Campus / Greek Task Force / News / November 13, 2008

Knox debates Greek life

The Greek Task Force has concluded its series of meetings with students, faculty, and administrators to evaluate the Greek system at Knox.

In March 2008, the Faculty Executive Committee asked that a task force be formed to evaluate Knox’s Greek system as the result of three new colonies forming at the same time. The group was officially formed and given its mandate on Oct. 1, and consists of seven members of the faculty and administration and two students.

In a letter the Task Force sent to TKS to provide background information for this story, Jennifer Templeton, associate professor of biology and chair of the Greek Task Force, said, “GTF’s main mission is to compile and present information to the faculty about the current Greek system at Knox in general, and about the process by which new colonies are formed in particular, that will allow the faculty to make an informed decision about the three new colonies.” She stressed that the group’s mission is not to bring an end to the Greek system or, indeed, to make any final decisions about it at all. The group was formed simply to compile a report to be presented to the faculty.

To inform the report, the GTF has taken a “three-pronged approach”:

“First, to collect qualitative information, we have solicited letters and have held over a dozen meetings with different groups and individuals who hold varied opinions about the Greek system and who have important points of view, including: each of the three new colonies, representatives of the Greek chapters, non-Greek students, Trustees, Alumni Council, non-Greek Alumni, and faculty who have concerns — both positive and negative — about the Greek system. Secondly, we are collecting more factual and quantitative information from Advancement, Admissions, Security, and Student Development. Thirdly, we are beginning to carry out some research that will allow us to compare Knox’s Greek system to those at other colleges and universities, and to compare Knox to colleges without Greeks. We are also interested in investigating new options for social life on campus,” Templeton wrote.

The purpose of separating the meetings by ideology was to allow concerned members of the Knox community to express themselves without argument. Objections to the Greek system followed two main lines: the simpler objections concerned the Greek system’s effect on the social life of the campus. The more complicated ones concerned its philosophical implications, such as whether the system promotes, as various speakers mentioned, “sexism,” “narcissism,” and “cultishness.” There were also concerns that two of the three locals which are currently on hold until the GTF report is produced and considered are geared towards minority students.

The GTF consists of Templeton, Professor of Economics Rich Stout, Professor of Psychology Frank McAndrew, Professor of English Natania Rosenfeld, Instructor of Music Nikki Malley, Dean of Students Xavier Romano, Associate Dean of Students Heather Poppy, Inter-Fraternity Council President senior Randy Geary, and senior Rachael Goodman-Williams.

Campus social life

Many members of the Knox community expressed concerns that the Greeks, fraternities in particular, dominate the Knox social scene in a way that allows students who want to party few alternatives. Goodman-Williams said that she would not have come to Knox if she’d had an accurate picture of the extent to which the Greek system dominates the social scene.

“When I first got here, there were a lot more suite parties, in the quads, parties like that. In the last three years, they have gotten entirely shut down by security,” she said.

Junior Marc Dreyfuss attended the meeting for students who are against the Greek system, though he had no objections to the system itself. He said that the current “social vacuum” at Knox is the fault of the school, not the Greeks themselves.

To solve this, attendees of several meetings suggested that Knox put together some sort of alcohol-friendly hangout space for the student body. Dreyfuss suggested that a sports bar be installed in Wallace Lounge, prompting Stout to ask whether it was possible to purchase “beer- and barf-proof carpeting.”

Although discussion of forming a Knox sanctioned bar or dance club drew some chuckles, it is an idea the GTF will seriously consider.

“I think we’re hearing loud and clear that there need to be alternative party venues, at least one, that’s regularly available,” said Rosenfeld.

“What do we provide for the students where young people can do something where they connect? Is the Greek system the only way students connect? I’m not just talking about organizations to save the world — places where you can get down and hook up and kiss people. That’s important,” said Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Magali Roy-Fequiere.

Slightly stickier is the issue of the sorts of parties the Greek system provides. With overtly sexual and arguably sexist themes like Hoedown, Red Light, Hot for Teacher, Pimps and Hoes, and Suits and Secretaries, some people expressed concerns that women attending these parties will feel pressured to dress and act in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

“Most of the time they choose themes, with the exception of maybe [Sigma Nu], they’re thinking of what sort of skanky outfits the girls will wear,” said Goodman-Williams. Senior Angelo Kozonis put forth the idea that these sorts of parties create and nurture a “rape culture.”

“The 1988 study group that did the same thing that [the GTF is] doing did this analysis that found that when girls go to a frat party they feel they’re on male turf,” Kozonis said. “It manifests in weird ways. I want to see if it’s still true in ‘08-‘09, but it really is a reoccurring theme.”

Defenders of the Greeks said that such feelings were not up to them to solve; if people are still widely attending these parties, clearly, the student body must not have much of a problem with them. Dreyfuss and Beta Theta Pi adviser Mary Crawford took a “libertarian” view of the problem, as Dreyfuss put it: though the party themes encourage women to dress a certain way, “nobody’s forcing them.”

Crawford also said that it is not the faculty’s business to tell the Greeks what sorts of parties they can and cannot have.

“It’s not the advisers’ call, we only advise,” Crawford said. “At the same time, I wonder why an organization like ABLE would have an auction of people for dates. I’m very offended by it.”

Crawford felt that this scrutiny of the Greek system is unfair, given that no similar task force has been formed to look at other social groups.

“Every criticism I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot, is also something that we could and maybe we should be asking about all the other organizations as well….there seems to be this air about it that these problems are rooted in sororities and fraternities, but they’re wider problems. It’s not being called a special investigation, but it sure looks like it to me.”

During the GTF’s meeting with Gentlemen of Quality, junior Maurice McDavid and one of the founders of GQ noted that parties can take many forms.

“Parties are an opportunity to work with ABLE, Lo Nuestro, International Club on a project, or just hold a party and kick it,” said McDavid.

“We held the Superbowl party last year,” said senior LaVar Merrell, GQ’s president. “It was a big hit. People from all over campus came to Post Lobby and ate and watched the game with us, and we got to share a little bit what we’re about. It’s doesn’t have to be all dancing and drinking.”

Some faculty felt great concern about the role of Greek organizations focusing on ethnic minorities when recruiting.

“I guess what we’re wondering here, is ten to fifteen years down the road, will ethnic men feel like they have any choice but GQ?” said McAndrew.

“We just wanted to create a fraternity with a specific mandate,” said Merrell. “We’re not uninviting. We’re actively recruiting people of all cultures. Knox always says it’s so multicultural in its advertising. Why don’t we have a fraternity celebrating that?”

“Do you think GQ would help the general campus become less divided on multiculturalism?” asked Malley. “Would people view it as segregated fraternities?”

“I don’t really see exclusivity like that as an issue on campus,” said senior Maurice McDavid. “At Knox you can’t really find an ‘animal house’ or a ‘stomp the yard.’ Being Greek is only a part of what defines me. Only part.”

Tom Clayton was upset that Women of Influence and Gentlemen of Quality, both multicultural groups, are two of the three locals in limbo.

“One of the things I’m proudest of in working here is that in the history of the place, to think we’d deliberate whether or not we should allow a particular minority to associate with whoever they want is offensive to me…they are unfortunate coincidences. They keep happening again and again.”

Konrad Hamilton, at a different Task Force meeting, disagreed with the notion of promoting racially segregated organizations.

“We have certain value systems at the college and this is one of them. If we don’t have the guts to stick to that, then screw it!” he said.

Ideological objections

More detractors of the Greek system’s ideological implications chose to attend the task force meetings than defenders. Faculty and students worried that the Greek system promotes sexism, exclusion for the sake of exclusion and a “scary, 1984” sort of adherence to ceremonial language and organization-enforced loyalty.

Robin Ragan sent a letter to the group which addressed the statistic that women who are members of sororities have a higher incidence of bulimia and anorexia. She said that the Greek system emphasizes and enforces gender binaries, and objects to double standards in the rules (fraternities have houses and sororities do not, etc.)

“I find it difficult to promote expansion of a system so blatantly sexist,” she wrote.

While talking with ATP, Rosenfeld mentioned the book “Steroids and Laxatives,” which discusses the tendency of fraternities to cause men to act like their testosterone is too high and sororities to cause eating disorders and competition for “good” looks. Stout brought up the point that some of the faculty were afraid of fraternities and sororities perpetuating gender stereotypes. Not just the “animal house” stereotype, but that of meek, demure women, or of encouraging eating disorders to “fit in.” ATP, on the other hand, could not believe what they were hearing.

“I don’t see us doing that,” said junior Erin Souza of ATP. “We might have a Mary Shelley tea party, but that doesn’t make us meek and demure.”

“Look at our academics, at our cumulative GPA over 3.4. That’s our laxative,” said senior Liz Soehngen, president of ATP. “That’s our competitiveness.”

Steve Fineberg said he had met with individuals who had not received a bid for the group they wanted to join and felt personally excluded.

“I think of these groups as secret societies and I think that’s incompatible with democratic education and society,” he said, pointing out that Greek students have a disproportionate influence on campus politics since they often vote for student senators in a bloc. While he did not express a desire to eliminate the Greek system entirely, he would like to see the groups adopt straightforward rules for selection to be distributed to possible applicants.

Some ATP members held a separate view, arguing for more variety as a possible solution.

“A few founding members of ATP went through informal recruitment,” said Soehngen. For one reason or another, they chose not to go with one of the options they were presented.

“There are more women on this campus than men, yet we get three options while they get five? Come on, our needs aren’t being met.”

Those in favor of the Greek system said that being Greek can teach leadership and promote one’s social mobility later in life.

“As an organization we can do so much more than as just a group of friends,” said senior Paige Barnum. “We can pair up with other organizations for philanthropy, and the resources are much greater. ATP introduces you to people outside your immediate major or living area that you might never have gotten to know. It expands the Knox network in a way that other organizations and the school as a whole doesn’t.”

However, Roy-Fequiere said that Knox as a whole should serve as a vehicle of advancement, not particular groups within the college.

“We’re supporting another old boy’s network, old girl’s network. It’s sad that Knox itself isn’t the vehicle of social mobility. I think that’s devastating,” she said.

Dreyfuss repeated the often-heard opinion that the Greek system at Knox is “different” from those at larger schools, since people who identify as “nerds” and “gamers” also pledge fraternities, not just the stereotypical big guys in baseball caps seen in National Lampoon movies. Some attendees said such a difference is superficial, since all Greek organizations must follow the rules of their national organizations. Goodman-Williams cited an incident where a transgendered person wanted to join a fraternity; the Knox chapter was fine with it, but the nationals would not allow it.

“I think it’s hypocritical to say that it’s different here when they all have to march to the drumbeat of the national organization,” said Professor of Classics Brenda Fineberg.

Advocates of the Greek system said that it provides another outlet for student social interaction. When Templeton asked how having a Greek system benefits all students, Lane Sunderland, professor of political science, said, “I think the good comes from having a diverse set of organizations that students can be active in and attracted to.” He added that each group has its own “constituency,” and nobody has asked the question of campus-wide benefit of non-Greek organizations.

However, the constituents of other groups are usually united by a central cause or interest.

Goodman-Williams asked, “What’s the uniting factor? What is it that’s supposed to make them loyal to each other above other people other than the fact that a national organization is telling them to be loyal to each other above other people?”

The Greek Task Force has begun work on its report. The report is due to the faculty by Jan 31, 2009.

Deana Rutherford

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