Greek Life and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Double Standard

KR Stiegler   
Contributing Writer

In late January of 2019, former executive staff member Max Saltman (C’21) published a critique of the rush process at Sewanee, declaring the week as “comically unfair” to potential new members (PNMs) of sororities. I hadn’t read Saltman’s article until I began trawling through old issues of The Sewanee Purple for this piece, but I did a lot of research into Sewanee before my enrollment. 

Before I was a student at the University, I spent hours shuffling through admissions material and anything I could scrounge up online about Sewanee. I found a frequented expression I would later become deeply familiar with: “Greek life is different here!”

That was such a relief! I come from Louisiana, where most everyone I know is eager to enroll in a massive institution and rush a national Greek organization. To me, Greek life seemed expensive and time-consuming; the stereotypical sorority experience I had established via social media was a girl group that would always leave me outcast, and I imagined a fraternity to be a boys-club that never faced blame. To hear that Greek life was different at Sewanee meant that I could find a place amongst my peers. I thought the sororities would overturn my understanding of Hellenic associations, and that the fraternities would as well. That has not been entirely true.

After this year’s spring rush, in which sorority PNMs were threatened to be made bid-ineligible while some fraternity PNMs skirted the rules for attendance at formal and return house visits, whispering criticisms of the rush process at Sewanee began. I felt that the week was a testament to the fact that the same standards do not apply equally to fraternities and sororities. It was unjust. Why should I spend three hours a night, three nights in a row, becoming intimately familiar with every sorority while the fraternity PNMs could get away with visiting just their top picks? The only discussion I had about this imbalance at the time was a quiet murmur in a corner of Clurg, but it should be a public conversation. Max Saltman was right — this has been an issue for at least three years, and undoubtedly longer.

The standard (or lack thereof) to which fraternity PNMs are held during the rush process perpetuates the notion that fraternities will not be held accountable for their actions, whereas sororities will. I’m angry about it, but I’m also sympathetic to the fraternity pledges. They are set up to believe that effort and participation are not mandatory throughout the rush and pledgeship processes, starting from the pre-rush information meeting, to house visits, and finally extending to where we are now months into pledgeship. 

The differences between fraternity and sorority rush start in the beginning of the process. The sorority pre-rush information meeting was held in person, yet the same meeting for fraternity PNMs was held digitally. When asked about this, Donald Abels, Sewanee’s director of Greek Life, said that the meeting was intentionally designed to introduce sorority PNMs to their recruitment counselors, and the auditorium did not have the capacity for all PNMs and recruitment counselors. Nevertheless, virtual attendance allowed the fraternity PNMs to take a more passive, non-participatory approach from the earliest stages of their involvement. 

Although a much greater degree of participation is expected of the sorority PNMs, the whole experience is facilitated with the assistance of Rho Chis. A Rho Chi is a recruitment counselor and active sorority member who briefly disaffiliates herself from her organization to assist PNMs in the rush process. Any questions, concerns, or psychotic ramblings a sorority PNM has during rush week can be directed at her Rho Chi, whose presence becomes indescribably valuable during Sewanee’s “passing hello period.” When you’re forbidden from speaking with any active Greek members during a week that is essentially dedicated to going Greek, someone who is allowed to answer you is a blessing. Furthermore, sorority PNMs complete formal house visits alongside the guidance of their Rho Chis. Fraternity PNMs are not given this aid, leading them to become more susceptible to violations of the passing hello. They are without structure for formal house visits or recruitment counselors to field their questions. It’s no wonder that they don’t visit every fraternity house! My personal experience with rush was that it was overwhelming; I can’t imagine what it would be like if I were alone.

I reached out to a male student (X) who, after completing fraternity rush and partially completing his pledgeship, decided to drop his fraternity. He referred to himself as an “outlier,” saying that while he carefully followed all of the formal house visit and return house guidelines, he knows other fraternity PNMs did not. Lacking the guidance of a Rho Chi group, he reported that he completed all of his formal house visits with one other fraternity PNM, and completed his return house visits with five other fraternity PNMs. I would venture to guess that most of the PNMs do not visit the houses alone, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to provide them with the benefit of a structured schedule and Rho Chis. X told me that house visits are “nerve-wracking, but worth it.” It’s hard to go alone under pressure, but could that pressure be alleviated by the addition of Rho Chis? Abels commented on the matter, saying that if rush week maintains the structure of formal house visits and return house, then the fraternities should have Rho Chis. X “wouldn’t mind” a Rho Chi group, saying “if the [Interfraternity Council] gets backlash for creating them, then get over it.” 

Putting fraternity PNMs through the rush process alone seems to be an effort to alienate and weed out those who can’t handle the pressure. The PNM side of recruitment can be downright uncomfortable: a different fraternity pledge (Z) reports walking into a fraternity house alone during formal house visits and being asked by a group of actives who his favorite porn star is. To provide fraternity PNMs with Rho Chi groups would not only create a more empathetic and less alienating experience, but also hold them accountable for their full involvement in recruitment. Set the standard from the beginning: the boys need to participate too.

That’s not the current situation, though. The Office of Greek life hosted a new member sexual assault awareness training entitled “It’s On Us” on Monday, March 21, where 80 percent of each organization’s new members were required to attend. Photos taken at the event display a devastating disparity in attendance between fraternities and sororities, with the photo from the sorority session showing nearly every visible seat to be full. Meanwhile, the photo from the fraternity session is taken from an angle that cuts off most of the seats in the auditorium, and several rows closest to the presenter are completely empty. Why does the attendance appear to be lower for the fraternity pledges? The Sewanee rumor mill has proposed that some fraternity executive boards did not require their pledges to attend, but the rumor mill is just that: a rumor mill. Numbers from Abels, sent to Greek leaders, reveal an eight percent disparity between fraternity and sorority attendance, with sororities enjoying a marginal majority. Regardless, attendance at this event and attendance at formal fraternity house visits mirror each other. There is no standard of expectation for fraternity pledges to be present. If there was full participation at similar presentations from both fraternities and sororities, we may be able to prevent more Hellenic-related incidents on campus.

During my sit-down with X, he said to me unprompted that Greek life is a ticking time bomb, and eventually, it will be blown up and removed from universities on a national scale because of how lazy Greek members have become. He explained that Sewanee’s undergraduate population coupled with the huge participation in Greek life (64 percent, according to Abels) is a recipe for disaster. He fears that an extreme incident will happen on campus and be traced back to Greek life; that is a risk we cannot take. Cautiously book-ending his thoughts, X earnestly said, “I don’t want to see Greek life kicked off campus.” I’m obliged to agree, and I think most students do as well.  

Without thinking much of it, Abels told me, “Sewanee’s Greek life is not cookie cutter.” I hate to say that the phrase I heard so often as a prospective student was true, but Donald is right. Our Greek life system is not perfect — is any university’s? — but we are inching towards progress, and the double standard that exists during rush week is easily fixable. Its elimination will not solve everything, but it is a necessary step if we expect our Greek life system to align with our institutional values. Greek life is different at Sewanee, but as X said to me: “Greek life is different here because we can be different.”