise have been were I to live in an SLG, I’m certainly not benefiting from a feeling of community in independent housing that I hoped would help define my Duke career, or even that I felt during my first year in Giles on East Campus.

A fellow Chronicle columnist (who, it might be added, currently serves as rush chair of Cooper, Duke’s most exclusive SLG) recently wrote that “selective living groups are the best combination of an inclusive environment and a strong social group” and that they are “moving toward a more equitable, inclusive version of social life at Duke.” While I appreciate his willingness to share his experience with and take on SLGs, I can’t help but be struck by his argument that more selectivity is somehow the best antidote to selectivity. 

This kind of thinking reveals an underlying problem about the way we look at housing reform at Duke. 

Is it that we are so used to social stratification on campus—induced by numerous factors, like the hype around athletics and the stark disparities in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds—that we can only see more selectivity as an answer to selectivity? Non-Greek selective living groups arose as an alternative to the harsh housing selectivity created by Greek organizations. Living-learning communities (LLCs), such as the politically-oriented Visions of Freedom LLC, more recently surfaced as a selective attempt by intellectually-curious Duke students to offer yet another alternative to the selectivity of both Greek housing and that of non-Greek SLGs. 

How is insanity defined again? Doing the same thing over and over (read: making housing more and more selective) and expecting a different result (read: more inclusivity). And what has increasingly more and more selective housing options actually resulted in, if not more inclusivity?  

More pressure to endure the grueling rush process among impressionable first-years who are simply looking to secure a strong residential community for their next years at Duke. 

More dejection, emotional distress and feelings of unworthiness among those hundreds of students who unsuccessfully rush these fraternities, sororities and non-Greek SLGs. 

More discontent among those students who do manage to acquire a spot in these hierarchical selective groups solely for the sake of housing, yet who do not actually feel a sense of belonging in the group, are dishing out hundreds of dollars a year for membership, and are pressured into supporting but silently resent the toxic elements of the culture such groups perpetuate.

More insecurity and more feelings of exclusion and ostracism for friends-of-house who live with an SLG section to fill the University’s dictates regarding bed space, but who are omitted from actual membership in the group, along with everything from its social activities to its inside jokes.

And finally, for those independent students who are made to feel relegated to a housing situation at the bottom of the social ladder because of their exclusion from Duke’s “premier” SLGs and Greek organizations, a sense of shame about where on campus they live; alienation from much of social life at Duke; and, to top it all off, a residential “community” where RAs desperately try to organize programming among a student population whose feelings of shame and alienation prevent them from engaging with their dorm’s “social life,” which consists of a handful of seldom attended and often awkward holiday parties and reading period study breaks. 

While this dismal residential situation isn’t the case for all independent students, it is for myself and for almost all of the dozens of independent students to whom I’ve talked about housing through my work on the executive board of Duke Students for Housing Reform (DS4HR).

It’s naive to argue that DS4HR’s mission of decoupling selectivity from housing would necessarily result in the end of social selectivity itself on campus, a concern that many unfamiliar with or averse to the efforts of DS4HR express. Greek organizations, I’m sure, would still continue to maintain their brotherhoods and sisterhoods with the various programming in which they engage—fraternities would still have the multiple off-campus houses they rent from year to year, while Duke’s sororities survived up until 2014 without on-campus housing. Meanwhile, SLGs like Cooper, Brownstone, Mirecourt, Wayne, and Maxwell would become, well, selective living groups without the living part: socially selective groups, of which we already have many on campus that thrive without university housing.

I understand and am sympathetic to the concerns expressed by Greek organizations and non-Greek SLGs that a shared housing community serves as an integral component and facilitator of their group bonding experiences. However, both the countless poignant anecdotes I’ve heard from deeply discontented students and the raw numbers themselves make the harm of Duke’s current selective housing model painfully clear. 

Duke has a total undergraduate enrollment of 6,694 students. The first-year class, the class of 2022, has 1,740 students who all currently live on East Campus under its randomized housing model. That leaves 5,254 upperclassmen to find housing between those who live with selective living groups, who live off-campus, and who live in independent, non-affiliated housing. According to Duke Housing and Residential Life, on-campus housing holds approximately 2,500 beds for independent students, which means that roughly half of the upperclass population is unaffiliated when friends-of-house are taken into consideration. 

What exactly do these numbers imply? Well, they reveal that about half of the students thrown into the chaos-inducing, soul-crushing, socially-stratifying process of upperclassman housing selection end up relegated to residential spaces where they aren’t likely to know the names of their dorm-mates, much less discover a warm sense of community. Duke may try to have you think differently in this propagandized video produced by the University and marketed towards prospective and first-year Blue Devils that paints a utopian image of independent housing, but don’t be fooled.

Contrary to Housing and Residential Life’s attempts to convince the student body that independent house members “initiate and build house personality and traditions” and “focus on general connection and community” to create a “place students can call home,” I would venture to maintain that most, if not all, independent students would struggle to identify the “personality” of their house, to name even one of their house’s “traditions,” and to honestly assert that their house is a “home.” 

Admission to the university itself is selective, not to mention that nearly every study abroad program, research opportunity, performance group and student club or team engages in selectivity via applications or other tests of one’s qualification for admittance. If the overwhelming majority—if not all—Duke students, after passing the 8.3 percent threshold of university admissions, are confronted with the stinging selectivity of barriers at every turn when they leave their dorm, why should they be faced with the same selectivity when returning to it? 

And to make even more dismal the sad reality that virtually no involvement or affiliation on campus is non-selective, another columnist who bravely shared his own grim rush story wrote, “there are no clear qualifications for getting into a social SLG or a Greek organization other than how much the people in the group like you.” At Duke, not only are students continuously rejected on the basis of their dance ability or debating skills, but they, too, face rejection on the basis of their person, a fact they are made to face each time they venture back to their independent house adorned with a name like “Khaya” or “Hun House,” which supposedly hold no social weight compared to those sections donning “Maxwell” or “ΣN.”  

Because I chose not to rush Greek or non-Greek SLGs in the first place, I am consoled knowing that I was not rebuffed in the same way as many of my peers who internalized their rejection from an SLG as a stain on their character and a source of repeatedly reinforced shame. But I am deeply troubled by the trauma that the brutal rush process and the selective housing that results continue to inflict on my peers—Duke students who arrived at Durham’s gothic wonderland, fresh-faced and optimistic about what their college years would offer, only to discover that an on-campus residential community is a luxury, not a right. 

For the few first-years reading this year’s housing and rush columns in The Chronicle, consider the exorbitant power that you are yielding to the upperclass members of the SLGs you are rushing. In the current selective housing model, you are putting in their hands the capacity to determine your fate at Duke because, as my peer resignedly put it, “your social life and your living situation are—for better or for worse—bound together inextricably.” Instead of being the product of both “Duke’s commitment and a personal commitment to inclusion, diversity and equity,” SLGs only exacerbate the university’s shortcomings compared to peer institutions when it comes to efforts towards “inclusion, diversity and equity.”

Sound bleak? It is, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Housing—non-selective and randomized—has the potential to be the great equalizer on campus by affording each and every Blue Devil, not just those few in a selective living group, a sense of belonging beginning where they live. 

So if you’re a Greek legacy like me and feel pressured into rushing this season for the sake of finding community, don’t. Instead, join the many other students hailing from both selective and independent housing backgrounds who are working to make our Duke houses a home.

Lizzie Bond is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.

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