Sewanee Greek Life needs a reality check

For Greek Life to respond to criticism, we need to understand ourselves first.

By Claire Smith
Executive Editor

Picture this: A small, private liberal arts college. Ranked around the top 40 liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report. Its population, around two thousand students, is majority white (over 80 percent). Students tend to be from economically privileged backgrounds, which reflects the high cost of attendance, though a sizable minority of Pell Grant recipients and first-generation students are represented. Greek life is widespread, with over 70 percent of students in a Greek organization. No, I’m not describing Sewanee. I’m talking about Benton College, a pseudonym for a real Midwestern college strikingly similar to Sewanee in demographics and character.

Benton College was the subject of a 2011 sociological study exploring the relationship between class, gender, and exclusion from the Greek system among college students. When reading student interviews from the study, I was struck with the similarities between student perceptions of Greek life at Benton and Sewanee. Students generally rejected the notion that the Greek system was linked to elitism or exclusion, arguing that their school’s Greek life was unique. One participant is quoted in the study as saying: “On other campuses I would say definitely [that the Greek system is elitist]…. Because of our high percentage of people in Greek houses, I think that it’s more accepting here. It’s not elitist like other places.”

Sound familiar? Sewanee Greek life is also very popular, with Greek life involvement, even after dropping off in the past few years, calculated in 2018 at 78 percent. I often hear, and have definitely said a bit too defensively to my friends at state schools, that Sewanee Greek life has a rare openness about it. The broad participation and more inclusive party scene seems to indicate a special success for Sewanee’s Greek system, one that has somehow sidestepped the systemic problems traditionally associated with Greek life. But would an investigation back up those claims?

Back at Benton, the numbers reflected a different reality. Five out of seven sororities and six out of eleven fraternities had odds ratios that reflected being “especially exclusionary” with significant underrepresentation of working class students, despite student claims of an egalitarian and open Greek culture. Those who benefitted from the much-touted networking and social opportunities of Greek life were statistically more likely to be wealthy, which amplified existing social differences among students.

Administrators at Rhodes College in Memphis requested a study on their Greek life in 2009, which led to an exploratory study of Rhodes published by PhD candidates at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. The authors used a variety of demographic data, measures of student engagement, and markers of academic success to study several facets of Greek life. Odds ratios found that a white student at Rhodes was 4.1 times more likely to join a fraternity or sorority than a student of another race, while a student receiving a Pell grant was 2.7 times less likely to be Greek. Unplanned departure from Rhodes was also higher among Independent students, which led the authors to recommend further investigation on how Greek life may “unintentionally alienate certain students who may have to abandon too much of their own identity and culture in order to fit in and perform well.”

Benton College isn’t Sewanee. Neither is Rhodes. If Sewanee’s administration collected demographic and qualitative information on Greek life, it might get some very different results than that of Benton. They might also be remarkably similar. However, Sewanee’s administration has not collected such data. To understand why there are calls for Greek life to be abolished or radically changed, then students, administrators, and Greek leaders need to know the realities of Greek life and how it shapes student experiences. 

In the absence of a study on the administrative level, Greek leaders can learn a lot from listening to those who feel excluded from Greek life, even when criticism seems harsh, and considering how that can change. Greek students, like myself, can listen to our friends and classmates who have opted out or been forced out of Greek life and think critically about our own experiences, good and bad. I admit that it makes me uncomfortable thinking that myself or my sorority could be contributing to a culture of exclusion, but I would rather ask those uncomfortable questions now, when I can do something to change that. 

When I initially read these studies on Greek Life, I was back in my parents’ house and working remotely, apprehensively watching the days creep closer to Sewanee’s re-opening for the fall semester. I started having doubts about our ability to stay safe and follow the rules, especially where Greek life was involved, but I wanted to reserve my judgements until I saw campus in action. Our collective experience this summer with COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement had at least initiated an opportunity for change. In June, as Sewanee’s Greek organizations flooded our social media feeds with fundraisers for bail funds and civil rights groups, Greek Life postured itself as a supporter of inclusion and anti-racism. When Greek life was criticized in an opinion piece by a former Sewanee student, many involved in Greek life asserted that it was a positive force that could give students community, especially in our new socially distant setting. 

Now, our platform for discussion has moved off of the Internet and back onto campus. This is Greek life’s moment to prove that it is all of the things it said it was online. This is the time for Greek leaders to use their positions to encourage social distancing, masking, and community safety. This is the time to open those conversations on inclusion and to examine who we imagine in our idea of the Sewanee community. Is Greek Life’s idea of community about the Greek community’s freedom to recruit, hold Shake Day, and host their regular schedule of parties, or is their idea of community about making everyone in Sewanee feel safe and included? So far, it seems that too large a portion of Greek life has been comfortable sliding back into old routines, despite vastly different social circumstances. Too many students can’t imagine a Sewanee “community” that doesn’t center party culture, and are willing to assume risks and break rules to continue that idea.

Greek life hasn’t asked enough about itself to respond to calls for reform or abolishment. Some will defend Greek life from significant criticism by saying it is essentially good and reformable, but will shy away from initiating any serious, systemic changes. Some will call Greek life a force for good, but will flout social distancing rules in the face of a pandemic. For those who believe that Sewanee’s Greek life is an exception to the rule, worthy of reform, or even above reproach, open yourselves up to real, uncomfortable inquiry and criticism. Create higher expectations for yourselves and your fellow members. Maybe Sewanee’s rosy view of Greek life will be confirmed this semester, but more than likely, it will give way to something much more concerning.

One comment

  1. Nice piece, Claire. A professor of mine once said that critical thinking begins at home. A sterling ideal that is unfortunately not supported by the evidence. I appreciate what you and your team are doing with the Purple. Keep up the good work!

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