Social fraternities and sororities were first established at Alfred University about the time of World War I, nearly 85 years ago. This was significantly later than their origins in 1832 at Union College, in 1845 at Colby, and in the 1850's on many other campuses, because Alfred's founding fathers and mothers were firmly opposed to secret societies.
Nonetheless, Greek membership went on to prosper at Alfred and peaked in the early 1930s, when about 50% of the students had Greek affiliation. The bonds of close, durable friendship and opportunities for leadership, as well as the social life and semi-independent living, were very meaningful to generations of Alfred students. Their importance in the history of the University is exemplified by the high percentage of Alfred Trustees (23 of 28-or 82%--of the alumni trustees) and other distinguished alumni/alumnae who joined a fraternity or sorority, valued the experience, and now cherish both friendships and memories.
Since the 1970s, however, Greek membership has undergone a prolonged, persistent decline (Appendix D) from 40-45% of the students to the current level of 10% (14% of men, 7% of women). In their prime some Greek houses had as many as 50 or 60 members-one had nearly 100. But as of Fall 2001 every house had fewer than 25 active members, and 8 of 12 had fewer than 20 (Appendix E). In absolute terms house occupancy is well below historical levels, and in relative terms most houses are less than 50% occupied.
The decline in the number of students both joining and living in Greek houses is not unique to Alfred. According to an annual national survey (CIRP) and reports the Task Force reviewed from 20 small colleges and universities in rural locations throughout the Northeast, student interest in fraternity and sorority membership has fallen everywhere and recruiting new members has become more and more difficult (Appendix F). In the Fall of 2001 only 9% of incoming freshmen nationally expressed interest in social fraternities or sororities; at Alfred less than half that (only 4%) recorded interest (Appendices F and G).
These severe declines began in the early 70s during a period of major social and cultural changes in this country, including:
- Greatly increased ethnic diversity in the student body
- Greater numbers of women attending college
- Greater support for individual rights
- Rejection of authority
- Increases in the divorce rate and new strains on family life
- Uncertainty in the face of changing values, and
- Increasing numbers of college students with disabilities, psychological vulnerabilities, and prior drug or alcohol abuse
Amid this swirl of change, Greek life experienced significant declines in membership. As a result, in recent decades campuses throughout the Northeast began to reassess the role of fraternities and sororities. Many colleges found their Greek systems were experiencing similar problems, among them:
- Significant membership declines
- Membership unrepresentative of the evolving ethnic and gender mix of students
- Minimal faculty involvement
- Difficulty in recruiting advisors
- Practices inconsistent with the academic mission
- Juniors and seniors opting not to live in their chapter houses
- Poor house maintenance and deteriorating infrastructure
- Mostly disengaged alumni, and
- Weak financial conditions
Campuses also uniformly suffered continuing abuses and violations of alcohol laws and hazing policies by Greek houses. Because social fraternal groups are founded on secrecy, with rituals and initiations intrinsic to defining and solidifying each group, attempts by administrators to curtail these abuses were consistently thwarted by peer pressure to deny any violations.
While Alfred faced all these problems, it also suffered below average academic performance by most Greeks members (Appendix H) relative to the general student population, and relative to that predicted by their SAT scores and high school class rank.
Some colleges found that upon becoming coeducational their Greek groups were not willing to share power and responsibility with the incoming female students. Other campuses faced protests from students because housing options and social spaces were inequitably distributed across the student body: social spaces and prime off-campus residences were most often located in fraternity houses, which were neither managed by the college nor available to other student organizations.
Changes in federal and state laws impacted Greek life during this period too when drinking for most college students and hazing became illegal. The drinking age was raised from 18 to 19 in 1982, then to 21 in 1985. This, of course, had an enormous impact on campus social life, burdening colleges with the role of policing under-age drinking in addition to teaching moderation with alcohol. College administrations also had to police hazing, which became illegal in New York and some 41 other states. (The driving force in this effort was Eileen Stevens, who turned the tragedy of her son Chuck Stenzel's' death in 1978 at Alfred-during a tapping night hazing/drinking ritual-into a national campaign against hazing.)
During these troubling times for fraternities and sororities, the Alfred administration tried to help the Greek system in a variety of ways. It encouraged the founding of several new chapters of nationals. Alpha Kappa Alpha opened in 1988 but eventually closed, as did Kappa Alpha Psi (1989). Sigma Alpha Mu (1989), Kappa Sigma (1992) and Delta Zeta (1994) succeeded in staying open.
All of this happened under former President Coll, who campaigned tirelessly for a Greek Row on University property. He hoped to create safe, modern, clustered housing for the Greek community on campus. However, active Greeks and Greek alumni failed to support the concept, and despite extensive efforts and planning the project never got off the ground. (Only one house, currently under construction with significant University financial support, has taken advantage of the program, while another was built in the 1970s with University support.)
Despite these and other efforts by the Alfred administration, during the 1990s the problems continued and the violations escalated. As a result, some of the national fraternal organizations with Alfred chapters rated them "very risky," and two of the nationals revoked charters: Lambda Chi Alpha in 1992 (re-colonized in 2001), and ZBT in 1989 (re-colonized in 1990, and suspended in 2002). These assessments and revocations from national organizations indicated genuine concerns in the external Greek community, as well as in the University. Clearly, these were shared concerns. (For these reasons, the University undertook even more reform efforts, detailed later.) Given this track record, it is no surprise that more recent attempts by the administration to attract new chapters have met with reluctance from national organizations.
All the colleges surveyed recognized that a familiar social structure established decades earlier-in which colleges essentially delegated responsibility for most off-campus residential and social life to fraternities-was no longer capable of serving all, or even most, students. In a very real sense, Greek life had not kept up with the changing times. One college even found that its national ranking was slipping because it had a reputation as a fraternity/party school.
Each campus responded in its own way consistent with its values, structure, and history. Nearly all the 20 colleges and universities we surveyed undertook significant, broad-ranging reviews of their Greek systems, often led by a Trustee task force. Each wrestled with issues like educational mission, safety, equity in student life, and declining interest in Greek houses. To create fairness and diversity in housing and social life, some sought to re-integrate Greek life into their academic mission while others eliminated Greek life altogether (Appendix B).
Some schools-Williams, Ithaca, Colby, Amherst, Franklin & Marshall, and Bowdoin-abolished social fraternities, concluding that they had become incompatible with the college's academic mission. They reconfigured their residential and social life, reinforcing the academic focus and making social space available to everyone. This was accomplished by converting Greek houses into "house," "commons," or "program house" communities, giving all students the opportunity to forge bonds of friendship through shared living experiences and some measure of self-governance.
Rather than eliminating Greek life, other schools undertook major reforms such as requiring affiliation with a national organization, moving rush to sophomore year, prohibiting sophomores from living in Greek houses, establishing four-year residency requirements, and acquiring Greek houses for conversion to special interest houses (while moving the Greek students into dorms). More specifically:
- Hamilton eliminated all fraternity houses while retaining "social groups" which live in general student housing.
- Union is integrating its fraternity houses into general housing with assignments at the college's discretion, and requiring Greek organizations to fill their houses to at least 80% occupancy.
- Bucknell has recently purchased nearly all its fraternity houses and now runs them like other residence halls.
- Hobart leases the houses from their housing corporations, provides maintenance and regular security tours. In addition, Hobart bills the rooms at the regular Hobart room rate at 95% occupancy (even if fewer students are living there).
- Lawrence has eliminated fraternity houses and is turning them into "program houses": all student groups may apply for this housing on an annual basis.
Alfred has suffered problems with its Greek system similar to these other schools, including a three-decade decline in membership from 40-45% of the students to about 10%. Contrary to an often-heard complaint from the Greeks, the Task Force found that during this decline the University took numerous steps to reform and otherwise support and strengthen Greek life (some of which were noted above). In the 1970s and 1980s the Dean of Students/Vice President for Student Affairs served as Greek adviser, and met regularly with the Inter-Greek Council and individual house officers to discuss standards and expectations. A minimum GPA standard for pledging was established and rush was moved to second semester of the freshman year, in line with trends of the time. Consultants were brought in to assess the system and in the early 1990s a new position-Assistant Dean of Students for Greek Affairs-was created even as membership took yet another precipitous decline from about 40% to about 20-25% of the student body.
The Assistant Dean worked with the students on leadership development, standards, and expectations. Students were sent to leadership conferences and offered leadership workshops on campus. A Greek Life Project (1992) was initiated to strengthen the system, followed by Greek Life Benchmarks (1994, revised 1996). More recently, a Greek Life Relational Statement was created (1999), as was a Greek Life Code of Pride (1999, replacing the 1996 Benchmarks) with cash rewards for excellence. None of these efforts solved the problems in the Greek system, but all demonstrated an administration committed to helping in many different ways.
The University also offered financial assistance, establishing a $25,000 loan fund to help houses with renovations and guaranteeing bank loans. And for decades the administration has been subsidizing Greek houses by releasing sophomores from the residency requirement and thereby shifting revenue from the University to the Greek organizations.
Despite these various efforts by the University, membership continued to decline while alcohol and hazing violations increased. A recent survey conducted by a national organization found higher levels of heavy drinking and illegal drug use among Greek members at Alfred than non-members.
Hazing continues to be a problem as well. Some initiates, unhappy with their decision, de-pledge and find themselves harassed and intimidated; ultimately some even have transferred to another university. As a result of hazing and alcohol violations, the University has revoked recognition of one fraternity, and imposed various forms of suspension on three other fraternities and two sororities. Currently 50% of the houses are subject to sanctions.