When the Greek community is considered “a welcoming community” by Margaret Burnett, ‘17, the president of Lehigh’s Panhellenic Council, and a “deeply, morally disturbing“ institution by Kyle Higgins, ‘18, it’s time to think about why these strikingly divergent attitudes coexist on campus.
Higgins, an outspoken critic of Greek culture, said he thinks fraternity and sorority members perceive Greek life to be an inclusive community because they were the ones “cool enough to get into the party.”
He didn’t understand the extent of the Greek community’s influence until he arrived on campus his first year. He said Greek life and the Hill were only mentioned in passing on his campus tours.
Higgins estimates there’s a period of about two weeks after arriving on campus when first-year students come to realize that the social scene is dominated almost entirely by Greek organizations.
“For guys, they see that they can’t hang out with a certain group of guys unless they bring enough of their female friends for them to try to sleep with,” Higgins said. “You couldn’t join these organizations by and large unless you are subjected to humiliations and beatings and sexual exploitation.”
Kyle Durics, ‘17, the president of the Interfraternity Council, said the exclusivity of fraternity and sorority membership is detrimental to the Greek institution. By his calculations, there are approximately 50 men in each IFC fraternity. Like most other Lehigh fraternities, his chapter only holds social and philanthropy events with three or four Panhellenic sororities. He figures that’s 400 women with whom he interacts on a semi-regular basis.
“That’s 450 people. Even if I round that number to 500, I’m only friends with 10 percent of my college and this is a small school,” Durics said. “You’ve got to look at yourself and realize you’re really limiting yourself by thinking you’re the coolest and being so exclusive.”
Durics isn’t alone in his frustration.
Select results from the 2015 Lehigh Campus Climate Survey, which asked students and faculty questions about the campus climate, were revealed to Greek presidents and executive officers of IFC, Panhel and the Multicultural Greek Council in September at the Great Pocono Escape.
Although those results have not been released to the rest of the university, Durics said he was most surprised by the high levels of disappointment that fraternity and sorority members had toward Greek life. Although he found this information upsetting, Durics said it’s refreshing to see the Greek community be self-critical.
“If you can’t look at yourself when you address a problem, the problem will never go away,” Durics said. “If we think we’re great but half the school doesn’t, what good is that?”
Mikayla Cleary-Hammarstedt, ‘18, thinks Greek life’s presence on campus is so overpowering that many first-years develop the common misconception that joining a chapter is the only way they’ll have social lives at Lehigh.
She has a distinct memory of walking to a party on East Fifth Street her first week of college with a group of about 20 women. She was hesitant about joining a sorority and hoped other people were feeling the same way. When she asked the group if they were all thinking about rushing, she was met with the same response from all 20 women: “Of course!”
She thinks this is indicative of why she decided to join Greek life. All of her friends were doing it. Eventually, she conceded.
Cleary-Hammarstedt went through formal recruitment and joined a sorority the spring of her first year. She remained a member for a year before deciding to disaffiliate. She moved out of the sorority house the spring of her sophomore year.
“My values were not in line with a lot of the things that I feel is promoted in Greek culture,” Cleary-Hammarstedt said. “I had a big problem with the social hierarchy aspect of the system that we have at Lehigh. You’re judged based on the sorority that you’re a part of, and people immediately have preconceived notions about you.”
In hindsight, she thinks she should have taken into consideration the hesitation she felt before deciding to rush. But she said she doesn’t regret joining her organization. She met great people and learned a lot about herself in the process. After becoming in tune with what she truly wants out of her Lehigh career, Cleary-Hammarstedt said she is now happier and more independent than ever. She credits her experience in Greek life for getting her to this point.
Kristen Mejia, ‘17, the president of the Multicultural Greek Council, has had a different experience within her sorority.
“I don’t know if I would’ve stayed at Lehigh if it wasn’t for my organization,” Mejia said. “I have a support system of women who are pushing me to do everything I want to do and empowering me, and I would not have been able to do that without them.”
As a member of Lambda Theta Alpha, an MGC sorority, her Greek experience is unlike the stereotypes. There are only two active members in her sorority and five active members in the entirety of MGC. Mejia said there’s an overarching view of fraternities and sororities in the media that more closely aligns with the IFC and Panhel experience. She said the MGC chapters are more focused on advocating for social change and being a voice for students who can’t afford to have one.
When thinking about a future for Lehigh without Greek life, many students and faculty can’t conceptualize it. It’s out of the realm of their imaginations. But Higgins is trying to change that.
He is a strong advocate for dissolving Lehigh’s Greek life. He thinks the process of pledging a fraternity is barbaric, and he fears for the safety of his fellow students.
“Imagine reading in the police log one day that an individual took another individual and forced them into taking off some of their clothing and beat them with a paddle,” Higgins said. “I think you would no doubt be appalled just to think of that happening. Yet we seem to permit this when it’s in a group. We say, ‘Well this many people agreed to it. They obviously wanted it to happen.’ On the individual case, would you ever question that this person wanted to be beaten with a paddle?”
Higgins has friends within Greek life who have confirmed hazing rituals. He said he knows of a fraternity on Lehigh’s campus whose pledging process several years ago required each new member to raise a ferret. The members then had to murder the ferrets before getting initiated into the fraternity.
Higgins said he thinks the secrecy of Greek life allows this behavior to continue. Instead of punishing the fraternities and sororities, the administration gives them “mansions that overlook the rest of the school,” Higgins said.
“Right now we have a campus administration that says, ‘Well our hands are tied, we can’t do anything about it,’” Higgins said. “I think that any student should be outraged about that. Clinging to that sort of political correctness is restricting the administration from actually protecting the safety of its students.”
Like Higgins, many colleges have realized the potential detrimental effects of Greek membership on campus climate. With Greek life under scrutiny in America, it might be time to start thinking about what Lehigh would look like without it.
Several small liberal arts colleges — namely Colby, Bowdoin and Williams — have successfully removed Greek life from campus without significant financial repercussions. The difference with these schools may be that they weren’t as dependent on Greek life for admissions, campus housing, students’ social lives and alumni donations.
Ashley Baudouin, the director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, said there are approximately 80,000 living Lehigh alumni who were affiliated with a Greek chapter as undergraduates.
Thomas Chaves, the associate vice president for development and alumni relations, said that over the last three years, approximately one third of donations to the Lehigh Fund have come from Greek alumni. That accounts for 24 percent of all donations to the Lehigh Fund. While the number is significant, it is nowhere near the majority. In fact, it doesn’t even match the percentage of current undergraduate students who are affiliated with a Greek chapter — 33 percent of men and 43 percent of women.
There’s also no guarantee that donations from Greek alumni will discontinue if their chapters are no longer recognized by the university. In Baudouin’s experience, alumni are generally understanding of the university’s decision to dissolve their former chapters.
Regardless, Baudouin said alumni donations do not cloud the administration’s judgement when disciplining chapters that aren’t upholding the university’s values. Durics agreed with this statement. He said the dissolution of four chapters in his four years at Lehigh is a testament to that.
If anything, Baudouin said the university is more likely to consider the strain that the dissolution would put on residence and dining halls.
When resources, money and logistics enter the conversation, it’s easy to forget that Greek life is necessary for some students to feel like they belong on campus, especially women and minorities.
“Coming to a predominately white campus, I knew that I was going to have to find those support systems and those people who I felt connected to and that I would feel like I had a place here at Lehigh,” Mejia said.
Cleary-Hammarstedt agreed. Even though she disaffiliated, she thinks that dissolving Greek life would mean destroying many students’ “home base.”
Jonah Casella, ‘18, didn’t join a fraternity because, although he likes individual Greek members, he disapproves of the system as a whole. But he doesn’t think getting rid of it all together is the solution.
“I feel like people need it to feel accepted,” Casella said. “You can’t abolish it because that’s what they’re into, and you can’t condemn someone for wanting to feel like a part of a collective whole with other people who share similar ideals.”
Although Burnett said she would be sad to see Greek life go, she acknowledged that there are changes that need to be made within the institution. Bridging the divide between Greek and non-Greek students is one of her priorities.
“I would hope in the future when I come back five or 10 years from now that everyone will be a Lehigh student first, Greek student second and chapter member third.”