It’s all Greek to me

23 November, 2014
Rat Fink

While spending a lazy Sunday morning catching up on some reading, I came across an article in Rolling Stone, announcing the University of Virginia’s decision to suspend all fraternities until January in order to investigate the serious allegations brought forth by women who claimed to have been assaulted by frat boys. The suspension is one of several, in a time span that featured not only allegations of assault, but also rape and even death of students participating in some form of fraternity event.

It’s good that the focus is apparently to stamp out behavior like this, but reading about the myriad incidents involving hazing, violence, vandalism and assault got me thinking: What is the pull of these organizations? Why do people join? So I put on my philomath hat and dug in, because, you know, I don’t have rhythm section parts to write or programs to prepare or anything on a Sunday. But hey — I’m enjoying my time off more, correct? :-)

A One-Paragraph History of the Fraternity

Fraternities began as underground countercultures (yes, even with secret initiations, handshakes, and code words), designed to enable members to discuss topics that were generally off-limits on university campuses or in polite society. The first official fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was formed by close friends at the College of William and Mary during the Revolutionary War, at which time it was dangerous to openly discuss matters of independence from Britain. The Phi Beta Kappans would meet in a tavern after other students had gone home for the night to debate hotbed topics of the day, resolving to remain a brotherhood in secret purpose and purport. But unlike their Latin society predecessors (Freemasons, Illuminati, Skull-and-Bones, etc.), the Kappans focused on camaraderie, joviality and benevolence. Eventually, the frat idea moved westward, appearing first at Miami University in Ohio, then spreading out nationwide, later adding the female component: the sorority.

Why Do People Want to Join?

This is a hot surface question for sure, whose answer depends solely upon whom you ask. Responses I’ve seen in my research run the gamut, and I’ll paraphrase them here:

  • People join because they want to learn about leadership and become part of a forward-thinking, intelligent, yet benevolent and philanthropic group of future movers and shakers in the world, while cultivating lifelong friendships and strong bonds of loyalty and tradition. Um…OK. Some (or who knows, all) of that might be true. Still, many Greek organizations on campus are, by nature — intentional or not — elitist and exclusionary.
  • People join because they want to buy instant friends. And by “buy,” I mean that students, on national average, spend anywhere from $700 to $1200+ per semester to be instantly surrounded by like-minded people. And that is only for basic dues; related expenses also apply. (Here’s a sample from Ball State.) Time was, fraternities and sororities had only “brothers” and “sisters.” Now — especially on the sorority side — there are bigs, littles, grand-bigs, grand-littles, great-grand-littles fuh cripesake, all of whom need gifts and special treats on a semi-regular basis. Add to that the cost of specific outfits for formals and semi-formals, initiations and holiday dances, and your sorority girls (or their parents) are forking over considerable piles of cash every month.
  • If you’re not Greek, you’re not cool. That statement stands alone. I haven’t the time or energy to expound upon it.

My Take

Now before you go lighting up the comment section in defense of your personal Pan-Hellenic experience, let me say that I have no specific disdain for frats and soros. Just a general one. ;-) Seriously, my point is — can you not have meaningful, philanthropic, jovial friendship experiences for free? Why aren’t all chapters free to join, and why do you have to “rush” (the Greek equivalent of Am I good enough to be in your club?) for acceptance? I have watched firsthand as a girl I know suffered one indignation after another at the hands of mean little princesses who thought themselves superior (although I’m aware you don’t need a sorority to be bombarded by an endless supply of mean girls).

For the record, I’ve never rushed a sorority; never had the inclination.  So that definitely makes me not an expert. Perhaps there are good reasons (GPA, past community involvement, the old nugget It looks good on a resumé) for thinning the herd. Still, what one hears most about — from the general population AND students — is the epic party culture. There’s got to be a reason for that somewhere, and I don’t think it has much to do with a lively session of philosophical rhetoric bandied about at the frat house roundtable.

Hey, for real — I’ll be your friend for nothin’. I won’t charge you a red cent. And you can discuss whatever you want and state your divergent opinion without fear of reprisal, and you won’t have to take beatings with a paddle or drink till you puke. What a deal.

So, about those Cleveland Browns. Off to the couch to watch the game (after writing rhythm section charts, of course).


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23 November, 2014 1:43 pm

Central Michigan was once, and maybe still is, mentioned as one of the top 10 party universities in some magazine , maybe even Rolling Stone, mainly from the large epic frat parties that were held on Main Street or rather, Fraternity Row. I remember attending one of these when I was a Freshman and was pretty scared for my life. Being a “townie” I did know about these parties but avoided them. I figured since I was a stoodent I should go to one. Never again. I did rush two sororities and didn’t make EITHER ONE. Can you believe that?… Read more »

23 November, 2014 2:25 pm

Never had any desire! Dated a Chi Omega young lady (briefly) and thought the whole “sisterhood” too manufactured…sort of being popular because we say we are. Nonsense. ReplyRat Fink Reply:November 27th, 2014 at 7:31 amMe neither. As you can read on REL’s comment below, there are apparently some good things about Greek life that don’t involve barfing or peeing in elevators. Knowing her (she’s a great gal and former student of mine), she was the shining exception! But like I said to Suzi — if there’s a fun club that does cool things for the world, why can’t anyone join?… Read more »

24 November, 2014 10:21 am

I’ve also wondered why people joined fraternities or sororities but never took the time to investigate. Thanks for your research and your report. From their noble beginnings their purpose has deginerated over time. Frats weren’t big on my college campus during my matriculation but even if they had been I would not have had the inclination or time to join one. ReplyRat Fink Reply:November 27th, 2014 at 7:33 amAmong the many, many responses I read regarding the point of Greek involvement at college, “a sense of belonging” appeared quite often as well. It’s too bad that the sense of belonging… Read more »

Ross Bonander
24 November, 2014 4:03 pm

When I was at UCLA, some fraternity songbooks were found in an apartment closet off-campus. The songs were off-the-charts misogynist, I mean like I-can’t-even-quote-one-lyric-here bad. After the understandable blow-up, the president of the Greek council or whatever his title was agreed, along with several bros, to address some of the school’s feminist groups and anyone else who wanted to watch a train wreck. Being into train wrecks, I attended. Early on, a statistic caught hold–notably, that there had been 18 reported rapes and/or sexual assaults on campus in the prior quarter. At one point a very dim light bulb went… Read more »

25 November, 2014 2:30 pm

Prepare to have your mind blown… I was one of those sorority girls in college. But not one of “those” girls. You know. The ones that “only drink on days that end with ‘Y'”. I found the stability of a group with common interests while being away from home for the first time as a welcoming feeling. Whether or not I got along with everyone in my sorority was another story, but knowing that I had adult advisors (mostly faculty members) who had been in our sorority when they were younger was a comfort. I didn’t join for all the… Read more »