The independent news organization of Duke University

The price of three letters

Five days ago, Duke University took action against three fraternities on campus following reports of hazing. Duke’s chapters of Pi Kappa Phi and Delta Tau Delta have been suspended entirely, while Sigma Phi Epsilon has had new member activities suspended as the university investigates the allegations. These incidents highlight a nationally recognized issue with Greek life, but they also bring to light the unaddressed problems of Duke’s living communities, especially concerning the heavily exclusive nature of these communities.

Originating at universities nationwide throughout the 19th century, Greek letter organizations originally served to foster intellectual discussions among close-knit, male-dominated student bodies. Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious honor society for liberal arts undergraduates, remains a holdover from this system. However, Greek letter organizations have since evolved into exclusive social organizations designed to foster social camaraderie within sanctioned campus chapters throughout the United States. In this context, a Greek letter organization is understood to be a sex-exclusive living organization that provides both social and professional benefits for those who buy into the system. Fraternities and sororities are known for both their social and financial exclusivity, which at Duke can mean members pay dues as high as $1,000 dollars per year. These costs often do not include the “unofficial costs” associated with membership in an affluent social group with a specific standard of living that assumes one’s ability to pay for it: spring break trips, date functions to the Washington Duke, Carolina Cup, etc.  

Every year, at the beginning of the Spring semester, a new ambitious first-year class enters into the rush process at Duke, seeking entry to these exclusive social organizations. The process is widely understood by the student population to be damaging—both physically and mentally. So much so that Resident Assistants in first year dorms are given training to help students preserve their mental health as they go through the trying process of seeking a social niche on West Campus. However, the process is still widely participated in, with 34 percent of students on campus Greek-affiliated and a further percentage associated with other selective living groups. 

The pressure to be involved with one social group or another is put upon students the second they arrive on campus, with events already introducing first-years to different selective social living groups on campus as early as the first month of their Fall semester. This pressure is part of a larger picture of exclusivity and social stratification at Duke, which is endorsed by a lack of action taken by administrators to fix the system. Despite movements such as the Duke Students for Housing Reform group formed last year, feasible alternatives to the current Greek/SLG-centered model have yet to be fully explored. For many first-year students, given the supposed lack of any concrete equivalent to a close-knit living community on West, rush seems like a necessary evil in order to find an appropriate social niche at Duke.

Duke’s exclusivity does not simply stop with the selective nature of housing and social groups. It instead permeates every nook of the Duke experience, even before first-year students arrive on campus in August. Having overcome over 90 percent of other applicants in the mad rat-race of being admitted into this university, we find ourselves yet again competing with our fellow Duke peers to obtain desirable social positions in campus life. From selective pre-orientation programs, to DukeEngage, to internships at Goldman Sachs, it is apparent that the true ‘Duke difference’ is an omnipresent need to outperform your peers, not just academically, but socially. In the face of such competition, it is perhaps unsurprising that Duke students report significantly higher levels of stress than other undergraduates nationally. 

Duke is an institution that puts pressure on its students to belong to one social group or another through their living organization, and does so in a way that paints selective living as the only effective way to maintain a social group past one’s first year. With pressure so high, many male-identifying Duke students are desperate to secure a sense of belonging to an organization; so much so that some may have subjected themselves to potential hazing to secure such camaraderie. The issue here is less national Greek life—not to say there are not problems there—but rather to do with the pervasiveness of Duke’s exclusivity, which finds its way into the social fabric that makes up this institution.

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 


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