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Absent at ND, Greek system thrives elsewhere

Katie Perry | Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the absence of fraternities and sororities at Notre Dame.

“Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Fraternities and sororities have long been a staple on college campuses across America – even before becoming a cult phenomenon with the release of “Animal House” in 1978 – but never at Notre Dame. Indeed, a visitor would be hard-pressed to find a Victorian-style mansion proudly donning a set of Greek letters among the University’s grandiose buildings, colossal stadium, prominent monuments and lush quads.

In the context of college life, the words “fraternity” and “sorority” connote large-scale single-sex social organizations with a network of nationwide chapters. Though founded on principles of charity, tradition and membership, today’s image of frats and sororities is largely dominated by togas, kegs and hazing.

Pop culture portrayals in films like “Animal House” and “Old School” might have dirtied the reputation of the Greek system in recent years – but Belushi and Blue are not entirely to blame. Incidents like the February 2005 hazing tragedy at Chico State University, in which a 21-year-old student died while pledging for the Chi Tau fraternity, has led to the diminished integrity of fraternities and sororities throughout the years.

Although paddles and parietals may not go hand-in-hand under the Golden Dome, fraternities and sororities are alive and well at several comparable institutions of higher learning. Nonexistent at Notre Dame, organizations like Alpha Delta Phi and Delta Delta Delta exist – if not thrive – at other Catholic universities.

At Villanova University, a Catholic college located outside of Philadelphia, approximately one third of all female students are members of one of the school’s nine sororities. The college ranked 50th in the 2006 U.S. News & World Report list of “Most Students in Sororities.” Fraternities are also prevalent – though somewhat less popular – with 12 percent of the male population affiliated with one of 10 fraternities.

Seton Hall University, St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s University of Pennsylvania, DePaul University and Creighton University are other Catholic colleges with officially-recognized Greek systems.

A Greek critique

Georgetown University has refused to recognize fraternities and sororities since the 1960s, but this has not stopped such organizations from flourishing there. A Sept. 19, 2000 article in The Hoya said though unofficial, “local chapters of nationwide and international fraternities still draw hundreds of Georgetown students.”

The foreign service fraternity Delta Phi Epsilon, the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi and the community service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega are all widely popular on campus, in addition to African American, Latino, Christian and other specialized fraternities and sororities. Since the organizations have no official affiliation with college, they are entirely funded by dues and alumni donations.

“Our relationship with the university is a gray area,” Delta Phi Epsilon president Robert Dunphy told The Hoya, which is Georgetown’s student-run newspaper.

A Feb. 25, 2005 column in The Hoya by theology professor Father Christopher Steck slammed Delta Phi Epsilon and other Greek organizations, asserting they have no place at a Jesuit institution like Georgetown. Steck singled out Delta Phi Epsilon because it had recently attempted to become an official social fraternity at the University.

Steck described his own experiences with fraternities and sororities as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University to argue why “Georgetown students don’t need the Greeks.” Adolescent sexuality, racial exclusions, elitism and wild partying exemplified “the worst stereotypes” of the Greek system at LSU, he said.

“Of course, many of these same groups pulled themselves out of bed on the weekends to engage in community service,” Steck said in the column. “That was always the enigma for me: so much human dysfunctionality bound together with genuine humanitarian concern.”

Steck said he knew of students who were “genuinely wonderful people on their own,” but underwent a negative “transformation” when placed in the context of a Greek social arrangement. Once members of fraternities and sororities, Steck said these students turned to snobbery, cliquishness, conformity, intolerance and the desire to “escape life” through alcohol and sex.

“It was almost like the fraternities were plagued by some innate gravitational pull – drawing their members away from high ideals towards social baseness,” he said.

Though many social fraternities and sororities engage in altruistic endeavors and service projects – which do correlate with Jesuit ideals – there are other aspects of Greek organizations which are not aligned with such standards, Steck said.

“The Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, or care for the person, refers to two ideas: educating the whole person in body, mind and spirit, and educating each person in his or her unique individuality,” he said in the column. “Can the kind of social cohesion that fraternities require … really allow the individual person, as an individual, to flourish?”

Absent and abolished

On March 22, 2001, Santa Clara University announced a two-year plan to completely “phase out” its entire Greek system by June 2003 – a decision that affected fewer than 10 percent of the student population but mirrored a growing trend of increased administrative scrutiny of fraternities and sororities on college campuses nationwide.

According to a 2000 study in The Chronicle of Higher Education, fraternity and sorority membership had decreased by approximately 30 percent since 1990.

The decision at Santa Clara followed a five-month study of the university’s Greek organizations by a committee with faculty, staff and student representation. The task of the group was “to determine whether the presence of fraternities and sororities contributes positively to building a vital community of scholars whose members collaborate as partners in learning and scholarship to provide an integrated educational experience.”

In an official statement, SCU president Paul Locatelli said the college had a distinct obligation to support priorities to benefit the greatest number of students,” encourage friendships and strategically use finite resources to meet its goals. Locatelli and other committee members decided fraternities and sororities were a hindrance to the overarching aims of Santa Clara, and thus its Greek system was officially abolished.

In a Feb. 2, 2006 article in The Fairfield Mirror, University President Father Jeffrey von Arx explained Fairfield University’s disaffiliation with Greek organizations as a consequence of Roman Catholic tradition.

Jesuit qualms about fraternities may stem from the Masonic associations of fraternities – the Masons were disliked by the early Church for being Protestant secret societies – and subsequent secret societies in the 19th and 20th centuries were also scorned upon in Rome, he said.

“It wasn’t just the Jesuits – it was the Catholic Church that opposed fraternities at Catholic universities,” Arx said in the article. “There are relatively few Catholic colleges that have them.”

Boston College is another Jesuit university that refuses to recognize fraternities and sororities. According to articles in the student newspapers at both BC and Fairfield, undergraduates share a common misunderstanding about why the policy against Greek systems is in place at their respective schools.

“It is a misconception that BC policy on fraternities and sororities is due to a strict rule that the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) has against Greek organizations,” said a June 1, 2004 article in BC’s student newspaper, The Heights.

The AJCU mission statement maintains that “each institution is separately chartered by the state and is legally autonomous under its own board of trustees” – and the same is true for all Catholic institutions of higher learning.

The “Land O’ Lakes” statement reached in 1967 by an assembly of Catholic university leadership said colleges aligned with the Church require “a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external or the academic community itself.” The statement emphasized the need for Catholic character at the universities, but left individual administrations to come to their own independent decisions.

The College of the Holy Cross, Fordham University and Notre Dame join Georgetown, Fairfield University and Boston College as Catholic schools that do not recognize fraternities and sororities as official and affiliated institutional organizations.