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Contested Spaces and the Rise of Greek Life

News & Features | October 12, 2015

Alpha Gamma Delta is currently colonizing at Tufts.

When a sorority or fraternity establishes a new chapter the process is officially called “colonization.” Representatives from the national organization establish a “colony” at the chosen school and try to entice new members. When the new members are initiated the colony becomes a chapter.

“[Colonizing] is a word that is generally used in the industry of fraternity and sorority expansion, and is one that definitely needs to change,” said Su McGlone, Director of the Tufts Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. After her interview with the Tufts Observer, McGlone was inspired to bring the term up in meetings with Alpha Gamma, and they now, reportedly, intend to raise the issue at the National Panhellenic Conference. (We scheduled several interviews with Alpha Gamma but were unable to get any comment.) But Alpha Gamma is not the first sorority to colonize at Tufts—Kappa Alpha Theta did the same two years ago. And Greek life may be colonizing at Tufts in more than just name.

According to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, approximately 24 percent of Tufts’ undergraduate student population are currently members of a Greek life organization. Though there are conflicting numbers depending on the source, these numbers have swollen significantly over the past few years. In the fall of 2013, the official Tufts University website stated that 13 percent of the student body were members of Greek life. Su McGlone boasted on her Twitter that over the past two years Greek life at Tufts has increased in size by 6 percent. This is following a trend of increased Greek life involvement nationwide.

The increase in Greek life participation is perhaps an indicator that Tufts students are seeking supportive social spaces. “[Naked Quad Run] is gone, Fall Ball is changed, a lot of things that people have found sacred have been pulled back by the administration because of rowdy behavior,” explained Shawn Patterson, a member of Arts Haus, former resident of German House, and president of Sigma Phi Epsilon. “As these traditions have disappeared, and because Greek life is clear [and] because there is funding, people are seeing it as a social way to connect to campus and to other people, just as I did. Some people are inclined to do that, some are not.”

But Greek life’s growth means more than just higher statistics. There are stigmas, stereotypes, and trends that come along with Greek life. Some people think Greek life is inherently flawed; some feel it is the answer. An increase in numbers has broader implications for the social fabric of Tufts.

Greek life has been making headlines across the country—lately for sexual assault scandals, excessive drinking practices, deaths due to hazing, and marginalizing initiation practices. CNN spent weeks circulating stories about horrifically racist practices at Sigma Alpha Epsilon that are handed down from national Greek conferences. The Atlantic launched a year-long investigation into the dozens of lawsuits that are filed against fraternities every year. And students at schools like Emory have been coming out against sorority recruitment and rules that heavily focus on women’s appearances during the pledging process.

The Tufts Observer spoke to several students who had negative experiences with Greek life at Tufts, and their complaints were largely in line with these concerns. Several people called into question the history of Greek life as inherently classist, racist, misogynistic, and violent. According to the admissions office, only 38 percent of the current freshman class is receiving need-based financial aid. Students not on financial aid have more time and more money, both requirements of Greek life participation. Only 28 percent of the current freshman class are US citizens who are students of color. White students are often more comfortable and more welcome in these historically white organizations.

“When it came to race they weren’t the best at handling things,” said a senior who was previously part of a Greek life organization. “When I joined [I] was the only Asian person in the entire chapter. I think I could count the number of people of color on one hand. I think I did do that. I got uncomfortable at times. I think ultimately that led to [how] being a part of it was just not worth my time or money. Why put that into something that makes me uncomfortable?”

“I didn’t feel like binge drinking was the way for me to get close to people, so it just wasn’t the right fit for me,” explained another senior who dropped her Greek affiliation. “But I think…my biggest concern is addressing the rape culture of the frats because there is this thing of protecting the brothers first, not questioning the institutions, [and] not calling out your brothers no matter what they’re doing to girls in your house.”

But the stated mission of Greek life is to create spaces of brotherhood and sisterhood, to create supportive social spaces with a focus on philanthropy. We spoke to several Greek-affiliated Tufts students who thought that Greek life could still aspire to these goals, and could be different at Tufts from the reputation nationwide.

“I think it is necessary for a dialogue to happen between Greek life and the Tufts community,” explained Shawn Patterson. “We need members of Greek life to be aware of what they’re doing wrong, the problematic nature of Greek life, and to give respect to the wonderful diverse community of Tufts. In my organization, at least we are always trying to be cognizant of what we can do to make our space safer, while being aware that just stepping in the door of a fraternity can be unsafe for certain people.”

“Tufts Greek life is interesting in that it embodies a lot of the stereotypical aspects of Greek life, but at the same time, it’s entirely different from southern Greek systems,” explained a junior member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. “The recruitment process is much more low key and there is less cutthroat competition. Overall, the individuals I’ve met in the Greek community are amazing people and some of my closest friends. They are incredibly intelligent, dedicated to their respective philanthropies, and very hardworking students…Just because Greek life exists doesn’t mean it matches the stereotypes associated with Greek dominated schools.”

Patterson described the intensive sexual assault prevention training that is mandatory for every fraternity, the push towards diversity involvement and sensitivity, and the ways in which he is trying to make Sig Ep a more welcoming place: “I’ve tried to create social change in Greek life to make it a support network. All I want to do is see the members of my organization succeed in whatever their goals are. I hope we can give emotional support to the community, which is the best and most basic functioning nature of Greek life.” There is also a Multicultural Greek Council with historically Black and Latino fraternity and sorority chapters to create spaces for students excluded from traditional Greek life. These chapters are made up of students from schools all over Boston and participation in these chapters is also growing.

But even those that are involved with and supportive of Greek life are unsure about the decision to bring more chapters to campus. Several affiliated students expressed concerns about Greek life taking over the social scene. One Alpha Phi member explained, “I am nervous about the expansion of sorority life on Tufts campus because it won’t decrease the amount of girls in each sorority…I liked Tufts specifically because Greek life wasn’t a huge part of [campus] life, and joining a sorority felt like a choice I made independently. I discovered like-minded women in APhi. The kinds of people who come to Tufts, regardless of whether they rush or not, are not looking for an overly Greek school. This will literally change who applies to Tufts.”

Those who are in Greek life also complain that bringing more organizations to campus is sending a conflicting message. One member of Kappa Alpha Theta stated, “I think the Tufts administration is confused about how they want to market us. They are unbelievably harsh on Greek life because it is the easiest organization to pick on. I have been at other parties thrown by non-Greek organizations, and the things I witnessed there were far worse than Greek life parties. Not to say that frats at Tufts don’t have some problematic behavior, but it is hypocritical for the university to shun frat life and simultaneously expand it.”

The decision to bring new Greek life to campus was made by a committee of 11 students in 2012. Members of the Panhellenic Council—11 sorority-affiliated women—voted unanimously for the introduction of more sororities in order to address the influx of interested women. Su McGlone approved the decision, and the new sororities were then chosen through a process overseen by members of the Panhellenic Council and an extension committee composed of current members of Greek life.

“It’s a need-based thing,” explained McGlone. “The [existing sororities] were maybe a little bit larger than they wanted to be, physical space is hard to find, the interest in numbers had increased over the years, and they wanted to be able to provide more options and maybe make the organizations a little smaller.” McGlone communicated with the Dean of Students during the extension process but no administrative stamp of approval is needed. This process is similar to the one used when any other national group or club is brought to campus.

But there are many ways in which a Greek organization is not like any other group on campus—namely housing. Greek organizations seem to have unparalleled access to housing—they have more of it and are able to acquire it faster than other organizations on campus. Every Greek organization on campus, including the recently-introduced Kappa Alpha Theta, has a house. Some houses are owned by the university; some are owned by private developers. McGlone listed this access to housing as one of the reasons new sororities were added. Each chapter is only able to have one house, so to get more Greek housing, there need to be more chapters. “Of course a fraternity or sorority can be really successful without a house. But the hope would be eventually to have a house,” McGlone explained.

It is hard to ignore the line of big brick houses and their Greek letters that line Professors Row and wind down Packard Ave right in the center of campus. On most given weekend nights you can hang out on the corner and watch students hop from one house to another. Or you can join in. “I would say that Greek life has a bigger net influence on campus [than other organizations],” said Conor Ward, a senior who lived in Crafts House for a year and is a member of Sig Ep. “I think it has a lot to do with freshman year and the disproportionate influence Greek life has on freshmen. It takes a lot longer for the typical freshman to be aware of Crafts House or German House…[whereas] Pro Row—if you are wandering around as a freshman you can’t miss it…Freshmen are much more likely to hear about a party at Theta Chi than at the Rainbow House.”

This is not surprising, given the relative invisibility of special interest housing. The Rainbow House, a special interest house that focuses on queer issues, is currently located in a Hillsides suite. Rainbow House was founded in 1998, and has sought independent housing since then. “The Rainbow House is currently in the basement of Hillsides…[It’s] really small compared to other houses. It’s really hard to hold events that people are aware of,” said one member of Rainbow House.

“Crafts House has a big space and a yard to do all these events. We have a very tiny Hillsides living room [so] we can only invite so many people. We’re kind of tucked down there and ignored. It feels a lot more like being in another dorm setting, it doesn’t have that same unifying factor that separates you out.” Sam Kitchens, the house manager of Rainbow House also spoke to this: “As to why I think we don’t have [a house]?…The only reason I see is a financial barrier: without the money to advocate giving us a house, it has always been more financially feasible to give the house to a fraternity or sorority. Other language houses have been formed later than R-House and have gotten houses already, but I can’t say why.”

The Chinese Language House had been in dorms since 2004, continually seeking an independent space where they could host events such as dumpling nights. This fall they were finally given housing when Sigma Nu’s charter was suspended and the frat lost their Curtis Street house. But they share the space with Kappa Alpha Theta. Green House, the environmentally focused housing group, is also in a dorm suite.

There is no Su McGlone equivalent to advocate for special interest housing. Many groups have advisors but they work elsewhere at Tufts and have several other priorities. There is also nothing similar to a Panhellenic Council for special interest housing groups. Last year, several students worked to create a special interest housing committee with representatives from all the respective groups. Oona Taper is a senior who lives in Crafts House and was a part of these meetings: “I think the biggest issue people were talking about was how to create cohesive culture, which involves getting a house, and having students stay for more than one year. Not having a house limits the amount of culture you can create. There’s a history of people trying to start this community, losing their space, and having to start over.”

Another difference between Greek life and other campus clubs is the national component. When a new special interest housing group is created, it is brought to Tufts by Tufts students. New Greek life organizations are brought in by their colony, with traditions and lingo from the national chapters that are getting such bad press. Several frats on campus have even looked into disassociating from their national chapters because they feel their values don’t align. Pi Delta (formerly Alpha Epsilon Pi) and ATO (formerly Alpha Tau Omega) have already done so.

The Alpha Gamma Delta colony visited every single frat and sorority on campus as part of their recruiting. A Chi Omega member felt positively about this visit: “It was good. I think it’s hard when people from off-campus come to start a new chapter [at Tufts] because Greek life at Tufts is really different from [Greek life] anywhere else. Greek life at Tufts is, like, taken down 8,000 notches.…I think that they are coming to understand that as they’ve been here for longer. My impression is that sometimes the people sent from that national headquarters don’t always understand the specific instance that they’re coming to.”

Furthermore, there is perhaps financial incentive for Tufts to support Greek life in coming to campus and gaining housing. Greek life often does not only support those in privileged positions, but also it helps create them. 69 percent of US presidents since 1877 have been fraternity members. Greek life members litter the Forbes 500 list and elite positions across American society. This is perhaps partially because Greek life encourages leadership skills, and because of friendships and connections made. Additionally, studies show that members of Greek life are more likely to be generous in donations to their alma mater. It is perhaps just more financially effective for Tufts to support Greek life than other sorts of communities such as special interest housing.

So what does all of this mean for the future of Tufts? Perhaps Greek life will continue to grow. If so, Tufts will have to confront what Greek life means here—if it will be in line with national stereotypes, prioritized above other campus organizations, or a new kind of organization all together. “I think ideally there would be a lot of different types of community options,” commented Taper, “but if we have Greek life as the predominant one, people who don’t fit in [would] feel worse about the overall Tufts community. Or there are people who were not interested but join because everyone is, and then are not totally happy.…If any type of community takes over, then inherently people are left out.”