THE BLOG

Get Past the Myth: Greek Life Has Plenty to Offer Campuses

04/07/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

There are a number of challenges facing college campuses today, and certainly the impact of Greek life on campus is one of them.

In recent years we have heard much about the culture of drug and alcohol abuse on some campuses, and the disproportionate contributions made by Greek organizations in recent weeks have brought shocking examples of anti-social and even racist behaviors. In the most notorious of these, the university promptly discontinued the chapter, and one of the perpetrators issued an open apology for his actions. In other cases, national organizations have disbanded chapters that fail to live up to fraternity or sorority standards. Lost in all of this appropriate outrage is the recognition of the positive contributions and daily acts of good citizenship exhibited by many Greek organizations, and that is the topic herein.

I would never have imagined myself as an apologist for, or even supporter of, Greek life. I, myself, was never a member of a fraternity. As a first generation transfer student, I was unaware of, and uninterested in, the opportunities Greek life afforded. And to be sure, no Greek organization showed even a modicum of interest in seeking me out. During my time as a student, faculty member and administrator in higher education, I periodically witnessed some of the negative behaviors constituting an affront to institutional community values. And so, I was occasionally prone to align my thinking with the negative reports.

When I interviewed some three-and-a-half years ago for my current position, I was asked about my views on Greek life. I said then that I had no particular opposition, and would only ask members to seek opportunities to build community on campus rather than serve as the exclusive domain of a select few. In truth, however, my skepticism ran deeper than that answer designed to avoid giving offense, and it was based on my earlier observations.

What a pleasant surprise it has been, therefore, to see the frequent positive contributions of Greek life at Marietta College. Most national organizations have a designated charity or cause, and it has been gratifying to see the degree to which our students give their support in the form of on-campus fundraisers for their organization of choice. I have been particularly surprised at the frequency with which I am offered the chance to throw a pie or other dessert at a student, or to smear them with paint (washable, I hope), or to inflict some other embarrassment.

I've told the students that I have a policy against throwing objects at them, lest they should be encouraged some day to return the favor. However, I do make it a regular practice to offer the requested contribution, even as I forego the opportunity it provides. And in a more local initiative, a fraternity on our campus staged a solid week of cycling on a stationary bike to raise pledges to defray the medical expenses of a friend (not a member of the fraternity!) on campus. They asked me to ride the closing hour of the week, a week that had begun early one morning. This had me cycling in the early morning darkness, even as the local news station had a camera crew there for an interview.

I also witness the extent to which our fraternities and sororities seek to include professors and administrators in their activities. My wife and I are invited to join one of our fraternities for an annual Thanksgiving dinner, an event featuring a stunning amount of food prepared entirely by the brothers and an evening-ending musical performance featuring well-dressed members with more musical talent than I might have expected. And a local sorority invites us annually to a solemn celebration of the founding of their organization. Finally, we have been delighted to attend a number of events and dinners designed to celebrate outstanding academic performance by chapters and individual members. Those evenings are obviously closely aligned with our foremost institutional value and are thus particularly gratifying, and we never turn down an invitation if we are in town.

If we are as successful as I maintain, what leads to these positive contributions to our campus? We have, within our student life office, a staff member who does a wonderful job as the advisor to the Greek community, but I suspect many other institutions do too. Another key factor, from my perspective, is the influence of College and chapter alumni. Each organization has a local alumnus/a who advises the chapter, and this influence cannot be overestimated. I have seen examples at other institutions of alumni who justifiably value the experience they had 30 years ago, but who are apparently unable to realize that times and standards have changed. It has been shocking to see the negative impact they have by urging the current members to oppose the college administration as it seeks to establish community conduct expectations. This is what makes me so appreciative of the impact Marietta alumni/ae have on the organizations they advise.

At homecoming last year, my wife and I were invited to a dinner and roast put on by one of the fraternities in honor of their alumnus advisor, who was retiring from his "day job." This was to be our last event in a long day of events, and we were scheduled to drop in, make a few remarks, and then head home. Instead, we ended up staying for a late dinner, enjoying many conversations, and witnessing the inspiring interactions of the current members with the many, many alumni who had returned for the event. Many in attendance clearly appreciated our willingness to stay with them at the end of a long day, and I appreciated the positive tone of the event and the strong bonds between alumni and currents students that I seek to foster across our institution.

Is our experience so different those at other institutions? I suspect not, but it isn't the "man-bites-dog" story that normally captures our attention. What it shows, and what must be acknowledged, is the positives Greek life can bring to a campus, and the contributing influence of strong mentors. Our system is surely not perfect, but, based on what I've seen, I would be happy to see membership rolls expand.