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Greek disaffiliation is doomed to failure

roused rabble

Greek life is dead. Long live the Next Generation Living Learning Experience! 

Greek life as we have known it is over. Last month, nine fraternities severed their ties with Duke University. With that, the century-long history of Duke Greek life has ended, ushering in one of the most dramatic changes to Duke’s social scene in recent history. A new chapter begins now.

Citing a number of Duke’s current and planned changes under the Next Generation Living Learning Experience plan for the future of campus social life–from the current rush moratorium and the planned shift to sophomore-only recruitment starting Fall 2021 to the new changes to on-campus living–these organizations have disaffiliated from Duke and set out on their own. The newly independent fraternities have organized themselves within the Durham Interfraternity Council, a collective body designed to coordinate amongst the groups and manage their rush processes. They are currently conducting rush with first-years in violation of Duke’s rules. According to the President of Durham IFC, the goal is “to maintain ‘the integrity and continuation of [these Greek chapters].’” 

Yet despite their best intentions, the frat bros have set the stage for their eventual demise. The future of Duke Greek life has begun with a bang, but will end with a whimper. 

For now, all is well. These nine organizations have departed campus with great fanfare and by all accounts they are conducting a successful rush. Soon, an influx of new first-years will pledge and these fraternities will gain a new lease on life, just as they planned. The short-term rationale for disaffiliation seems obvious. 

What are the long-term advantages to this unprecedented decision? Sure, these organizations have permanently gained some modicum of freedom. They can host the events they want, where they want and when they want. But now they must operate in an environment where their relationship with Duke is strained, at best, and adversarial, at worst. They have made an enemy out of a begrudging partner. 

For years, fraternities have claimed, and not without reason, that Duke is out to get them and that Duke wants to end Greek life. Yet so long as they remained on campus, as affiliated organizations, Duke’s hands were tied to some degree. While affiliated, fraternities could always expect help from their alumni and aid from their national organizations. These powerful supports, combined with the sheer number of undergraduates involved in fraternities at any given time, limited Duke’s ability to curtail Greek life and ensured that Greek organizations had to be considered in the university’s planning process. 

Then, suddenly, Duke’s fraternities simply did what they claimed Duke had always wanted. They offed themselves. In doing so, they abandoned the institutional protections they had previously enjoyed on-campus and became, in the eyes of the university, simply large groups of students breaking the rules. To Duke, that subtle shift, from recognized (and therefore somewhat protected) organizations into unconnected groups of rogue individuals, is incredibly significant. 

Before, if a group of brothers were caught breaking university rules they could take some shelter behind the Greek letters, confident in the knowledge that their organization would bear the brunt of all repercussions. Now, no such protections exist. Duke is free to prosecute all rebellious students to the fullest extent possible. The herd has broken rank, it’s open season and Duke is loading the belt-fed .50 Cal. The frat boys will go the way of the buffalo. 

Don’t believe me? Think I’m being over the top? Well there is nothing new under the sun, trust me. In 2018, West Virginia University dealt with a roughly similar situation when a group of fraternities disassociated from WVU and formed an independent interfraternity council. Responding forcefully, President Gordon Gee of WVU wrote an open letter to the parents of all his students, warning them that their kids could face personal sanctions and limitations on their college social activities if they joined one of the independent fraternities. Duke has yet to fully tap into its arsenal, but in the coming months and years their efforts will surely escalate. 

If that occurs, fraternity recruitment will be severely impacted. Duke students are, by and large, conscientious, careerist rule followers. Part of the reason many students are here is because they are some of the best players of that great game, meritocracy. If Duke students are threatened by the organization that can strangle their budding career prospects in the cradle, if the hand that feeds closes into a menacing fist, I suspect many will fall in line and forego fraternity rush. 

Moreover, if reports are true, this new environment of administrative hostility is already affecting recruitment. While the disaffiliated frats have been able to conduct rush, I’ve heard on good authority that hundreds fewer first-years have rushed this year than normal. If that is true, then it has happened despite the fact that rush has ostensibly been conducted only over Zoom (which should theoretically limit the number of people who would opt out due to Covid concerns). While some potential rushees probably opted out because they did not want to pay dues for a more limited experience, it seems that many students are already responding to the administrative disincentives implicit to the new reality of Greek life. 

In picking a poorly considered fight with the Duke administration, the Durham Interfraternity council failed to heed the wise words of the Trinidadian Calypso artist Sugar Aloes. In the song “Jubilation,” he alludes to the Good Book, singing “the fight goes not to the strongest but to he who endures to the end.” Even arrayed against the powers that be, Greek life at Duke had a real shot to survive. But when you opt out preemptively and give your detractors what they have always wanted, you lose by default, and rightly so. 

Reiss Becker is a Trinity senior. His column, “roused rabble,” typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.  

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