I have a problem with Greek life.
I should first be clear that I don’t necessarily have beef with the individuals who belong to these societies. I count a significant number of those students among my friends, and they have proven to me that any claims I make about the nature of Greek life at UNC should not be and cannot be construed as universally applicable. There are good people and terrible people involved in fraternities and sororities, just as there are in similar proportions in the general student body and elsewhere in the world. This is not a critique of them; I will instead explore the effects these uncommonly influential institutions can have by providing their members with uncommon and arbitrary influence.
I believe that as they exist and operate now, social sororities and fraternities are destructive with regard to the advancement of social justice and the purported aims of the University of North Carolina.
The Greek system perpetuates and celebrates privilege in an exclusionary way.
It is often prohibitively expensive to belong to a sorority or fraternity where dues cost thousands of dollars per year. Of course, many organizations charge expensive membership fees, but the nebulous purpose and benefits of belonging to social Greek organizations are what differentiate them from, for instance, the men’s rowing club.
In my opinion, the (perhaps unconscious) purpose of belonging to a social fraternity or sorority on campus, for many members, is to provide students who were wealthy and popular in high school a space in which to continue feeling wealthy and popular with one another. That space would not come to exist organically at such a large public university. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that the Greek system uses the wealth of its members to consolidate privilege among the people and families it has deemed worthy of enjoying that privilege through the rush process and hazing rituals, which in turn are used to determine which prospective members would best uphold the exclusionary structure of the organizations to which they are applying. My freshman year, a friend told me that he had been denied a bid to a fraternity because he would not agree to dump his longterm girlfriend as a condition of membership. This, he said, was not an isolated incident.
Through the influence of their alumni and their legacies, Greek societies confer upon already well-off students the privilege of still greater preferential treatment in the business world, in the classroom and in campus life in return for their agreement to bestow that same favoritism upon future members down the line. Greek societies are yet another strike against the myth of the meritocracy — a myth that their members, by and large, earnestly believe in.
There are more explicit examples in the daily conduct of some of these groups that align with the institutional effects Greek societies have by merely existing. I have personally been harassed while biking past Frat Court on multiple occasions for no reason other than my apparent lack of membership in their exclusive societies (us GDIs are notorious for our bike-riding). I have seen black and hispanic students denied access to fraternity parties multiple times while their white counterparts were ushered inside. One of my friends attended a fraternity party at the beginning of the semester with a male friend who identifies as gay. They were greeted by a fraternity brother yelling: “No faggots allowed!”
In the famous case of the former Dartmouth fraternity brother-turned-whistleblower, his efforts to have hazing rituals thwarted by the police were in turn thwarted by a senior member of the Dartmouth administration, a fraternity alumnus who tipped off the fraternity the night it was supposed to be engaging in its most vile round of hazing. Privilege that allows already privileged men to be exploited by other privileged men in return for the guarantee of further privilege is wrong. This is not to say that those specific atrocious acts have occurred at UNC, but the power dynamic is identical everywhere these societies exist.
While the perpetuation of white, gendered and wealth-related privilege is likely not the expressed intent of most Greek members, that is nevertheless the effect these organizations have upon our campus and our world. The cost and culture of Greek life has the effect of exaggerating the socioeconomic disparities that correlate most strongly with race. To be sure, there are people of color who belong to these societies, but they are very few — apparently too few to affect the institutional framework of Greek life. Remember a certain sorority’s sombreros last year?
The Greek system is sexist.
The relationship between fraternities and sororities is hierarchical and reinforces the subservience of women, even wealthy women, to wealthy men. The Greek conception of gender roles is cut and dry and lifted straight from the 1950s.
Speaking with people who have been on both sides of the sorority rush process, I have learned that the offer of membership in Panhellenic sororities is, at least in part, often dependent on the prospect’s physical attractiveness and body type.
Once a part of Greek life, sorority women are encouraged, implicitly and explicitly, to stay in good physical shape for the purpose of remaining attractive to fraternity men. At that point, sorority women are at once degraded for being either sexually active or sexually inactive within the Greek system.
They are also sometimes encouraged to socialize with members of one fraternity rather than another, and vice versa. The codes of sexual and romantic conduct between sororities and fraternities deprive sorority women of the agency ideally enjoyed by both parties of a romantic relationship.
The effects of this oppression, generally speaking, have been the tacit acceptance of rape culture and the general objectification of women. Fraternity brothers accustomed to getting their way at times seem not to stop and consider the possibility that the woman toward whom they are making drunken advances might not appreciate them, no matter how wealthy their fathers may be. The fact of the matter is that rape is occurring at UNC as a result of structures that glorify party culture at the expense of consent. I know women who have been raped at fraternity events. How must they feel walking past Frat Court?
At UNC, sororities are not permitted to serve alcohol in their houses or have men sleep over. Fraternities are allowed to both host women and provide alcohol. In a society where even buying a woman dinner is grounds for expecting some sort of sexual reciprocation, fraternity men hold the keys to the bedroom, so to speak, when it comes to distributing social lubricant among their guests and setting the agenda as the night goes on.
Sex within the Greek system often seems to operate on a bartering system, one which creates artificially high demand for the affection of fraternity brothers. This is often accomplished by freely admitting women to parties while denying admission to most male non-members, particularly those they perceive as threatening their chances of getting laid that night.
It is nearly always men, not women, who control the supply of alcohol in situations where women are most vulnerable, and it is a significant number of those same men who aim to inebriate women for unsavory purposes. There is an expectation that alcohol can be exchanged for sex. This is not to say that members of Greek societies are the only ones who take advantage of this expectation, but the relative power dynamic between fraternities and sororities ensures that attendance at their events depends on one’s acceptance of a male-dominated culture of sexual exploitation.
The Greek System needs to change.
All that being said, I do not want to abolish the Greek system. There is a long history of philanthropic work, academic achievement and lifelong friendship within Greek life which I’m sure many will argue has been prominent enough to overshadow, if not justify, the ills I have described above. I would ask that readers who are members of fraternities and sororities consider how their organizations could further emphasize those values.
I don’t think anyone could argue that the conditions I have described are not present to at least some extent, though. If there is any way Greek institutions either permit or encourage those conditions, that needs to be forcefully addressed.
I take pride in going to UNC. I grew up in Chapel Hill, and I still love it here after 20 years. But even to attend this university is to participate, to some extent, in an exclusive society that allows us to take four years of classes in a field we might not even work in.
My fellow UNC students and I are all Tar Heels, and that’s a privilege. At the very least, though, it is our duty as students and as members of student organizations to work toward a campus where the privilege of being a Tar Heel is experienced in equal measure by every student.
Henry Gargan is the editor-in-chief of Thrill City, erstwhile assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel, and a junior journalism and global studies major at UNC. He also contributes to Lacrosse Magazine, The Raleigh News & Observer and The Chapel Hill News. Follow him on Twitter @hgargan.