Rationale for Recommendation
The recommendation of the Task Force to eliminate Greek life is a unanimous one, but it is a difficult one as well. (Not least because 5 of the 8 Task Force members are Greek alumni, three of them at Alfred.) When we began our work we felt there were three possible recommendations we could make: 1) leave Greek life alone, 2) dramatically reform Greek life, or 3) eliminate Greek life. As we began reviewing reports and documents, however, it became abundantly clear that the first alternative was not viable. Further along in our research we concluded that the second alternative would not work either, largely because Greeks are consistently and increasingly in violation of University policies and because so many previous attempts at reform have failed. The only viable option is to eliminate Greek life.
1) To leave the Greek system alone would at this point be contrary to the Board and administration's proactive approach to student life, for two reasons. First, some of the houses seem to be in a severe form of denial about the drastic situation they are in. Recent (as well as past) University judicial decisions meting out various punishments are greeted with anger by some and accusations that the administration is trying to eliminate Greek life, rather than recognition that the sanctions are an effort to minimize detrimental if not illegal behavior and perhaps forestall any tragedies. Second, there is too much at stake in the demise of the Greek system to leave it to the vagaries of chance-physical assets like houses and issues like residential life, social activities, and community service must be addressed.
Greek life has a long and valuable history of contributions to Alfred, yet it is incontrovertible from a quantitative point of view that Greek life has been seriously troubled for some three decades. One need only look at the charts showing the precipitous membership decline in Greek organizations (Appendix D) and the minimal interest of incoming freshmen in joining (Appendices F and G) to recognize that based on this persistent trend the system appears to be doomed.
Not only is student interest declining, it is also unevenly distributed in terms of gender, ethnicity and college. Though women are 53% of the student body, only 7% of women are currently Greek. And that percentage will probably continue to decline: less than 1% of Fall 2001 freshman women expressed interest in joining a sorority. Students of color are now 10% of the student body, yet represent a small fraction of Greek membership. Furthermore, the University is committed to expanding international programs (as well as ethnic diversity), yet none of the currently enrolled international students has joined a fraternity or sorority. In addition, interest varies by academic program: students in engineering and business join at about a 22% rate, liberal arts and sciences at an 11% rate, and art student interest is near zero.
Many have argued that qualitatively Greek life is dying a slow death as well. Greeks consistently under-perform versus the all student GPA (Appendix H). Not only do grades drop precipitously during pledging, but also members continue to perform below average throughout their undergraduate years.
Conversely, they far exceed the all-student average for both casual and binge drinking, as measured in the 2001 Core Institute survey (Appendix I). (Although the numbers responding in each sub-group graphed are small, the results are telling.) While excessive campus drinking is a national problem, AU Greeks drink more and more often than their AU peers. Furthermore, in the 1997 Core Institute survey, over 90% of students saw "Drinking as central in the social life of fraternities and sororities." (It is important to note that, by contrast, the average student drinks in moderation: 27% of Alfred's underage students did not drink alcohol at all and 51% of all Alfred students sampled had consumed alcohol only twice or less in a month.)
Of greatest concern, alcohol is involved in nearly all incidents of violence, injury, rape, and death across university campuses in the U.S. In the words of one person we interviewed, Greek houses are incubators for this type of excessive behavior. Thus, the decline in Greek life at Alfred over the last decade or so is an issue that simply cannot be left to take its own course.
2) A strong case can be made for recommending a dramatic reform of the system. A number of the institutions that we studied have done just that, including Middlebury, Hamilton, Union, and Bucknell (as described in Section I). These institutions, with both a longer history and a much larger past and current Greek membership than Alfred, are seeking to maintain that tradition despite the numerous cultural changes that have dramatically altered the collegiate landscape (as reviewed in the previous section and as documented in the spring issue of "Alfred Magazine.") Virtually all the schools we reviewed became concerned with their Greek houses in the early 70's. And all but one or two look at their Greek systems as part of a larger issue-student life, or more specifically residential life, at small schools in (for the most part) small rural towns.
Regardless of whether or not those traditions can be successfully retooled for these times, there are good philosophical arguments for recommending reform of the Greek system. Shouldn't students be permitted to decide for themselves which organizations to participate in and which to avoid? Why should all houses be punished for the mistakes of one or two? Why should one house be punished for the mistakes of a single member or two?
Just as the original ideals of fraternal living are a far cry from the reality of much contemporary Greek life, so too the philosophical right to choose is compromised by the reality that we discovered at Alfred. Some students who freely choose to pledge a Greek house and then freely choose to de-pledge for whatever reasons are harassed and intimidated to the point of transferring out of the University. We were astonished to learn that students may even have to be moved-relocated to safer, undisclosed accommodations-for fear of harm. This was one of the most shocking and abhorrent findings we made during our review of Greek life. One can only imagine the psychological and emotional harm when "sisters" and "brothers" turn against each other; it is especially appalling at an institution that prides itself on a safe and nurturing environment.
It may also seem unfair to punish all houses for the violations of a few. But in looking back at the history of Greek violations over the last three decades, it is clear that almost every house has had its share of serious violations, including hazing abuses, alcohol overdoses, fights, intimidation, and repeated hospitalizations. To be sure some violations are far more serious than others and some houses are far more trouble-prone than others, but the lack of continuity in Greek life leadership inherent in the natural turnover as students leave makes it extremely difficult to maintain high standards over any period of time. It also makes it extremely difficult for students who spend only 4-5 years on campus to realize they are part of a larger historical pattern extending over decades. Small groups of students have periodically made genuine efforts to reform from within but over and over those efforts have not been sustained. Houses that are "strong" one year find themselves in deep trouble two or three years later, and vice-versa. Some seem to be perpetually in trouble.
As for the fairness of judging a whole house by the actions of one or two of its members, the evidence indicates that these transgressions are not isolated incidents. Rather, they are repeated behaviors perpetuated by what several emails and letters referred to as a herd mentality among a social group whose members choose to affiliate with each other and to set themselves apart. This pervasive atmosphere, evidenced in the University's judicial actions, is inconsistent with the mission of the University. Moreover, the lack of responsibility and sense of denial among many Greeks indicate a lack of willingness to institute dramatic, sustainable change for the better.
The Task Force concluded that the philosophical arguments for reform of the Greek system were not convincing, so we looked to the actual experiences of past and current students for reasons to maintain a reformed Greek system. Of the 248 emails and letters we received, only 62 (or 25%) were from alumni, 67% of whom defended Greek life and 33% of whom criticized it. Likewise, the 135 current students who responded (or 54% of the total responses) were about 2/3rd in favor and 1/3rd against the Greek system.
Over and over again we heard from those who favor the system about the virtues of Greek life in terms of bonding, friendship, leadership opportunities, community service and other benefits. Many went so far as to say that their Greek experience was the most important and valuable part of their years at Alfred.
But every one of these virtues seemed to have a corresponding vice on the other side of the coin (Appendix J). Where some experienced familial bonds, others wrote about the mob-like culture. Where some praised the opportunity to meet and live with people from different graduating classes and colleges (not to mention alumni), others condemned the elitist and exclusionary nature of Greek houses. Where some wrote about the opportunity to learn leadership, responsibility and teamwork, others noted how hazing dehumanizes people and bonds of brotherhood lead to mob behavior. Where some praised the focus on academics, others claimed houses had libraries of tests and papers for current members to cheat with.
Some argued in defense of Greek life that there are parties off-campus where underage drinking takes place or illegal drugs are consumed or women are assaulted: why is the University singling out Greeks? The most obvious answer is that the Greek organizations are officially affiliated with the University whereas spontaneous off-campus parties and downtown bars are not. The Greek system is, after all, a system with a distinct identity within Alfred University. That recognition invokes certain responsibilities from both the organizations involved and those who belong to them.
Of course, athletic teams are affiliated with the University too, and allegations have been made that they also engage in initiation rites and excessive drinking. An unfortunate case of this type occurred in September 1998 when freshmen on the football team were forced to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and two required hospitalization. 46% of the members of that team were Greek and the parallels are very clear: initiation rites, hazing, and excessive alcohol consumption certainly can be common to both teams and fraternities.
Those football players responsible were dealt with swiftly and decisively, the team forfeited the first game of the year because of the actions of a few members, and the University created a Presidential Commission on Athletics. It was charged with initiating a full review of the University's athletic program and delivering "recommendations how best to prevent hazing and alcohol abuse."
Among other things, the Commission recommended better integrating varsity athletes into the fabric of student life, creating alternative forms of bonding experiences, and assigning more responsibility to the leaders. From the Athletic Director and coaches down to team captains, specific guidelines were established.
Clearly, there was no double standard here in how the football team was treated versus how Greek houses are treated, notwithstanding claims to the contrary. What is different is that the student athletes have accountability to the University, something lacking at the Greek houses. Not surprisingly, then, hazing and alcohol violations among varsity athletes have been reduced while the numerous previous efforts to reform Greek behavior unsupported by regular and consistent outside supervision have failed.
Just as clearly, there has been no campaign by the administration or the board to eliminate the Greek system. As the previous discussion makes clear, just the opposite is true: over and over again the administration established guidelines and offered financial assistance to strengthen the system. Many chapters and their more recent graduates resisted these as a subtle attempt to gain greater control over the system (precisely what most colleges have found it necessary to do) or dismissed them as too little too late.
Moreover, the administration, with Board approval, has allocated financial resources ranging from construction of fraternity row, guaranteeing loans for new houses, and absorbing infrastructure costs for a new house approved just last May (and still under construction), to lending money for capital improvements at houses and giving sophomore releases from the dorms.
Conversely, and most tellingly, Greek students overall are providing less financial support than in decades past. As we asked the Greek presidents at our meeting with them, "If your members love their respective houses so much, why don't they live in them?" Most alumni would be surprised to learn, as the Task Force was, that many houses are barely half full, depriving them of badly needed revenue for both operations and capital improvements. Sophomore releases are needed so desperately because only a fraction of Greek juniors and seniors are willing to live in their own houses. Some students report that upperclassmen are unwilling to live in the houses because they want quieter surroundings or their parents have prohibited them from living there because of the houses' generally poor condition. Whatever the explanation, as of Spring 2002, 7 of 10 houses had 10 or fewer residents.
While Greek alumni have been long and consistent donors to the University, in contrast they are not supplying much financial support to their houses. This is consistent with the giving patterns at the other colleges and universities we studied. In addition, the experiences at other universities and Alfred's own experience suggest that committed alumni will in general support their alma maters when they are forced to make difficult, but reasonable and thoughtful, changes to their student life policies or academic programs.
Perhaps even more surprising, there was very little interest in the fate of the Greek system expressed during the Annual Phon-a-thon. Of the 2,500 alumni among the 3,090 calls made, only 57 (2.3%) asked about the Task Force. 32 were neutral toward the Greek system, 14 were against it, and 11 were in favor of it. And although alumni were encouraged to send their thoughts and opinions to the Task Force (and each letter or email was read by the Task Force members), only 62 alumni chose to do so.
Just as financial support from Greek alumni for their houses is minimal, so too there is little involvement in governance: few chapters have very active alumni advisors or housing boards. Perhaps it is partially because Alfred has an unusually high percentage of locals with no national organization to provide guidelines and/or training. While those houses with national affiliation are somewhat better off in this regard, even here the record is mixed; both Lambda Chi and ZBT have been shut down by their nationals.
3) In the end the Task Force believed it had no choice but to eliminate Greek life. Given the downward trajectory of Greek life in terms of hazing and alcohol abuse violations-50% of the houses are currently under some kind of probation, suspension, or revocation-and the precipitous decline in membership to only 10% of the student body, the Task Force feels very confident that it is making the correct recommendation to the Board. The University's interest in the health and safety of its students-and in creating the best learning/living environment possible-outweighs the interests of any individual or student organization.
It is understandable that most people reading this report-whether students, alumni, administrators, staff or townspeople-have not had the opportunity afforded the Task Force to look at the bigger picture of Greek life at Alfred and in the Northeast over an extended period of time. Students and alumni, for instance, measure their experience at Alfred in 4 to 5 year snapshots of life on campus. The Task Force very deliberately undertook a thirty-year examination of Alfred's experiences and national trends; it is clear what that bigger picture dictates.
On occasion a university finds that it must regretfully eliminate an academic program that is no longer attractive to a sufficient number of students to justify the resources required. Alfred has faced such decisions in the past. This is a similar situation and the Task Force gave this review at least as much consideration and care as the University would to review the future of an academic program.
The Task Force concluded that, viewed over the last three decades, the Greek system has:
- Failed to respond as the University itself and the University's mission have evolved
- Declined dramatically in numbers
- Diverged from the University's enrollment goals for gender and ethnicity
- Lost organizational vitality
- Allowed deterioration of its facilities
- Continued to permit (if not encourage) risky-even dangerous-behavior, and
- Failed to respond to numerous attempts at reform and support
In summary, the Greek system has suffered a precipitous decline in membership, numerous failed efforts at reform, an increase in serious violations, and the suspension of local chapters by national organizations. Overall, the Greek system is in a prolonged decline that is draining too much time, energy, and resources from the rest of the University. The Task Force easily concluded that it is inappropriate to direct even more resources to a system with declining student interest that is legally independent, lacking any adult presence, bound by secrecy, and free of any real University control.
The most difficult element in all this is eliminating those chapters that have maintained high standards and original ideals, as well as others that have recognized the plight of their system and initiated reforms. Unfortunately they are a minority. We regret very much that some fine Greek chapters will be penalized, while the same fate will befall a few that seem already to have grasped the gravity of the problem and undertaken reforms. (Perhaps a few of these chapters could be converted into or merged with service organizations.) It remains the responsibility of the Task Force to focus on what is best for the University as a whole.
The Task Force wants to emphasize that its recommendation is directed to a system of extra-curricular student life that has lost general student interest, become dysfunctional, and demonstrably enabled destructive behavior that its members would not contemplate undertaking individually. In no way is this recommendation directed against individual students.
The more we studied other campuses and the more we deliberated, the Task Force became increasingly enthusiastic about the Transformative possibilities inherent in such a major change in campus life. Many of the other colleges and universities we reviewed achieved a more cohesive campus and an improved intellectual climate, which in turn attracted better students and faculty. Indeed, our own Director of Admissions reported to us that most high school students applying to AU express little or no interest in Greek life, and only 4% of the 2001 freshman class indicated they intended to participate in it. Most parents, he went on to say, regard any Greek system as a negative and are relieved to hear how small the Greek population is at Alfred.
The Task Force also recognizes that, early in the tenure of a new president who is boldly exploring what it means to have an "Alfred University education," restructuring students' residential and social life represents a golden opportunity to advance the University's mission. The changes we foresee are replete with possibilities one administrator called the most exciting in three decades. This recommendation affords Alfred University an opportunity to reclaim its commitment to being a safe, caring place while simultaneously reinforcing its academic mission. The strengths of a Greek system can be preserved, its weaknesses eliminated, and the resulting opportunity realized.