Siblings, Not Brothers or Sisters

November 30, 2012

If women live in a fraternity, is it still a fraternity? Can a sorority house men?

Most people would probably say no. At least, not by today’s standards.

But officials at Trinity College in Connecticut aren’t thinking about today’s standards. They’re thinking about the standards of 2023. That’s why they’re requiring Greek life to go coed.

It’s part of a strategic plan to improve the sense of community and image of the college, where students tend to run in cliques, retention rates have declined slightly, and social culture has grown out of proportion to academic life, said Frederick Alford, dean of students. At the outset of the planning, the president asked officials to ponder what they wanted Trinity to look like in 2023, the year of its bicentennial.

Over the past year, a committee of trustees, administrators, faculty and students have studied Trinity’s culture through interviews and data-gathering. While some of their recommendations will affect all students – for instance, the college will start placing all incoming students into cohorts in one of six residential “houses,” where they will engage in various living/learning activities and be mentored through their second year by a dean and faculty member – the makeover of Greek life is clearly causing the biggest stir.

Greek students on campus are outraged, and alumni and family members have spoken out as well. (A Change.org petition has more than 4,000 signatures.)

Many opponents say that even if Trinity doesn’t explicitly intend to abolish the fraternities and sororities, that is in effect what the college is doing. That is because chapters that include members of the opposite sex are not recognized by the national Greek umbrella organizations.

“If we wanted to, however, we can become a ‘society’ of some sort that will be coed without any national ties, network, tradition, history or financial support,” said Amalia Nicholas, a Trinity senior who is active in Greek life. “So basically, another typical student club.”

Fraternities and sororities were of particular interest to the committee because that’s where members identified the highest incidence of drinking and lower grades, on average, than the rest of the student body. “They seemed to exercise a dominant position in setting the social tone on campus,” Alford said. In other words, they threw the parties – and students flocked to them.

Kiley Hagerty, a senior at Trinity and president of its Ivy Society sorority, says Greek life was left to pick up the slack once the college slashed funding for social events (funding it’s now reinstating), and now, they’re being vilified for it.

“We’re the only ones providing a social outlet,” she said. Hagerty doesn’t think going coed will make a difference in terms of the partying. “Let’s face it – we’re in college.”

Alford says he still wants fraternities and sororities to be able to throw parties, but he does expect that they’ll take a different shape with female and male students planning them together.

Another objective in the change is increasing access to Greek life. The committee also recognized the positive aspects of Greek life – the camaraderie and leadership-building – and wanted to allow everyone that opportunity, Alford said. So Trinity is also banning pledging, and opening the doors to anyone who wants to join – with some exceptions. New members must have a grade point average of at least 3.0 to join, and each fraternity and sorority must maintain a collective GPA of at least 3.2.

It’s been 25 years since a college tried to make Greek life go coed, and those attempts were met with varying success, said Peter Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. At those private Northeastern colleges, he said, the houses “supposedly” disbanded, but the organizations still exist underground. (Colby, Bowdoin and Amherst Colleges are among those that disbanded.)

A coed fraternity is “a different kind of student organization,” Smithhisler said. Linking excessive drinking to single-sex chapters, he said, is unfounded, and the fraternity members at Trinity will lose a significant part of the Greek experience with this change.

“There’s value in the learning and development that occurs within a traditional fraternity experience. Young men do find growth in character, diversity appreciation, leadership, service to others, community service, the value of philanthropy,” Smithhisler said. “Is it in the university’s purview to mandate what that experience is? Certainly, some would argue yes. But there are those on the Constitutional rights side that would say no.”

In a letter to the campus last month, Trinity President James F. Jones Jr. and Paul E. Raether, chairman of the Board of Trustees, assured everyone that the trustees’ vote to “reinvigorate” fraternities and sororities was “not one to abolish the Greek system.” That vote cleared the path for the college to move forward with recommendations from a committee created a year prior. After reviewing the social climate at Trinity, that group concluded that changes to Greek life would help address the problem of alcohol and drug use on campus, which it said was far worse among fraternity and sorority members.

For Hagerty, the changes strike at the heart of what it means to be Greek.

“The very notion of a fraternity and sorority are sisterhood and brotherhood,” Hagerty said, adding that the national chapters will have their charter revoked once they go coed. “To have to allow men into our organization just completely changes that dynamic of female support, and the types of philanthropy that we do, and the seminars our members go to.” (Julie Johnson, college panhellenics committee chair at the National Panhellenic Conference, confirmed that NPC groups are chartered as single-sex organizations.)

For instance, Hagerty posed, will sorority members feel comfortable or safe talking out sensitive, intimate subjects like abortion and sex, body issues, or breast cancer when guys are around? Trinity says part of the reason it’s doing this is to improve campus safety, Hagerty notes, but having that support network in the house is how sorority members feel safe.

Experts who research Greek Life and alcohol consumption were intrigued by Trinity’s idea, but unsure what the results would be.

In his book Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power and Prestige, Alan D. DeSantis argues that fraternities and sororities are built upon hyper-aggressive gender roles. “One possible solution to this is that there would be an interesting balance between the feminine and the masculine in a lot of things that take place in this organization,” said DeSantis, who is also a communications professor at the University of Kentucky. “You’d be becoming much healthier in all the kind of social ills that are created in these houses.”

The coed strategy certainly has the potential to work, but it’s depending on a very large assumption, said Mark Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies alcohol consumption among young people.

Wood’s research has found that men are more likely to binge drink than are women – but also that students involved in fraternities and sororities, regardless of whether they’re members, will drink more than those who aren’t involved. Further, there’s a selection element in play: students who report heavy drinking in Greek houses drank alcohol before they even got to college.

“I think it could have a good effect,” Wood said, “but it wouldn’t have been the first thing I thought about if I had thought about how to address this problem.”

Fraternities will “absolutely” lose that positive – and possibly novel – brotherhood dynamic between members who were always taught to compete with each other and suddenly are collective rather than individual in focus. On the other hand, DeSantis said, plenty of research has shown that opposite-sex friendships have many positive effects for men, inspiring honesty and vulnerability that they’d never exhibit among male friends.

“The experiment could be a great success,” DeSantis said, “if the sexual tension doesn’t kill them first.”

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