By Chelsea LoCascio
Among a college’s student body, there are always those few that tend to stick out — the individuals wearing Greek letters on their shirts. Yet, it’s been those letters which have garnered a negative connotation during the recent media mania, highlighting fraternities and sororities engaging in underage drinking, sexual assault, hazing and other reckless behaviors.
Despite philanthropic intentions, Greek organizations have found themselves in the media’s spotlight recently. One of the latest incidents came in the form of a nine-second video featuring a racist chant from the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter. This resulted in two expulsions, a ban of the fraternity on campus and a loss of their house, according to ABC News.
According to the Huffington Post, colleges have had to shut down or suspend 30 fraternities in the past month. Some of these organizations include University of Michigan’s Sigma Alpha Mu, the fraternity that racked up around $430,000 in damages at a ski resort, as well as Pennsylvania State University’s Kappa Delta Rho fraternity, which allegedly spread pictures of unconscious, nude women and discussed selling drugs in a Facebook group.
Sororities are not out of the limelight either as York College suspended its chapter of Theta Phi Alpha for four years due to hazing, according to pennlive.com. There have also been accusations of racist southern sororities, such as at the University of Alabama, where allegedly none of the 16 panhellenic organizations allowed two black women to join despite their qualifications, according to ABC News.
“The negative stereotypes (of Greek life) are that you buy your friends, you’re all drunk alcoholics, you have no regard for class work or academic achievement … and you’re a group of narrow-minded, similar individuals that only see things in a certain light or perspective,” said Dave Conner, assistant director of Fraternity and Sorority Life and a brother of Theta Chi at the University of Delaware. “What’s kept me here … is that I don’t think a lot of those stereotypes fit with our organizations. We have sorority and fraternity members who are consistently above the all men’s and all women’s average (GPA), which are high at TCNJ.”
Erin Shannon, a junior English and women’s and gender studies double major and Sigma Sigma Sigma sister, thinks that these stereotypes become tricky when they contain some truth.
“There are a lot of negative stereotypes,” Shannon said. “Some of them are earned to a certain degree, and I think one of the problems with Greek life is that they like to throw everything under a rug, anything that’s negative, and immediately classify it as a stereotype.”
Negative assumptions about Greek life members’ character can lead to scapegoating, which Sigma Sigma Sigma witnessed firsthand as some students suspected the sorority of vandalizing 19 cars on Friday, March 27, in Lot 13. To this accusation, Shannon responded with disappointment in her peers.
“That’s disgusting to say,” Shannon said. “Painting cars with derogatory things is not what we do. We have sisters of all different racial backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds. We’re very tolerant and accepting so we’d never do something like that.”
Yet despite the stereotypes and negative attention, students still find themselves drawn to Greek life.
“I saw not only the impact the fraternity (Phi Alpha Delta) made on campus but the impact it had on the kids I knew,” said Chris Drabik, a senior communications major and brother of Phi Alpha Delta. “It was getting kids involved in a positive way and it was making them more well-rounded individuals. It just seemed like that at a small school like this, (Greek life) was a great way to get involved on campus. As well as for the brotherhood and family aspect, which I still feel to this day.”
This year alone, Drabik’s fraternity has raised money for its philanthropy, St. Baldrick’s, through Piccolo Trattoria and Hooters fundraisers, as well as their main event, in which 24 brothers shaved their heads to promote awareness and support for pediatric cancer victims. In addition, Phi Alpha Delta, along with the rest of the College’s Greek organizations, all contributed to TCNJam this past January, which raised $50,566 for the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, a charity to fight childhood cancer.
“For a small school to do that is pretty incredible,” Drabik said. “It’s just tough that we are such a small school and we have to try to shake that negative connotation because of these terrible things going on across the country. It’s a poor representation of what Greek life is and what it does to help me and all of my brothers.”
According to Conner, the downpour of stories shaming Greek life has not affected the College directly.
“When it rains it pours and we’re in the middle of a hurricane right now,” Conner said. “When we see those types of things, it does give the opportunity for reflection … Our SAE chapter had a lot of conversation with the community. The conversation was based around the community openly saying ‘we don’t believe that’s what SAE is about.’
“Certainly in the reflection and review piece it has impacted (the College), but I think that our groups operate on such a different plane from other organizations at schools across the country,” he added. “We don’t have growing or imminent concern that it’s something that can happen here.”
Bryce Escobar, a junior economics major and president of SAE, said that the inappropriate behavior of the University of Oklahoma chapter has not affected SAE here. In response to the incident, several brothers of the College’s SAE chapter, New Jersey Tau Gamma, posted their creed “The True Gentleman” on Facebook to signify that they do not stand for the kind of behavior demonstrated in Oklahoma.
“People are very accepting here, they know that just because one person does it, doesn’t mean that it has to shame the entire organization,” Escobar said. “No matter what media sources may have been saying … we wanted the population to know that this is what we stand for, this is who we are and that we weren’t going to let our values be overshadowed by the inappropriate actions of a few.”
The College’s SAE chapter has also been participating in diversity training, which is an online course intended to inform the brothers of issues regarding racism and prejudice.
“(It allows us to) really educate ourselves about race issues and what we can do as SAE brothers and as people to really get our society away from that race standpoint, see everybody equally and try to eradicate racism from its roots,” Escobar said. “Overall, Greek organizations are a force of good in this world. There’s a lot of positives, so many more positives than there are negatives talked about in the media.”
The College’s award-winning and nationally recognized Greek life organizations do not concern Conner, but if an organization were to find itself in trouble, then the College would take immediate action. According to Conner, the College consults a privileges and responsibilities document, which details the expectations, policies and privileges of Greek life membership. Within that document is the fraternity and sorority conduct processes that the College consults when determining what steps in the event of a violation. The organization then undergoes a partnership process, an informal hearing and a formal hearing with a student board or a formal hearing with an administrative board, depending on the violation.
“Any information that I receive or that any college official receives via email or a post on Yik Yak … are things that we take a look at,” Conner said. “We will investigate to the best of our ability any incident and make a decision … on whether or not to charge a chapter with a violation of policy.”
Though the College does not have to resort to taking action against Greek organizations often, Shannon believes that there are some issues about Greek life that still need to be addressed.
“Greek life is not something that necessarily deserves its entirely villainous reputation, but there are definite problems in the system,” Shannon said. “Thankfully, they’re not super terrible on TCNJ’s campus, but there’s always room for improvement.”
The improvement, as Conner suggests, would be for all of his students to truly understand what it means to be a good person to their peers as well as to their community.
“At the end of the day, you have to do the right thing. So many groups will say ‘but we do all of this service,’” Conner said. “I constantly try to explain to my students that it’s not a scale. Good is good and bad is bad. Things don’t always cancel each other out. This isn’t a balance sheet in accounting, this is real life.
“Understand that when you join one of these groups, you get a lot of attention. You are targeting yourself. You wear fraternity or sorority letters, you stand out now in the crowd … you need to make sure that your actions not only reflect you and your personal integrity, but they reflect your organization, because you always act for both from here on out.”