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Return of the Greeks

December 22, 2009

When Franklin & Marshall College trustees decided nearly five years ago to once again recognize fraternities and sororities on campus, they did something seldom contemplated in higher education.

Rare is the case when a college takes the political hit that inevitably follows from renouncing a Greek system, only to later officially restore it. But in the years that have passed since fraternities and sororities were officially re-recognized at Franklin & Marshall, student members say they’ve learned to live with a few more rules, and administrators argue that regulated parties and abbreviated pledgeship programs have reduced risks and improved grades.

The decision to re-recognize fraternities and sororities wasn’t without debate, but Franklin & Marshall decided it was the lesser of two evils.

“While it would certainly be the case that many members of the faculty object in principle to single gender organizations, pragmatically they felt it was better to engage our students and try to reform them than to basically engage in a cold war with our students,” said Kent Trachte, dean of the college in Lancaster, Pa.

When Franklin & Marshall stopped recognizing its Greek letter organizations in 1988, administrators assumed the national chapters would pull the groups’ charters and thereby wipe them from the campus. It came as a surprise, therefore, that the charters stayed in place, leaving the college with a Greek system intact and no regulatory authority to control it.

Police enforcement at parties was sporadic, there was no consistently understood standard for appropriate property conditions, and students' grades suffered without limits on parties and pledgeship periods, Trachte said.

While other colleges have avoided having unregulated organizations by explicitly forbidding students from forming the groups on campus, Franklin & Marshall declined to do so and therefore retained the groups without adequate enforcement mechanisms.

When fraternities and sororities recruit new members during rush next month, it will mark the continuation of academic reforms that Trachte says have proven effective. To regularly participate in spring rush, Greek organizations have to continually demonstrate that they can keep new members’ grades at acceptable levels. If any new member class fails to post a collective grade point average of 2.7, the organization can’t recruit freshmen the following spring rush cycle. That may not sound like a high bar for a college with Franklin & Marshall’s selectivity, but it’s an improvement from the de-regulated days, Trachte said.

“Nobody would have made it in the semester preceding (re-recognition),” he said.

While Trachte did not provide average GPA levels for the organizations, he did say that about one of the 10 chapters fails to meet the 2.7 requirement each year.

The college has also mandated that the pledgeship period, which proved the most perilous period for students’ grades, be reduced from 14 weeks to six weeks. While not every fraternity follows that rule to the letter, it’s certainly abided by in spirit, according to Tim Felice, who served as president of the Interfraternity Council last year.

Photo: Delta Sigma Phi

Delta Sigma Phi's "Holly Jolly Christmas" event provides toys to children at Milagro House, a local homeless shelter.

“There are ways we stretch around things, manipulate a little bit,” Felice conceded. “We’re not hitting exactly six weeks, but it’s not anywhere close to where it used to be.”

Additional reforms include limiting the number of parties the organizations can hold, and requiring licensed non-student bartenders to serve alcohol. There was even a period of several months last year, as faculty discussed the party reforms, that parties were banned altogether. While the changes weren't welcome by all, Felice said students have accepted them.

"We sat down and said we're not going to win this [debate over reforms]," he said. "We're better off trying to pick and choose our battles."

Gender Exclusivity Bothers Some

For the colleges that have eliminated fraternities and sororities, commonly cited concerns include the gender exclusivity of Greek organizations, as well as associated problems like hazing and alcohol abuse that contribute to declining academic performance.

Colby College disbanded its Greek system in 1984, and has no intention of restoring it, according to Jim Terhune, vice president of student affairs and dean of students there.

“I think there is some subset of alumni who was disaffected by the decision, and remains disaffected,” he said. “But there is absolutely no conversation whatsoever on campus or on the board about bringing them back. It’s a complete non-starter. It’s over.”

As a matter of stated policy, Colby forbids students from participating in or organizing Greek letter organizations on or off campus. Any student found violating the code faces a minimum one-year suspension or even expulsion. Terhune said he thinks there have been about three instances in the last couple of decades that led to suspensions.

“Simply put, single gender exclusive organizations are out of step with our values as an institution,” he said.

Franklin & Marshall students are now pushing for a co-ed fraternity on campus as well, hoping to give students more options.

Often citing the gender exclusivity of Greek letter groups, other colleges that have abolished them include Williams College, Amherst College, Middlebury College, Bowdoin College and Alfred University.

The pressures on colleges to re-institute fraternities and sororities can be substantial, according to Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College and author of numerous books on hazing. Colleges have an interest in keeping alumni and donors happy, and removing groups that have such a following has potential financial consequences, he said.

“It takes a lot of endurance -- once you’ve made that decision -- to follow through on it,” he said.

But colleges that abolish Greek groups can face additional problems, including the emergence of underground fraternities and sororities, Nuwer said.

“Having sub rosa or unregulated fraternities, that I can tell you has been dangerous,” said Nuwer, author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing.

Civic Service Emphasized

For all of the complaints about Greek organizations, the groups often pride themselves on civic engagement. Franklin & Marshall’s chapter of Delta Sigma Phi, for instance, has turned its “Holly Jolly Christmas” philanthropy into a well known and respected community event. With one fraternity member dressed as Santa Claus, the brothers gather to distribute toys to homeless children, many of whom come from families with a history of abuse.

Other chapters have similar events, responding to a challenge from administrators to increase the service participation that had fallen by the wayside during the de-recognition years.

For all of its improvements, the system isn’t without its problems. Delta Sigma Phi, the same group whose Christmas philanthropy draws praise, was removed from its house because it didn’t meet the more rigorous building code standards set by the college. Another fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau, was also removed from its house in response to multiple city fire and health code violations. But Richard Gray, mayor of Lancaster, says complaints about the groups are similar to what one could expect any time 18- to 22-year-olds live near single family homes.

“There has been an occasional problem, but certainly not endemic,” he said.

“If you’re going to have [Greek organizations],” Gray added, “you’re better off recognizing them rather than ignoring them or neglecting them.”

 

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