Fraternities, Sororities, and Other Problems I Don’t Understand

No, not the Urban Dictionary kind. The pledging-for-fraternities/sororities kind.

Pop quiz! What article topic is most likely to pop up somewhere in the Cornell University’s campus newspaper, The Daily Sun?

a. A witty review of one of the many guest lectures hosted at Cornell University
b. An inspiring story of an alumni or student who made a tremendous change to society or to Cornell University
c. A call for students to support a local cause or to take on a social initiative
     d. Something regarding the pros and cons of Greek life at Cornell University

The truth is that none of those topics on their own really could define all or the majority of the The Daily Sun’s regular articles, and any one of those topics could arguably be found in any given edition of The Daily Sun. Yes, I’m using disclaimers in my article and, yes, I am saying that there is variety in the Cornell Daily Sun just because I don’t want their writers coming after me in the dead of night.

However, most recently, I’ve found that several of The Daily Sun’s editions have featured at least one article that fits choice (d). Maybe it’s because of Cornell’s recent battles with regulating the Greek institutions on campus or maybe it’s because some of the unfortunate instances of hazing and discrimination in these organizations which have recently come to light–regardless, student writers have most definitely taken an interest in writing about the importance or dysfunctions in Cornell’s Greek system.

A Breakdown of Cornell’s Greek System

Cornell University has several different types of fraternities and sororities.

First, we have our social fraternities and sororities. These groups most resemble the stereotypical ideas students have of Greek life with their social gatherings, massive housing complexes, and demanding pledge processes.

Then we have career-focused fraternities and sororities, which have some of the same rituals as the social ones but focus more on networking events to prepare their members for careers in a specific industry. In this category is where I place pre-law fraternities, business fraternities, and the like. These institutions are also competitive, but students can still point to the organization’s many career-based functions as evidence that their membership is more of positive long-term career investment instead of just a social club. Trust me; that is much easier to sell to wary parents who view Greek life negatively.

The third category comprises of cultural fraternities, which are typically lesser known than the previous two types. However, they still maintain similarities to social and career-focused fraternities in that they have rituals for building camaraderie among members, a strict pledging process, and special events for their members. I personally have the least experience with this type of Greek organization, so I have a limited understanding as to what types of events these fraternities and sororities host and what values they prioritize.

Finally, we have alternative fraternities and sororities. From high-honors academic fraternities to community service fraternities, these organizations are the most different from the stereotypical image of Greek life with their open memberships, alcohol-free events, unique pledging requirements, and flexibility. I consider Alpha Phi Omega–the co-ed community service fraternity in which I participated for three semesters–a member of this final category.

What I Don’t Understand about Greek Life and Student Journalists

Given the considerable variety among these institutions, it’s difficult for me to seriously consider the arguments of student journalists who consolidate all of these organizations into one group. I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to have some opinion on general Greek life which is truly all-encompassing of the entire Cornell Greek system.

For example, critics of Cornell’s Greek system oftentimes point to arduous time-consuming pledge requirements and hazing violations as proof that fraternities and sororities are destructive to the Cornell community. Although I can’t speak for all fraternities and sororities, I know that Alpha Phi Omega had very flexible pledging requirements that were based on completing community service hours, attending organizational meetings, and other similar constructive activities. In addition, Alpha Phi Omega is “dry”–meaning that alcohol cannot be consumed at its events–and I never witnessed any cases of hazing during my time with the organization. These accusations may be true for some fraternities and sororities, but the assertions of such blanket statements are very antiquated given how the Greek system has evolved to include varying types of institutions with different priorities. I can understand a call for Cornell University to address the particular violations of specific fraternities and sororities, because I don’t actually condone anything that endangers the life or academics of a student. However, these stereotypical criticisms are not a valid argument against the Greek system as a whole and I’m very disenchanted with repeated claims that such characteristics justify a downsizing of Greek life and its presence at Cornell.

On the other hand, I am similarly disenchanted with rallying cries of Greek life supporters who paint Cornell University’s administrators as “the enemy” and who ascertain that fraternities and sororities are crucial to the college experience. Although individual fraternities and sororities do have their own perks, I don’t agree that being in any given one guarantees benefits which will outweigh the effort and commitment required to maintain membership.

Common benefits which are listed by supporters include a genuine comraderie between members and networking opportunities which cannot be found anywhere else to the same quality as those gained through fraternities. These claims are misleading. Yes, in joining a fraternity or sorority, you will meet people and alumni who will have an interest in you because you are a member of the same organization. However, not everyone becomes “like family.” There is no real guarantee that the rituals and experiences you undergo will make you feel close with your fellow Brothers. There must already exist some commonality between you and another Brother–a similar interest, moral code, or desire to make new friends–for the rituals to work effectively in creating a genuine bond.  Although I met many interesting people in my fraternity, I can admit that I also had no interest in becoming friends with some other Brothers because I truly disliked their personalities. As result,pretending to care for them as if they were my extended family was an unnatural and awkward experience.In short, the friction that naturally occurs between two people with conflicting personalities will not go away just because you both performed the same activity, and so claiming that such miracles can be guaranteed through an organization’s practice is misleading.

Furthermore, this friendship doesn’t have to be generated through a Greek organization. In addition to my friends from Alpha Phi Omega, I have met many other friends outside of the Greek system. Simply through discussions with classmates, participating in on-campus events or student organizations, chatting with coworkers, and introducing myself to residents living in my dorm, I met a plethora of people and personalities with whom I could develop friendships. Greek life may introduce you to many people very quickly, but it’s not necessary if you want to make new friends. Similarly, if you are interested in networking with alumni of Cornell University, there are plenty of programs on campus that will grant you that opportunity without the need for a commitment to a fraternity.

I worry sometimes when I hear supporters of Greek institutions repeatedly claim that fraternities and sororities are valuable because of the friendships they create and the networking they provide. Is there really no other benefit that these supporters can list? I would like to believe that the Greek institution wasn’t actually a waste of my time, but these individuals continue to portray our commitments to the public as if the only rewards we received were ones that we actually could have gotten anywhere else. It hurts their own cause by making the functions of these institutions much more shallow than they actually are–or than we, the members of these institutions, initially believed them to be–and I wish that they would cease their commentary until they have acquired something new to say about our organizations. Repetition will only drive the public’s focus further towards the wrong direction and cloud whatever true and unique benefits these institutions may actually have for Cornell University.

Sorry, I digress….

I realize in re-reading this article that my words may come off as mere ramblings. I want to establish to my audience that I do not necessarily view fraternities and sororities as either good or bad for the university. I’m still learning about their functions, and I encourage further discussion on the topic by student writers and participants in Cornell University’s administration and Greek organizations because such conversations may help people like me to finally develop an opinion of these groups. However, I foremost wanted to communicate to these debaters that people like me are also tired of their repeated arguments. Articles and debates on Greek life seem to be travelling in circles, reasserting the same pro- and con- arguments over and over again without pointing out the limitations of these arguments or expanding them into new realms. It would be refreshing for me to see an article that takes a new position on the issues or that proposes immediate acts which we the students can take to improve the problems we already know exist among specific fraternities and sororities on campus. Until then, I will continue to turn the page and pass over your articles, sighing in disappointment that once again stale arguments regarding Greek life has taken the place of another article that may have been more meaningful to me.