Last year I wrote a column concluding that critics impetuously characterize Greek life as homogenous, and in effect, dehumanize its members. Criticism for lack of diversity is constant, but fails to move beyond unfair generalizations. Unfortunately the overall smear campaign on Greek life has persevered, so I’m back to defend it. While I am more than open to a fair debate about what is certainly an imperfect system, I think that it's important for critics to assess all of the information and to be more cognizant of inaccurate and divisive rhetoric.
Duke is a university that prides itself on tolerance—or at least that’s what I was told when I arrived on campus. If you’ve been following The Chronicle’s opinion section over the past few weeks, you may doubt that Duke is so tolerant.
A fellow columnist of mine at The Chronicle portrayed an example of prejudice against Greek life when writing, “We resent students in Greek life. They are the reason that we are consistently unable or unwilling to build the least semblance of community in our own situations.” While I hope that this quotation was at least somewhat in jest, I would like to attack it at face value.
Although some independent students do feel isolated, lonely, and excluded from social activities, the blame should not fall on SLGs and Greek organizations. As is the case for other groups on campus, it is not the responsibility of these organizations to bear the entire burden of fostering social connections and providing entertainment.
It appears that many believe that some form of social class warfare exists on campus. This profoundly divisive and unfounded rhetoric has the unfortunate effect of creating an “us-versus-them” mentality, which is just the opposite of what our student body needs right now. It’s no secret that buried deeply in the Duke community exists a holier-than-thou attitude that leads to a demonization of students in Greek life. In that case, is exclusion on campus really rooted in Greek life?
Rather than play a blame game, it is important that we all strive to make Duke’s social scene more inclusive. Yet, the proposed solution by some is eliminating SLGs and Greek life altogether. By calling to abolish Greek life, critics are effectively telling hundreds of students that their way of life is unacceptable.
As seen at schools like Georgetown University, the presence of exclusive social organizations will not go away if they are banned from campus. Rather, they will likely isolate themselves further from university affairs as they continue to exist in a way that is unaffiliated with the school. As a result of these groups moving off the campus, a university has less oversight of their activities, which increases safety risks and jeopardizes efforts to improve diversity.
Many Greek life critics also seem to forget about the natural process of selectivity and the liberty of people to associate. The purpose of SLGs are to foster camaraderie and facilitate the process for those with similar personalities and interests to form a community. Even without the letters, it is likely that they would form friend groups that reflect these similarities.
More importantly, selectivity is a reality of life and dictates everything from career outcomes to personal relationships. Without selectivity, Duke would not have its prestige, the men’s basketball team would be a train wreck, and it would difficult to find a community. Although selectivity understandably causes some to feel a sense of rejection, no one is entitled to a bid just like no one is entitled to admission or a roster spot.
Many people are rightfully concerned about how students with low socioeconomic status can feel unwelcome in Greek life given the considerable financial commitment and abundance of privileged students. In my fraternity, brothers who cannot afford to pay dues are allowed to anonymously be a non-paying member and still have the same access to activities and events. While dues are necessary for our social, philanthropic and brotherhood events, this is not what we pride ourselves on as an organization and would never exclude someone because of their inability to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a social life. Furthermore, scholarship programs can help students meet this financial commitment. Although I can only speak directly from my own experience with AEPi, I'm sure that most, if not all, fraternities and sororities on campus have similar mechanisms.
Human beings constantly seek community and a sense of belonging. Greek life is ultimately a product of this, and destroying it will not prevent people from choosing whom they want to associate with. Instead of eradicating a social system that works for a large portion of Duke students, we should look for ways to provide students with a greater variety and number of options in terms of social and selective living organizations. In addition, students that genuinely desire to be independent should be provided with more effective programming and social activities that strengthen peer relationships and promote community building.
The solution to bridging Duke’s social divide is not to reform housing and destroy communities. It’s nonsensical to displace hundreds of students who have established identity, stability, and a sense of community that provides comfort and pride. Rather, we should try to help the rest of the student body, that currently feels displaced, to attain a similar situation.
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Greek life and other forms of selective living are by no means perfect. As recent events have demonstrated, hazing is certainly an issue that plagues Greek organizations. Actions that demoralize, degrade and attack the dignity of others should not be condoned or sanctioned on a college campus.
Instances of sexual assault are an intensely serious and disturbing issue as well. Although present, this issue is unfortunately not unique to Greek life, and is something that societies across the world are struggling with. Thus, we should not encourage a prejudice against Greek organizations, especially when an overwhelmingly majority of its members are vehemently opposed to, and are trying their hardest to combat, these egregious acts. In fact, IFC mandates that fraternities inform guests about three or more sober brothers at every party who are there to monitor and manage risk. Fraternities are also required to have have proactive educational training from the Women’s Center and DuWell. Furthermore, each individual has a unique character, and thus, it is unfair to taint their reputation due to the unfortunate actions of one of their peers.
“As the leader of [AEPi], I share many of these concerns myself,” AEPi President Aaron Slutkin said to me. “The problem with the dialogue regarding Greek life is that IFC, an incredibly diverse organization with diverse groups, is painted with one brush. I would invite people to get know every organization before making one-size-fits all judgements.”
Students in Greek life are still students who want to engage with everything Duke has to offer and succeed academically, professionally and socially. They have found a sense of belonging. And quite frankly, they are not interested in exclusion for the sake of exclusion, but rather to build a community where they can thrive.
Despite its flaws, Greek life and selective living works as a whole. Rather than condemning it, Duke should get creative and loosely base the rest of its social scene off the model. I speak for the vast majority of my fellow Greeks in saying that I would like nothing more than to see the rest of my classmates achieve the same sense of community that AEPi has provided me.
Mitchell Siegel is a trinity junior. His column, Truth Be Told, usually runs on alternate Thursdays.