Is There a Future for Greek Life?

Wide view of Korea University Campus in Seoul
Wide view of Korea University Campus in Seoul

As American colleges and universities seek to refine, and in many cases rebrand, their student life experience, one of the questions that regularly arises on college campuses is whether there is a place for Greek life in the 21st century.

It's a legitimate question, especially at those institutions that are working hard to differentiate themselves - and concurrently their residential learning experiences - from their competitors.

Greek life has taken some serious and typically well-justified hits in recent years. Its detractors portray the Greek community as insular, defensive, and myopic in outlook and behavior. Some suggest that Greek life is a foundation upon which campus-wide problems of sexual abuse, alcohol and other drug-related issues, and intolerance emerge. In their view, Greek life is antithetical by its definition and practice to the values of the broader campus community.

The depth and intensity of this animus vary with a number of factors, notably the size of an institution, its location, its history and traditions, the vitality and quality of its shared governance, and the priorities established by its administration. On the other side, the Greeks see faculty and administration as generally opposed to their continued presence and often rely upon trustee and alumni support to undercut efforts to close a campus to Greek life.

This debate bleeds into areas well beyond student life, including admissions, alumni and board relations, development, athletics, and the general perception of an institution. Many college administrators ask: "Do we limit our applicant pool and a robust, rich and diverse incoming class by failing to change the image of our institution as a "jock/fraternity" school?

While there are significant exceptions, the current generation of Greeks has not been able to lay out a compelling case for their continued presence on campus no matter how historically imbedded they are in a college or university culture. Typically, Greek undergraduates point to their tradition as a long-standing member of the college community, the leadership developed from their ranks, and their good works, especially in philanthropy.

The problem is that - in the end - these arguments are good but not sufficient. Countless student organizations produce leaders and excel in philanthropic pursuits.

Should the Greek community, then, be invited to participate as part of student services as colleges and universities continue to evolve?

There is no reason to assume that they cannot survive and be a linchpin for student services programming but only if key adjustments occur quickly.

First, Greek life must reflect the best ethical, moral, and philosophical thinking reflected in the college's strategic plan. Greeks must find a way to represent their contributions based upon where the institution is heading and not where it is or where it has been. To do so, the Greek community should assume that an institution's strategic plan must be driven down to succeed and prepare a strategic direction for themselves that embodies the larger institutional plan. How can Greek life help a college meet its aspirations and support the principles that guide its academic program?

Second, certain Greek "wink and nod" rituals must and should end immediately. These include hazing, the overuse of alcohol, certain types of pledge orientation, and off-campus shadow houses. If the desire is to create a place where a mutually supportive community develops, these rituals have no place and only add to perceptions that diminish support for Greek life over the long term.

Further, abandoning this behavior may make it possible to partially offset practical business concerns like insurance coverage. Minimizing risk has a practical dimension.

And finally, the Greek community must adopt a long-term management strategy. It begins with an understanding of who they are, how they contribute, and why this should be recognized. Is it possible to make a case for Greek life that is comparable to that made increasingly by athletic programs today? Like a number of these athletic programs, can Greek life teach leadership skills, time management, the ability to work collaboratively in political and communal settings, and basic "house" economics?

Developed even further can Greek life promote some of the hallmarks of liberal learning - the ability to communicate, application of quantitative skills, and understanding of the use of technology? Can it foster the social skills, working with student life and career services, to build stronger alumni networks already informally operating to educate undergraduate Greeks "from cradle through career?"

The benefits to the residential life program are obvious.

For the Greek community, friendly trustees and annual philanthropic drives will not determine where a dynamic and growing university heads over the long term. Their supporters must find a reason to be more relevant - and soon. If not, America's long-standing relationship with Greek life may die from some toxic combination of indifference, defensiveness, and tired ideas.