A call to end housed Greek life at Stanford

Opinion by Mark Bessen
Oct. 1, 2014, 8:39 p.m.

Last week, Provost John Etchemendy announced a new policy regulating housed Greek life on campus. The policy outlines a punitive system based on the severity of a “transgression” by a member of a fraternity or sorority chapter. One “major transgression” — “such as a serious injury caused by overconsumption of alcohol, sexual assault by a member, drugging or spiking drinks served at the house, failing to call for needed medical help for seriously intoxicated students or hazing” — is now (appropriately) justification for revoking housing for the entire Greek organization involved. The same is true of three “minor transgressions” — anything from serving alcohol to minors to “intolerant or disrespectful comments.”

While the distinction between major and minor transgressions may be problematically subjective, Etchemendy’s new policy is a step in the right direction. By holding accountable not only individuals but Greek organizations collectively, the regulations serve to foster self-policing in frats to uphold the fundamental standards expected of all of us as Stanford students. While the residence agreement that all housed undergraduates sign functions on an individual level, the collective culpability espoused by the new policy is novel and particularly important in Greek houses.

But, the policy change does not go nearly far enough.

It’s time to consider abolishing housed Greek life altogether.

Now, I know this seems like a dramatic statement, but bear with me. First, note that I say housed Greek life. Though, in full disclosure, I would prefer to obliterate Greek organizations completely, I respect and acknowledge that frats and sororities have significant merits, and eliminating them might leave a social vacuum for many students. However, by allowing Greek organizations to remain active on campus while revoking their housed status, I think the social and cultural problems propagated by the Greek scene could be largely resolved.

But what “social and cultural problems” does Greek life propagate? In light of media attention to sexual assault on college campuses, Greek life has come under fire. Nationally, men in fraternities commit sexual assault at three times the rate of college males in general; women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to be victims of sexual harassment or violence than non-Greek women. An article in The Atlantic, moreover, argues that alcoholism and alcohol abuse are deeply entrenched in Greek lifestyle. While these studies are on national Greek organizations and their applicability to our campus can be debated, there are nevertheless social and cultural problems that housed Greek life proliferates at Stanford specifically.

There are seven housed fraternities on campus, and only three housed sororities. With about 60 people to a house, this means that there are about 240 more Greek men who are guaranteed housing on the row than Greek women. Fair? Obviously not. And, the gender-biased housing priority upheld by housed Greek life masculinizes the Row, the social epicenter of campus. Women are quite literally left in the margins of campus. The draw is notoriously worse for women ­— meaning it’s harder for women to get “good” housing — and the disparity between the number of male and female Greek houses is a major reason why.

This alone is certainly not enough rationale to disband a deeply rooted system. But let’s now look at the power dynamic between fraternities and sororities, and its implications. National Greek governing board policy dictates that sorority dues cannot be used to buy alcohol, which leaves the frats in charge, placing power in their hands. Fraternities largely determine the social atmosphere on campus — they host the parties, they supply the booze, they choose the themes. Traditional, patriarchal gender norms are therefore institutionally supported: Males are dominant and control the party scene, putting women in an inherently deferential position.

If campus Greek organizations put excessive social capital in the hands of male participants, they also underscore female desirability, the reduction of women to physical objects and competition amongst sororities to win the preferred attentions of fraternities — invites to the best party pregame, for example.

Another national Greek housing policy (nominally) prohibits men in the living quarters of a sorority. While it is not widely upheld at Stanford, this policy puts not only social but also sexual power in male hands. A woman living in a sorority, by mandate, cannot take the initiative to invite a male sexual partner to her room. This results in profound sex negativity and oppression and possibly requires sexually active sorority members to have sex outside the house in what could be a more compromising location, so housed Greek life could therefore undermine the efforts of the SHPRC and SARA offices.

It seems clear that the double standards between fraternities and sororities undermine female agency not just ideologically, but practically. In addition to normalizing troubling gender roles, Greek life also proves to be dramatically classist and elitist. Extremely high quarterly dues (hundreds of dollars across the board) may be prohibitive of membership by students of limited means. Interviews with members of multiple Stanford Greek organizations suggest that, while financial aid options are occasionally available, they are rare and difficult to obtain.

The financial obligations of Greek organizations lead to a socioeconomic homogenization of their members. With the majority of members from upper and upper-middle classes, Greek life is removed from the diversity of student experiences that Stanford emphasizes. While there was a push for diversity by the Greek Life Diversity Coalition last spring, the institutional framework of Greek life — the simple fact that they must demand high dues to sustain the organizations’ social endeavors — prevents it from coming to fruition. A similar argument has been used to critique co-ops on campus — though few would argue that co-ops have the same foundation in gender normativity that Greek life has. Although this socioeconomic commentary targets not just Greek houses, but organizations, Greek houses exacerbate the class divide by maintaining insular communities, while unhoused Greek members are disbursed throughout Stanford’s somewhat more diverse student body.

My preceding arguments have focused on the insularity, normativity and exclusivity of housed Greek life as compared with the rest of the Stanford experience. However, another line of critique of housed Greek life exists within the Greek community: More inequalities are perpetuated by having some Greek organizations housed and some unhoused.

In allowing some fraternities or sororities housed status over others, unhoused Greek organizations are systematically devalued relative to their privileged counterparts. Housed Greek organizations have major obvious advantages over unhoused ones — the ability to have house staff paid by the University, while unhoused Greek leadership is unpaid; the opportunity to host parties without burdening another, non-Greek house (again, limited to fraternities); and simply the social status differences between housed and unhoused organizations. Moreover, whether or not a Greek group has a house is arbitrarily based on historic precedents.

If you worry that abolishing housed Greek life would be detrimental to the social lives of those involved, fear not: Unhoused Greek organizations foster similar strong friendships and social ties among members. Another benefit of Greek life is that Greek organizations are requisitely philanthropic. However, transitioning from housed to unhoused Greek life would have no impact on philanthropy — in fact, Alpha Phi, an unhoused sorority, raised the most money for their charity last year out of all Greek organizations.

One major question raised by my arguments might be: “Well, where would all the parties be?” And, in fact, as they are now, fraternities provide a service to the Stanford community as a whole by hosting all-campus parties (though not without their own issues). However, as illustrated by the success of Kairos’ Wine & Cheese, EBF’s Happy Hour, Casa’s Pizzeria, La Maison’s Crepe Night and others, the social burden of hosting widely inclusive parties could easily be disbursed amongst other row houses. And, if parties were outside the social hegemony of fraternity control, they could reach out to a wider population of students.

The social and cultural consequences of housed Greek life, I hope to have convinced you, far outweigh the benefits of insular camaraderie amongst members. Etchemendy’s policy changes may attempt to reform the ideology and social environment of the Greek system, but that’s not enough. Only by breaking down the underlying structure — the housed status of fraternities and sororities — can we enact meaningful change and foster inclusivity in the larger Greek community.

Contact Mark Bessen at mbessen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Mark is the Desk Editor of Opinions for the Stanford Daily. He is a senior studying English, working on an honors thesis on the contemporary coming-of-age novel. He is particularly interested in the narratives of minority writers in the United States (taking minority to include issues of race, class, and gender/sexuality). Contact him at [email protected] with comments or questions.

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