'Inside Greek U.'

Ever wonder what goes on behind closed doors on Greek row? A communications professor provides such a look in Inside Greek U.: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power and Prestige, just published by the University of Kentucky Press. Alan D. DeSantis, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, is both a tough critic and defender of the Greek system.

October 25, 2007
 

Ever wonder what goes on behind closed doors on Greek row? A communications professor provides such a look in Inside Greek U.: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power and Prestige, just published by the University of Kentucky Press. Alan D. DeSantis, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, is both a tough critic and defender of the Greek system. While much in the book may embarrass fraternity and sorority members, and worry plenty of administrators, DeSantis is no abolitionist. He is a fraternity alumnus and dedicates the book "to my brothers."

Many of the expected topics are covered in the book -- hazing, drinking and so forth. But there is also considerable detail on gender roles, not all of which meet stereotypes. Fraternity members' concerns about body image (their own) is portrayed as extreme. The sisterhood of sorority life is portrayed as including enough cruelty to suggest that when the Mean Girls graduate from high school, they rush. Anyone labeled an ORT (for "operation remove tool") must be rejected from the sorority for being "fat, ugly, unattractive." However some sorority sisters like having one (and apparently it is important never to have more than one) DUFF (for "designated ugly fat friend") to make the other sorority sisters look more attractive.

DeSantis does not identify the university where he observed Greek life up close, but the characteristics he reveals sound like Kentucky, where he teaches. He responded to questions about his book, via e-mail:

Q: What can you say about Greek U.? It sounds like the university where you teach. Is it?

A: The use of the pseudonym was strategic for two reasons. First, it is one of many identifying markers (names, organizations, specific events, etc.) that was changed to help protect my subjects' anonymity. Second, and perhaps more important, the use of "Greek U." (GU) was used to encourage readers to think more generally about my findings and to contemplate the similarities and differences between my university and theirs. While some minor aspects of my book will be campus specific, I believe that the major motifs of masculinity and femininity embraced and re-produced by GU's fraternity and sorority members will resonate with many.

What I can tell you about Greek U. is that it is a large, American public university (25,000-30,000 students), with approximately 40 Greek organizations, sponsoring 3,000 active Greek members (around 13 percent of the full-time undergraduate population). The majority of undergraduate students on campus range in age from 18 to 25, have an incoming high school GPA of 3.1, an average ACT score of 25 or an average SAT score of 1,100, and are from a white, middle-class family. GU is geographically located in the northwestern section of the American Southeast and is a member of a major NCAA sports conference.

Q: Given your Greek background, what surprised you the most?

A: As an ethnographic researcher, I was pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming my Greek subjects were. Even when it came to answering the hard, uncomfortable questions, these young men and women were open and honest about themselves, their organizations, and the Greek system in general.

As a Greek alumnus, I was surprised how little these gendered organizations have changed since I pledged a quarter century ago. While much of the underage binge drinking and hazing has been forced underground in recent years, the fundamental elements that comprise our culture's ideas of masculinity and femininity have remained disturbingly stable.

With that said, however, I was also pleasantly surprised how some of the young men and women I spoke with viewed their culturally assigned gender roles with skepticism. While on the surface, they may have played the polite game of compliance, in thoughtful and safe conversations, these same students challenged the limiting and oppressive effects of traditional gender assignments on their lives. Contrary to what classical ideological scholars have said, not everyone is blindly duped by the patriarchy.

Finally, if pressed to point to specific Greek behaviors that most surprised me since my days of living in my fraternity house (1982-86), two initially come to mind. The first is how oral sex has been re-defined by both men and women to be something other (less intimate) than sex. Many females in my study, for example, claim to engage in oral sex but still consider themselves virgins. For the men, oral sex is an expected second step in the casual dating ritual that comes after kissing and before vaginal intercourse.

Second, I was amazed at how body conscious many of the young men in my study have become. In the most coveted and elite house, for example, the majority of brothers work out (primarily by lifting weights), take supplements, shave their body hair, and go to tanning beds. Chiseled, muscular, and well groomed bodies have become the norm. In an ironic twist of gender equality, men are quickly becoming as obsessed over their body shape and size as their female counterparts. The significant difference, however, is that he is getting bigger and she is getting smaller.

Q: You devote considerable attention to gender roles. Would Greek life be better in a coed system?

A: Ideally, I would like to see greater choices and options for all our students. In this respect, the idea of a coeducational Greek organization is an interesting option to ponder, albeit one that I have not seriously investigated yet. My hope would be that mixed gender organizations would celebrate the best of masculinity and femininity and empower members to challenge and expand their traditional behavior scripts.

When done right, however, I am also a believer in the power of same-sex Greek organizations in transforming boys and girls into responsible young adults. There are some meaningful life experiences that can only happen when college aged men and women are separated from each other.

Q: Given all the problems you note, why do you end the book with a call for reform instead of abolition?

A: Interestingly, this is a question that has caused some of the most intense, but thoughtful, debate. This question has been raised most often by non-Greeks who are only aware of the deleterious effects of Greek life on college campuses. From my perspective, the Greek experience has meant too much to me, and to thousands of others that I have known, to turn my back on it now. It introduced me to many of the most important people in my life, taught me how to be a loyal and selfless friend, and gave me the freedom, confidence, and safety to take big chances and make big mistakes. Consequently, instead of its eradication, I am championing measures that will move the Greek system closer toward the higher ideals envisioned by its founding fathers and mothers. Long before toga and tailgate parties ever became staples in Greek life, these visionary men and women wanted to form societies where members were encouraged to debate the merits of philosophical, literary, scientific, and artistic ideas, augment the formal in-class lessons of the day, improve the human condition through philanthropic work, and enjoy good food, drink, and conversation with kindred minds and souls.

While I am aware that turning back the clock to the 19th century is a foolish and impossible aspiration, I believe that it is a reasonable goal to re-craft the behavioral scripts of the Greek system so that there are greater gender possibilities for its members. With such a change, the Greek experience would no longer stifle students' potential, but expand the opportunities available to them.

If managed well, in fact, these organizations, with their protective cultures, have the potential of creating an even safer and more supportive climate for change than society in general. Within the borders of their houses, brothers and sisters could ideally challenge many of the conventions of the status quo without fear of ridicule or reprisal from a less enlightened and more dogmatic culture. While a bit corny, the film The Dead Poets Society comes to mind as a model of what an inspiring faculty member and a group of students who thirst for both friendship and enlightenment can create. Along with smoking cigarettes and chasing girls, the young protagonists of the film also found support and safety in their secret order to dream, debate, and think outside the restrictions of their repressive school and society. Balancing the social with the intellectual, these boys, through their fraternal experience, actually expanded their notions of what a man can do and be.

Q: What are the top things college administrators should be doing about their Greek systems?

A: At the risk of offending university administrators around the country, start doing your job! I believe that most of you who are involved with student life, especially at large public universities, are aware of what is happening on Greek row. The general strategy used in managing these organizations is often the all too familiar, "don't ask, don't tell" approach: As long as the Greeks do not draw attention to their activities, administrators look the other way. When a sorority or fraternity attracts parental, legal, or media attention, however, these same complacent administrators will publicly demonstrate their "tough on Greeks" persona to appease and impress critics. But such posturing at most universities only comes after the rare, well-publicized rape or death on campus.

If significant change is going to take place within these organizations, a far more proactive approach must be adopted by administrators. These are the only stakeholders, after all, that have the power to demand change and suspend or expel members and organizations for non-compliance. Regardless of how politically or financially imprudent it may be, they must make the hard choices and hold the Greek-student body accountable to the higher ideas of university life. For what it is worth, here are some of my thoughts:

  • The once-a-semester mass presentation and/or workshop on the evils of drinking or the ills of drug use is not enough. These "events," often used as public relations ploys or as safeguards against litigation, are viewed by Greeks as insincere and annoying. Regardless of what you may publicly claim at your beginning-of-the-year assemblies, your audience knows, as evident from your daily inactivity, that you are disinterested in their welfare.
  • Get out from behind your 9-to-5 desks and get to know the students that are in your charge. Appoint specific administrators to be responsible for maintaining close and constant ties with the Greek community. On most campuses, deans and directors of student life rarely make their presence felt. And when they do, their "visits" are often well publicized in advance. As I recommend to both concerned professors and alumni, you must "be there" -- regardless of whether it is a Friday night or a Saturday morning -- listening, learning, influencing, and shaping the lives of your students. While universities may have to hire a few new liaisons (with unique job descriptions) to begin to build bridges and establish open and honest lines of communication with the Greeks, the investment will surely pay dividends.
  • Evaluate and assess all Greek organizations, annually. Remaining on campus, with all the rights and privileges that go along with such affiliation, should no longer be an inalienable right; it should be a privilege that must be earned. As is practiced now, however, most organizations remain on campus as long as they avoid terrible wrongs, regardless of whether they have done anything exceedingly right. This precedence needs to be changed. If an organization is not living up to the higher ideals of university life, that organization's charter should be revoked. Maintaining mediocrity can no longer be rewarded. Set the bar higher and you will be amazed by how high our students will ascend.

I wish I had the magic-bullet suggestion that would solve the Greek problem, painlessly and effortlessly. Unfortunately, when attempting to transform something as hegemonically stubborn as gender, no such remedy exists. Masculinity and femininity have been slowly evolving over thousands of years, shaped (or misshaped) by power, environment, biology, superstition, law, war, imperialism, disease, religion, and MTV, and nothing short of a cataclysm is going to dramatically alter its glacier-paced movement.

Consequently, my suggestions focus on a form of grass-roots activism, where concerned stakeholders, working in tandem, begin to affect small, localized sites where toxic ideas of gender are normalized through repetitive and rewarded performances. To borrow an adage from the environmentalists, our only hope is to "think globally, act locally -- one person at a time." While we may not have the revolutionary power to alter universal ideas of equality and justice, we can begin to change the people who may eventually influence the course of such ideas.

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