Over the past weekend I was treated to an argument with a one-time friend. We have parted ways since 2016 – does anyone care to guess why? But back to the argument itself: We clashed over the issue of Harvard University deciding to end the tradition of gender-specific clubs. The world famous Ivy League school does not officially recognize Greek life fraternities or sororities so the clubs in question are unique to Harvard’s campus.
As someone who went to a small state school that is basically open admission and was only the member of a couple engineering-specific clubs during my college education, I have to say that Greek Life or the Harvard exclusive club never seemed like something I would participate in. In fact, I found the people that belonged to the few fraternities and sororities on our campus to be a bit in over their heads. At a mainly commuter school like ours, campus life was often a part-time thing, especially for people like me that never lived on campus and always worked throughout the different terms. So the people that belonged to fraternities and sororities seemed to be trying too hard to construct a college scene that was not organic.
The idea of these institutions has much more value in an educational environment that is more exclusive and elitist. Since the mid-1970s, thanks to National Lampoon’s Animal House Greek letter organizations have acquired more of a reputation for debauchery and hard partying than what their official purpose is: social, academic, and professional mentoring of university youth in order to produce graduates that adhere to a code of behaviour that properly represents their school and the group itself. These organizations are by necessity exclusionary. Even now that they do not exclude openly based on race, religion, or other qualifications they cannot ever hope to be totally inclusive because by definition they call for a certain way of life and social engagement that not everyone is built for. If we hold to the 1970s stereotype, not every Faber College man could toga party like John Belushi could. But realistically, even without the social standards of such groups, they have academic and sometimes extracurricular and volunteering requirements that not everyone can meet.
Harvard’s decision to abolish these groups will come back to haunt them and it will not take long to see the results. In fact, if Harvard persists with this policy to its logical end, it could completely wreck the impeccable reputation of the school that has produced an illustrious list of graduates from President John F. Kennedy (1940) to actress Stockard Channing (1965) to free range mental patient Ashley Judd (2010, Master’s in Public Health). Ironically, Judd despite being an icon of the #MeToo and #Resist movements that dovetail with the egalitarian opponents of these clubs was afforded special privacy precautions while studying at Harvard, a fact not lost on the local Boston media.
Unequal value for individual members
So why do I claim that this change will possibly ruin Harvard beyond repair? After speaking to a friend from a comparable Ivy League institution, Cornell, I came away with the sense that Greek Life organizations or literary societies are in some exceptional cases like a horseradish plant – dull and unimpressive on the surface yet full of intense flavor underground. Whereas many fraternity brothers and sorority sisters enter college knowing that they are following in the tradition of past family members that pledged for the group or even the same house, others find their way in unexpectedly. In his case he had been acquainted with some older members from a number of mutual interests and events such as playing pool. Once invited though, he discovered that this group was involved in numerous serious academic activities including deep analysis of American literature.
Now whether this was an experience unique to this person or not I cannot say, but the study of experiences on campus with Greek societies has shown that there appears to be a gulf between perception and reality. NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) released a 2012 survey that showed that whereas 62% of Greek society members thought that perception of their organizations was “negative”, in reality among the non-members it was only 41%. On other issues the responses skewed the other way such as whether Greek life improves student leadership qualities (95% among members, 44% for non-members) or whether it improves campus experience (92%-29%).
Exclusion for me but not for thee
But even the most comprehensive and nuanced surveys miss the point of what fraternities, sororities, literary societies, final clubs, honour clubs, and other exclusive groups offer which is a framework for its members to learn how to manage activities and interests as a group. The inclusion of certain types and exclusion of others is not typically a coercive act. (Some members join due to social or family pressure, but that can hold for any type of organization or group). The new Harvard mandate abolishing official clubs currently has a 5-year exception for female-only groups, a lenience that will be in limbo as it is only being done in order that those groups can eventually work out a way to themselves be less exclusionary.
These exceptions demonstrate that most such societies have already arrived at the point long ago that we can stop viewing them as the stodgy old institutions of elitist oppression to which they are often analogized, such as the genuinely suspicious secret societies such as Yale’s Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key. Fraternities and sororities may not be the most inclusive, but to solve that groups that once felt excluded or not entirely comfortable simply formed their own.
Ethnic minority letter societies have existed for decades such as the Nu Sigma Beta fraternity hailing from the University of Puerto Rico (1937), and numerous Asian and Pacific Islander groups that formed in the late 1990s. Most notably, black fraternities and sororities formed the backbone of an often ignored black upper class as described in Lawrence Otis Graham’s 1999 semi-autobiographical best-seller on the topic Our Kind of People. In the book, Graham recalls (p.83) revealing to his mom the devastating fact that his new fiancee was not an Alpha Kappa Alpha pledge. The dapper liberal Graham has used his connections through many organizations of the black upper class to become a member of elite organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations.
And what about groups that form due to both ethnic and sexual faultlines? For example Alpha Pi Delta was formed in 2010 and is a sorority of “feminine lesbians”. Although not explicitly stated, from their web page the group appears to recruit exclusively from the black community. For those of a more militant and masculine tendency, there is the Alpha Lambda Zeta “fraternity” of women in Houston and Atlanta. This one also appears to be predominantly black (no pun intended). For those that can’t shoe horn themselves into any one of these identities there is Gamma Rho Lambda a national “sorority” for all types of queer members.
All of these groups exist and continue to grow despite the fact that traditional fraternities and sororities that were white exclusive or dominated are by the rules of virtually every school forbidden to discriminate on the grounds of race. There continue to be certain ones that cater to specific academic majors, religions, and other interests. But by the standards of just ten years ago even if a fraternity or sorority appears to be unwelcome to a certain type of student, there is always an alternative that exists to accommodate them.
The natural effect
What banning the exclusive organizations from Harvard will do is to drive the exclusive societies underground. This is no different from censorship of news media, sports, music, entertainment, and video games. Until now those that disliked Greek life organizations could simply choose not to work with or associate with the groups, and in fact in many cases there are alternatives to them. For example, I belonged to two different engineering societies during my time in college, and there exist numerous professional student societies that are purely focused on degree fields. There are also varsity sports, recreational clubs and other extracurricular interest groups on virtually any college campus.
Greek life organizations are a convenient target for those that want to exact a social vengeance when they feel personally slighted. No better example exists than the 2014 University of Virginia “A Rape on Campus” hoax that was published by Rolling Stone columnist Sabrina Erdely. According to the story, several members of Phi Kappa Psi had gang raped a fellow student “Jacky” in 2012 and that her reports had gone unheeded by administrators. Subsequent investigations by media, police, and the national fraternity revealed that none of the details of the case were capable of being corroborated and a number of them had been outright falsehoods. Eventually Rolling Stone retracted the story and was successfully sued in court by a UVa. administrator that had been slandered in the article. Similar hoax incidents, though not involving Greek life, include the Duke Lacrosse scandal of 2005, the Mattress Girl controversy at Columbia University, and Lena Dunham’s every waking moment since 2006. But the UVa. Rape case was the incident that sparked my awakening to the deep cultural war going on throughout college campuses; my “red pill moment” if you will.
Focus on raising standards, not destroying them
Harvard, like the rest of the Ivy League, has been an elitist ivory tower to many Americans, yet that is precisely why students from Shanghai to Charlotte continue to look at it as a crucial pipeline to leadership in their community. The fact is however, that within those institutions there exist groups that add to the mystique and social cachet that being a student at one of them entails. We don’t have to like the Greek life organizations or their other elitist counterparts, but the fact is that without them Harvard would probably be just another shitty school.