In the age of couch-based Instagram activism, our campus conversation about the future of the University’s social scene has reached a fever pitch. In recent months, concerned students have retold harrowing stories and raised serious, credible objections to Duke’s social climate, whether through this paper or the Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel Instagram page. In turn, others have passed off usual platitudes of “this is just the way it is” or disingenuous attempts at whataboutism to avoid long-overdue introspection about how their organizations reinforce a generally toxic campus environment.
It’s time to confront the issue head on: IFC and Panhel’s time is up.
The campus-wide debate over Greek Life remains paralyzed, failing to capture the hearts and minds of anyone with the power to change things institutionally. While some organizations have disbanded, and a few sorority and fraternity members have dropped, no real change can be seen. As long as IFC and Panhel have a presence on campus, the issues associated with Greek life will prevail. The toxic social hierarchy will continue to haunt our campus, along with the structures that encourage and tolerate racism, sexism, and homophobia. Duke's Multicultural Greek Council and National Pan-Hellenic Council serve as places of refuge for minority students on this campus. IFC, Panhel, and selective living groups, conversely, are silos of exclusivity.
As presumably more level-headed adults, our university administrators have a duty to support the optimal growth of Duke students. It is without question that this obligation extends to the heavily-brochured “community building” and social life. In these respects, it is obvious that administrators are falling short: many students’ contentment with university life falls off a cliff after the highly acclaimed East Campus experience. Further, the debate on abolition illustrates a depressingly large unhappiness that exists within the student body towards the social scene. There is clearly a problem with a system that, in many cases, decides one’s entire college social experience in less than three weeks during one’s first year. It’s become increasingly clear to our administrators and large proportions of the student body that this reality is untenable in our modern cultural climate.
We should take a step back and examine the heart of the debate on IFC and Panhel Greek Life—Duke students’ frustration with the harmful social hierarchy that promotes classism, racism, and toxic masculinity. Most students share the sentiment that our social lives would suffer if we did not join Greek life or non-Greek selective living groups, which inevitably brings back the immature notion of the “in-crowd” from our high school days. However, would simply banning Greek life/SLGs solve the problem of feeling left out of certain groups or feeling socially inferior to particular friend groups? We don’t think so. Undoubtedly, the same social hierarchies would arise with or without the presence of Greek life. Rather than expecting the abolition of Greek life to solve all of our social life issues, we should focus on what the Duke administration can do to facilitate a stronger sense of community on West Campus.
Perhaps surprisingly, we have seen progress on this front over just three years. In the past, particularly under Larry Moneta, the university’s flaccid tone on Greek-life related controversies was anything but assuring for meaningful change. Yet, under a new administration, the school created trustee-level task forces to consider the future of Duke’s housing; razed Central Campus, bringing a swift end to the Wild West of Greek life; and ended self-selective and overwhelming like-minded first-year living arrangements. The more bold approach of Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, on the issue of social life is welcome and overdue. With a reenergized mandate from the student body, administration should accelerate housing and social policies that are rooted in inclusive community building rather than institutionalized Othering.
The COVID-19 era presents the perfect window for hastened change. As this moment calls us to reimagine the cultural and political structures we take for granted, we must further reimagine how things should be done around here. We would not be the first to try and, hopefully, succeed.
Residential college systems, for example, whether longstanding, like at Harvard and Yale, or newly established, like at Dartmouth, have been demonstrative as a workable and well-received model that builds more inclusive, sustainable communities and largely eliminates the desire to join Greek organizations. Although Yale’s model leaves space for both groups, most students are satisfied enough with the school’s residential system that the pressure to join a Greek-affiliated system is virtually non-existent.
Rather than leaving community building to the discretion of our RAs, the Duke administration should implement a residential college system that puts genuine effort into creating events and programming that students would actually want to participate in. Currently, most students do not even know the other students on their hall (excluding those they blocked with), much less those in the rest of the dorm or outside of their own friend group. If we share a bathroom, we should at least know each other’s names. The key to ensuring the success of the residential college system is to invest effort into culturally-literate, inclusive programming that directly appeals to students . Without the pressure to join Greek life or SLGs just to be a part of something, the residential college system would provide a non-hierarchical affiliation that helps students gain the sense of belonging they seek (but often don’t receive) from Greek life and SLGs.
Implementing the residential college system also lessens the pressure for students to subject themselves to degrading rush processes only to be followed by the sting of rejection. The rush processes of the current social groups on campus have been documented to be physically and psychologically damaging. It is quite barbaric to continue to allow students to present themselves to a group of strangers in the hopes of gaining their approval based on the most superficial aspects of their existence, especially considering the highly racialized, gendered, and class-based nature of the system that disproportionately harms students of color and low-income students. To abolish Greek life, the University must first give students a strong sense of belonging and community without subjecting themselves to stressful rush processes. This must happen for our current toxic social hierarchies to crumble.
The Community Editorial Board is independent from the editorial staff of the Chronicle. Their column runs on alternate Mondays.
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