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Attempting to Understand Greek Life

I fear this post may come across a bit controversial to my fellow higher education colleagues.  But I come to the blogging universe with authentic curiosity and genuine concern when I say: I am trying to understand Greek Life on college campuses.
I will also self-disclose that I was not in a sorority while in college, which only leads me further into my need to understand both perspectives of this slice of campus life.  I was however a varsity athlete on the South Dakota State (inaugural) women’s soccer team, which sometimes felt just like a sorority without the financial dues.
For my qualitative research class, I was assigned to critique and discuss an article that looked at how the culture and power of fraternity life marginalizing women.  This article written by Robert A Rhoads in 1995 was titled Whales Tales, Dog Piles, and Beer Goggles.  The title of the journal alone got me intrigued.
It was an ethnographic case study, so the author immersed themselves into the fraternity, attending meetings, rituals and events in addition to doing in-depth interviews.  The result was three significant patterns the author observed:

  1. The promotion of hostile representations of women

  2. The positioning of women as passive participants

  3. Brothers tend to adopt a narrow conception of masculinity, which fosters oppression of both women and gay men.

These were not lighthearted accusations stating, “Fraternities, by excluding women or including them only under certain conditions, reflect patriarchal notions and ultimately promote the marginalization and even the victimization of women” (Rhoads, 1995, p. 321).

The author admits that after publishing the results, the members of the fraternity challenged the information, requesting the findings to be censored.  I too questioned the article.  Was it biased?  Was it limiting as it was only one fraternity at a large public university?  It was released in 1995 could almost twenty years change the landscape of Greek Life at college campuses?
What I do know about Greek Life is that it offers both life changing opportunities as well as significant challenges to both students and administrators.  There are some campuses that are wiping out Greek life completing because of the type of work Rhoads talked about.  While other as rapidly expanding because of student interest.
Working in Higher Education, I have to work at staying optimistic and positive about these organizations, as I have seen mostly the negative.  Things like damages to event spaces, decreases in student grades, financial struggles to pay dues, scheduling demands for constant social functions, alcohol judicial cases, etc.

But then I see the community they offer to their members, somewhere for students to identify with.  Gain leadership skills.  Give back through philanthropy.  Make life long relationships.  I remember my freshman year I yearned for these things.  So much so, when I wasn’t finding it, I considered transferring.  Transferring is a hot topic in higher education.  Public, private, or for profit we need to retain our students.  One major way that has been proven to keep students is by getting them involved.

This was true for me, as it was my second semester that I was recruited to play soccer, as well as being hired as an orientation leader.  From there I became your typical over-committed college student leader.  I spent the rest of my college days at my original institution and graduated a happy alumni.
What must be found is a balance.  If these organizations offer such an impactful environment that it is the sticking point for students to be engaged and retained, then yes they are necessity of campus life.  However, the shadow side of Greek life obviously exists.  The research and stories out there are startling.
I’d like to acknowledge all my colleagues that work daily within Greek Life, that grapple with the challenges while celebrating the collegiality of the organizations.  I am not sure I could be so bold to walk that thin line.  I am not anti Greeks, nor am I pro.  I am here, a doctoral student attempting to understand Greek Life.  I want to understand it because I care, I’m concerned and am genuinely curious.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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