On Swarthmore’s Sorority

There’s been a running discussion at Swarthmore for a year now, mostly among the students and some between the students and the administration, about the effort to get a sorority established at the college. National media recently reported on the decision to allow the group to proceed and thereby overturn a ban on sororities that was enacted in response to a student-led campaign in 1933. (The campaign was substantially a response to the anti-Semitism of the sororities of that time.) One of the things that some outsiders haven’t picked up on is that fraternities were not banned in this decision, and that we have them today at the college, which often surprises visitors. Our fraternities are non-residential and their membership is a relatively small proportion of the male students, though they do host a lot of the weekend parties. That’s the backdrop of the administration’s decision to allow the sorority to go forward: if nothing else, there’s a Title IX issue that can’t be finessed–if there are fraternities and some women want a sorority, that’s pretty much the end of the matter.

In the world of higher education as a whole, I think it’s pretty clear that Greek life is a significant source at best of some dumb, destructive behavior and at worst an incubator of sexual violence and thuggery. “Community service” for some fraternities and sororities at large universities is a cynical fig leaf covering butt-chugging, hazing and bullying. But I’ve certainly seen the other side of Greek life at times–not so much the alleged community service, but more the way the organizations can build strong social ties, mutual support, sustained attention to life-long friendship. Some of them have very powerful approaches to making and modeling community and intimacy. Plus the bad side of Greek life is hard to wrestle to the ground without coming off like a 21st Century Dean Vernon Wormer: it feeds off of transgression, seeks out outrage and disdain.

At Swarthmore, I’ve known and taught many of the men who belong to the fraternities and they’ve largely seemed good folks to me. I’ve never been anywhere near their parties or events and it would neither be my job nor my preference to know anything about what goes on there or in almost any other similar aspect of weekend student recreation. (I did come down to watch and photograph a part of the famous Pterodactyl Hunt this year, which has nothing to do with fraternities and is in any event mind-blowingly awesome, but also because my 11-year old was dying to see what it looked like.) I suppose if I had my druthers we might not have fraternities or a sorority but mostly I don’t think it’s my business whether we have them or not, nor is it an issue I want to worry much about as a faculty member.

I am a bit worried by some of the opposition among students to the sorority. Not so much because of what it means for the prospects of the actual sorority but because of what it suggests about how we continue to fall short of some of our general institutional aspirations for achieving a community, some of which live inside the curriculum and weigh on our teaching.

The first thing I’d suggest to the opponents with strong feelings is that I’d put even money on the sorority not surviving past the graduation of the students who want to start it. Most of the groups and projects that Swarthmore students start are driven by the energy and commitment of their founders, and very few of those projects are built in a way that this energy is sustainable and transferable to the next group of students to enroll.

Behind that point is lurking a more important principle. When a group or a project does survive, that means something. Either it suggests that out there in the wider world, there are influential sponsors or examples that continue to give the project some long-term legs, or that there is a recurrent desire over time within the student body for the project. In both cases, that’s a significant social fact that requires serious appraisal.

I’ve been a bit dismayed that some of the student opponents of the sorority invoke distant objects and generalizations as sufficient reason for their opposition. Those are ok as impressionistic sketches of your intuitions or feelings (as mine are above) or snark but if offered as a justification for action, for decision-making, you have to up your game a bit. Specifically, you have to stop looking to the generalized horizon (say, the “mainstream”) and get real about the specific, tangible human beings who are right in front of you.

Anything that real people do in the world is by definition interesting. By ‘interesting’, I mean worthy of the kind of investigation that puts curiosity and honesty well before judgment. Judgment may come, but only after you’ve done some work. Anything that real people do in your own community, neighborhood, or other immediate social world is interesting in that sense twice over. It’s easier (at least in basic material terms) to ask, with unfeigned curiosity, “So what’s up with that?” when you see someone every day. If you’re going to use tropes of community, it’s morally important to be interested in its entirety. And the practical political dangers of keeping your distance and relying on haughty generalizations within a community are very real: that’s the quickest way to rouse an opposition that will then be right on your doorstep rather than at a safe distance.

So if you don’t like the idea of a sorority (or the idea of existing fraternities) at Swarthmore, I’d say the first thing to do is ask, with openness, curiosity, and generosity, with no pressing need to get to some predetermined end or conclusion, “So why do the people who want them want them?” And by that I mean, ask them. And listen.

This is the space where college communities like Swarthmore can fall pretty flat in their aspirations to diversity. We have students who will go all around the world to meet, live among and humbly try to understand a community of people whose history, culture and material conditions are very different from their own previous experience. Those same students can balk at understanding or negotiating the immediate presence of anyone whose unfamiliarity is not so customarily different, who is not an expected or presupposed sort of “diverse” person.

Getting over that hesitation is all the more important for people who hope to push for progressive or radical social transformation. If you don’t understand, in fact appreciate, a person or group that you believe should change (particularly if you think they should change to be more like you), you’ll never persuade them. Which leaves you only one option: to compel them. I think that is precisely why some of our students persistently look to the college administration (essentially the local version of the state) to accomplish their political or social goals: because they despair of, or never begin, the work of understanding and persuasion. At that point the cupboard of options is bare. Nothing is left but the imposition of rules, strictures, mandatory trainings, bannings, prohibitions.

This impulse is a potentially disastrous cul-de-sac for a genuinely progressive politics. If you have to make that move, wield that big stick, you better be sure that you have an actual big stick in hand and that the need for such a move is overwhelmingly urgent, gut-wrenchingly important, viscerally documented.

I was listening to an NPR story yesterday about the continuing problem of neo-Nazism in Germany, and a phrase in the story really hit me. The reporter said that political leaders were frustrated and surprised at the persistence of neo-Nazism “despite sixty years of educational effort”. What I thought was, just substitute the words because of and you’d be close to an explanation. The German state, any state, is going to create its own margins and exclusions. Whatever that state chooses to ban–or prescribe–will be an irresistable hermeneutical beacon to those margins. Post-1950 secular postcolonial states in the Islamic world virtually recommended Islamic fundamentalism as the privileged voice of opposition to the corruption and fecklessness of their rule precisely by stressing their secular character. Robert Darnton, in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, argues that as the ancien regime of France responded to the spread of print culture with a more and more assertive regime of censorship, it effectively recommended the targets of its censorship to readers. The state’s attention was a sign that a work was interesting. Darnton also argues that the state helped to seal its own fate by showing itself to be both helpless to stop readers from reading and by revealing its prohibitions to be silly or self-interested.

Asking a college administration to maintain a ban on sororities through evading or finessing a statutory requirement that has been a powerful tool for enforcing gender equity might be a similarly corrosive or counterproductive move. Particularly if it’s largely to avoid a difficult conversation in your own immediate community about why people unlike yourself are unlike yourself and why they want what you do not want.

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23 Responses to On Swarthmore’s Sorority

  1. biryanilady says:

    There is a large Greek system where I teach. I follow and can even agree with your broad observations in the beginning of your second paragraph. But when I think about these organization in sociological terms, then I tend to draw different conclusions: it seems to me for that a lot of the young people who join them, they are a transitional kind of post-familial collectivity that gives their members a sense of regular, daily intimacy that a formal institution can’t. Or at least they hold out the promise of a certain kind of knowing and belonging that the university/college isn’t even interested in granting. Yes, they have some downright cruddy social habits that have sedimented over years. I’m not denying that. But I see that they also provide many students, who are for the first time launching out into the world, a place where small triumphs and sorrows might be seen and shared and so can matter.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s very nicely observed–I’d say something of the same, and it’s exactly one of the things that I think some of the local opposition might come to understand if they came at it with a less itchy trigger finger.

  3. Kit says:

    I’d like to just note that the Pterodactyl Hunt has nothing to do with the fraternities.

  4. I’ll go back and make that extra clear. I just mean that in general, students ought to be in charge of their own weekend or evening fun without a bunch of faculty and administrative killjoys exercising a veto power over whatever it might be. I highly approve of the sheer awesomeness of Pterodactyl Hunt, but that’s neither here nor there as a matter of decision making!

  5. Kit says:

    Yeah, I gathered that was your meaning, but I wanted to make sure for people who only have a passing familiarity with it that it’s not a fraternity thing!

  6. Lobster says:

    A few thoughts:

    — My personal objections (as an alum) to the sorority mostly arise from how unpleasant I’ve found the social contributions of the fraternities. Pretty much all the homophobic incidents while I was there and that I heard about in later years were at frat parties, or occasionally frat members who stopped by queer-friendly parties to mock or harass other students. I also dislike the way Greek organizations enact exclusiveness. The other exclusive, administratively-sanctioned groups exclude either for specific social justice/identity purposes (gender, sexuality, race, etc) or for practical, skill-oriented reasons (audition-only performance or sports groups). How do Greek organizations select their members? How is it not about reproducing a conventional idea of social status? It’s not that I want faculty or administration to police student social organization: it’s that hosting a sorority (or a fraternity) involves actively supporting groups that have a pretty noxious effect.

    — The Title IX objections could be resolved by disbanding the frats. Sounds great to me. The frat houses may be non-residential, but they occupy a remarkably large share of dedicated student organization space. Use it for something else.

    — Students are indeed looking for something in the frats, but my take is that the frat students I knew were mostly looking to escape from Swarthmore’s environment into a more mainstream social atmosphere. The judgmental extension, which I kind of think is true, is that the students who joined or hung out at frats wanted to hang on to a kind of social privilege they had in high school and expected to have after Swarthmore, and which the rest of us never had. Getting rid of Greek organizations wouldn’t get rid of that desire, but it would get rid of an organization that institutionalizes the sense of superiority and difference.

    — I had an incredibly strong experience of the kind of post-familial collectivity that biryanilady talks about via my hall and some other informal social groups. My brother had it via his sports team. Other friends found it via seminars, which is also one of the places I found it. It’s something that’s genuinely available and incredibly valuable at Swarthmore, and we don’t need Greek organizations for it.

  7. Lobster:

    I think it comes down to this: you didn’t need them. People you know well didn’t need them. In other circumstances, Swarthmore students are quite meticulous and wary about speaking for silent or absent others, so this is precisely one of the moments that concerns me. It’s evident that some set of “we” is not in the “we” that doesn’t need Greek organizations.

    Your view is that the students who did feel that need were looking to “escape into a more mainstream social atmosphere”. So first I think that’s worth investigating before you make your judgment: why? Is that what they’d say? Is that how they’d say it? If that’s close to what some members would say, what are they looking for in “mainstream”, however they might describe it.

    Note here that already there’s an interesting question for anybody who doesn’t identify as mainstream: what is it that makes it appealing for folks who find it so? E.g., as a choice in an environment saturated with a range of choices, rather than as an inevitability?

    Your answer strikes me as revealing but not in the most generative sense. Your reading is that they choose it in order to undo a mistaken choice (the choice of Swarthmore, with a dominant culture they disliked) and in undoing that choice, to work to maintain a privileged status they had in high school. But think on it: this is ultimately a very weird interpretation. To maintain a privileged status, fraternity members at Swarthmore choose to opt into a social institution which many other students feel free to openly despise? Because they don’t feel that Swarthmore as a whole is friendly to their desires for privilege? Meaning, they choose to be marginalized in order to feel privileged?

    This is all the more problematic because you accept that there will be that desire for what you deem privilege even in the absence of an organization to express such desire–that your aim in part is to deny people with these desires any outlet that satisfies them. I hope you see the danger signals flashing at that point.

    I’m unsatisfied with the figure of ‘mainstream’ that operates here. I get it emotionally, in the very specific way you give voice to it. I was regularly bullied from 4th grade to 10th grade for being a geek and an egghead, for being ‘good at school’, and as an undergraduate, I found the frat culture at Wesleyan mostly (though not uniformly) to be a draw to people that I felt were the spiritual cousins of my former bullies. I get the feeling. But it’s really a bad impulse on which to build a larger policy of community. If you let it lead to something like “Ban them all and let the zeitgeist sort it out”, it’s really a form of revenge disguised as policy.

    The Wesleyan brothers may have reminded me of other people, but they never did anything to me. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t give them an opportunity, but that’s community for you: you don’t have to spend time with or like everybody. They were to a person real and human with the same complexity I like to imagine in myself, also on a journey full of change and surprise. I haven’t seen the actual bullies I used to know since I was a young person, but who knows? Maybe some of them are people I’d like now. Or maybe, and this is something we all have to consider, I’m the one who has become unlikeable with time.

    I didn’t then and don’t want now to concede “mainstream” to anyone. Mainstream is all of us, and what we are, what we really are. The emotional narrative of looking for a refuge from bullying and anti-intellectualism is a real and raw one and actually quite worth sharing frankly in any dialogue about the content of Swarthmore (or other collegiate) cultures. But (and here maybe I’m too plugged into the symposia on Jonathan Haidt’s book at this point) it strikes me as a dangerous way to try and imagine and regulate community. Sooner or later, you have to make your peace with the social worlds around you–which might rest on a truce, or a monastic refuge, peace doesn’t have to mean kumbaya all around. Thinking that you can just excise or suppress some part of a social world whose reality and inevitability is conceded is a bad idea as either intuition or reason.

  8. Nadav says:

    This is why I read this blog — to be exposed to new words like “butt-chugging.” In all seriousness, I read some interesting facebook posts on this subject where several people expressed anti-Greek sentiments. In all cases, they used examples of things that actual DU and Phi Psi students had done on campus to justify their opposition. Examples included:

    – Sexual harassment (no specifics given)
    – Using newspapers reinforced with coathangers during the Pterodactyl Hunt (causing actual harm to people they “stabbed”)
    – Engaging in hazing that involved forcing recruits to run up and down the stairs in the Mertz dorm while drinking, leading to vomiting, which they refused to clean up. When an RA confronted them about the event, they responded that they had “just as much right to drink in Mertz as everyone else.”

    This is not to say that these examples are fair characterizations of what fraternities at Swarthmore are like, and of course one should shy away from characterizing entire groups of people based on a few incidents. But it’s also not the same as ” invoke[ing] distant objects and generalizations” to advance their arguments. Some opponents of Greek life at Swarthmore have specific, local reasons behind their positions.

  9. Fraternity Member says:

    Hi Nadav in response to the “specific, local reasons” behind students’ dislike of fraternities, I totally agree that members of both fraternities have said/done unsavory things to people. I don’t know about the dactyl hunt stabbing incident, I’ve never heard anything about that, but I certainly believe that members have engaged in sexual harassment. But so have many, many, many non-fraternity members.

    As for the event in Mertz, I have facilitated that event in the past, will facilitate it again this year, and I can promise that event, while you may see it as “hazing”, is most definitely not. Everyone who does it because they are having fun and and it is something they choose to do. No one is “forced” to do anything. People drink, run down Mertz stairs, act silly, and run back up again. Not really a big deal. As for the vomit, I don’t believe that they refused to clean it up, considering I’ve been at this event for the past 3 years and I have no recollection of anyone vomiting in Mertz. If that did actually happen, I sincerely apologize on behalf of the fraternity. If it makes you feel any better, I have cleaned up dozens of random people’s vomit in our house after non-members come to our house, drink our beer (which we like! we want visitors!) and subsequently vomit all over our not-so-beautiful wood floors.

    I understand if you find this sort of behavior “ewww, gross”, but that doesn’t make it corrosive or wrong. These specific, local reasons that you speak of are no worse than what I’ve experienced from non-fraternity members. I have also been on the receiving end of people being not very nice at Swarthmore, but I have never used that to justify my dislike for the student group they are affiliated with.

  10. Laura says:

    I was in a sorority at a SLAC. I can say that I bristled against the idea while I was a member, but ultimately came to terms with it over the years. I ultimately became an officer in my sorority because I believe in change from the inside. I protested racism and classism in our membership drives, which were subtle in nature and, I think, unconscious. No one said, “We can’t admit this person because she’s black.” They’d say, “She might not fit in.” I, and many others, protested such language, and it became a policy not only not to discriminate based on race, but to actively seek to diversify.

    I learned to network in my sorority. We practiced strategies for having effective conversations with strangers before having potential members or alums over to our house. That sounds silly, but I know adults who could use this training.

    I spent time with a fraternity whose national group was notorious for their anti-black stance. They chose a different pat, and had several black members and regularly co-hosted events with their neighbor fraternity whose membership was probably 30% black. At one such event, they invited some nearby chapters of their fraternity, and there was real concern over having black members and black attendees. Everything was fine, and I believe some real education happened at that event. All of this without administrative or faculty intervention.

    Here’s the thing. Yes, some of these groups are “exclusive”. Some of them seem to encourage behavior people don’t like, whether it’s racism or sexism or excessive drinking. But it’s also an opportunity for students to figure out where they stand on those issues and to push for better policies and behavior from their members. It is in some ways an opportunity to enact the very things they’re learning in their classes.

    I’m guessing that some opposition to frats/sororities at Swat stems from wanting to say, “My school didn’t have fraternities or sororities.” I got that from a lot of people that attended similar schools to mine, often said with clear disdain. When they found out I was actually in one, hoo boy. How is that not just as bad as those who are in these groups being selective about who’s in?

    It’s definitely not as clear an issue as it might seem on the surface. You can’t just say they’re all bad and be done with it. What you can hope for is that the individuals who choose to be in them learn something from that experience and bring something positive, at times, to the community.

  11. Chad Orzel says:

    This is, as usual, great stuff, and as someone working at a heavily Greek school, I wish more discussions of these issues were this thoughtful and open.

    I do take minor issue with one point, namely the suggestion that Greek organizations are the cause of a number of social ills. I’ve always been a little dubious about that claim, mostly because I attended a school that abolished fraternities back in the 1960’s. And while there were some differences, chiefly relating to housing, a large number of the features commonly attributed to fraternities were still a part of the social scene, just taken up by different groups. Most of these were sports-related– the rugby club (which I was a part of) was essentially a frat without Greek letters, and the same could be said of football, hockey, water polo, ultimate frisbee, crew, and a few others. These organizations had nearly all of the salient features of Greek organizations, both good and bad. The vast majority of the complaints I hear about Greeks at my current campus, from both faculty and students, have direct parallels in complaints I heard about my alma mater about sports teams or a more nebulous “social scene.” The few that don’t echo complaints I heard as a student are mostly related to housing.

    I think a lot of the social ills normally attributed to Greek organizations are really emergent properties of 18-21-year-olds in large groups. Fraternities (and, to an arguably lesser extent, sororities) may formalize these in ways that exacerbate some of the problems, but even if you eliminated Greek organizations outright, within a few years you would find many of their characteristic features had been incorporated into different self-organized social groups, and students and faculty would be complaining about the same issues, only with a slightly more diffuse target.

    Which is why I particularly liked this post, because I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in asking why it is that the students who are in these organizations want them to exist. Because that carries over nicely from the official organizations to the general features– why is it that even in the absence of fraternities, many college students seem to want the same sorts of things?

  12. joshua buhs says:

    I read this article shortly after I read your post, and thought there were some interesting parallels regarding the cultivation of a workable community. Here you have a guy who is, in your term, “interesting,” embodying some of the community’s ideals, appealing to others, and also fulfilling important roles that makes the reddit community go. But what he is doing ia also deeply pathological. And it is not clear the best way to deal with him. Simply banning him won’t solve the problems he has created–nor will protecting him strengthen the community. It’s a delicate balance.

  13. How odd–I just read the same article and it made me think about a lot of the same points. I think ‘outing’ that guy is totally the right thing to do, but as Adrian Chen notes in the article, the narrative that trolls are Jekyll-and-Hydes who are created by the affordance of Internet anonymity doesn’t fit this person at all–his ‘real’ self and his Reddit self are intertwined in all sorts of ways, and so you can’t just make him go away magically by uncloaking him.

    That said, let’s also be careful about a casual mapping of that guy’s unambiguous ugliness onto the issues at hand. Chad’s caution is a good one: it is easy to believe in stories of misanthropy but maybe we should mistrust the ease of that belief.

  14. TM says:

    What’s really amazing to me about the uproar over the uproar over sororities at Swarthmore is what’s missing from the discourse. I do think that there’s a reason to oppose Greek life at Swarthmore, at least as it is/is going to be implemented. I don’t think there’s anything essentially wrong with Greek life, but if the Swarthmore student body is trying to empathize with everyone in this community (or everyone that might be in this community), then I think we can say that we shouldn’t have gendered Greek life. The fraternities and the future sorority can work against racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and any “social ills” that might occur in that space, but they can’t change the fact that they’re exclusive based on gender identity. In order to have a closed/exclusive/”open to all X-identifying students” group, the students who wish to form that group ought to offer a salient reason why membership in the group depends on a shared social identity. (I’m making the assumption that groups that are arbitrarily closed based on a social identity don’t belong in a community that wants to be equitable, and that Swarthmore is such a community. If anyone thinks these aren’t good assumptions, I’m interested in hearing about that.) Swarthmore has several groups that are open only to X-identifying students. Most of these are groups engaged in anti-oppressive work, and many of those are based on identification with a marginalized group (SAO, SQU, Enlace, etc.). I’ve definitely heard students have to explain to other students why these groups are only open to students with a certain identity, but I’ve never heard anyone explain why the frats are the same way. And I haven’t heard an explanation for why the sorority will be the same way, except for the Title IX argument (which is fair, certainly, if we have fraternities).

    Groups that are closed based on a social identity tend strongly to reinforce that identity in its members. Having attended an all-male high school in a very gendered community, I’ve seen how all-male communities can reinforce normative performance of masculinity. As a member of Swat’s men’s rugby team–a group that’s far more self-aware about its masculinity than my high school–I continue to see that trend. (I’m not sure how to confront gendering in athletics. My best temporary answer is to say that solidarity between the men’s and women’s teams will help, but that’s certainly an imperfect response.) Groups like SQU and Enlace also reinforce identities–but in their case, that reinforcement is part of their anti-oppressive work, because they celebrate identities that are marginalized elsewhere. Fraternities and sororities reinforce masculine and feminine identities, respectively–and, I would venture to assert, extremely normative expression of those identities. Therefore, a gendered Greek system reproduces the gender binary and celebrates cis privilege in a way that the future sorority’s insistence that all female-identifying students can join cannot fully answer. It ignores the possibility of androgyny, gender-neutrality, and gender ambiguity, and at least by appearances, it does not welcome non-normative performances of binary genders. And if we are trying to empathize with all students in the community, or all students who may be part of the community in the future, we can imagine a student who is agender, or uses they/them as their preferred gender pronoun, or is female-identified but performs masculinely, who wants the social space that Greek life offers but does not have a space for it. We might even have to admit the possibility that such students have come through Swarthmore in the past but haven’t tried to be part of Greek life because of its gender requirements. A gender-neutral Greek system could solve these problems. I don’t know of any particular reason why Greek life must be gendered, other than “that’s the way it is elsewhere, or has always been” (which is hardly ever a good reason) or “that’s what we’re comfortable with” (which is fine, but it doesn’t justify institutionalizing cis privilege). If there are other reasons, and I’m missing them, I’d like to hear them.

    On that note, I hope I can say honestly that I have tried to understand and may understand why people want these organizations. Through the rugby team, I have solidarity with other students similar to what Greek organizations provide, and friendships in which shared gender sometimes plays a role. And like Chad Orzel notes above, the rugby team provides a space for the debauchery and foolishness common to people our age. That said, I’m also a straight white cis man trying to be accountable for my privilege and to envision ways in which the spaces in our community may marginalize some people. I think that institutionalizing binary gender falls within the scope of “marginalizing some people”. Also, this is really long, but I wanted to get the whole idea out.

  15. joshua buhs says:

    Totally. I don’t mean to say that frats are as bad as Violentacrez, although that could be read out of what I wrote. Only that the creation of community, including how to deal with those whom we may not want in the community but are nonetheless apart of it, is a theme in both stories.

  16. Fraternity Member says:

    Hi TM, I’m confused, how is gendered Greek life “institutionalized cis-privilege” while the gendered rugby team you play for isn’t? This isn’t a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t understand the difference and need it explained to me.

  17. Lobster says:

    The people I knew who hung out at the frat house were pretty open about the fact that they didn’t enjoy the broader Swarthmore culture. Some of them got bad information when they applied; for others, Swat was the highest-ranked school they got in to. I don’t find it surprising or weird that people surrounded by a culture they find alien would look to establish an outpost of the familiar, in which their sense of their own social priorities and status could survive. Isn’t that what expats do?

    Mostly, I object to having an exclusionary organization with college subsidies. I’m not suggesting that we ban a culture, but there are no other exclusionary social groups at Swarthmore with buildings, funding, and campus recognition. The exclusion is an inescapable part of the way fraternities and sororities operate, and seems to me pretty counter to the broader ethos of Swarthmore. For what it’s worth, an acquaintance organized a large but socially exclusionary event my senior year with an aesthetic I enjoyed more. I’d advance the same objections to making that a campus-funded event. Basically, I think that any campus-funded membership organization that wants to explicitly exclude students should have a good reason and good criteria. What does that look like for Greek organizations? Why can some people join, and others can’t?

    I’m sure there are lovely people in the frats. I still found the organizations a pretty toxic contribution to campus social life. The Wesleyan brothers may not have done anything to you, but the Swarthmore ones periodically (a few times a year) showed up at queer-affiliated parties and made homophobic remarks. Maybe that no longer happens — queer politics have moved a lot in the last 10 years — but it was pretty unpleasant. I’m sure that some of the same issues would exist if you got rid of the Greek system entirely, but it’s hard for me to see how providing a formal, named, funded organization would make it better.

  18. Western Dave says:

    I hate to be naive here, but has anybody pledged a frat and been turned down at Swat in the last couple of decades? In the 80s, when I was a student, they were as hurting for warm bodies as any other group.

  19. Nord says:

    What western dave said … and this is the 1990s speaking. I wasn’t in the frat crowd, and have some sympathy for lobsta, but at least among my peers, there was a fair amount of jealousy that at least the frats organized parties, whatever one thought of the parties or the frat members. That lack of alternatives was not due to a lack of funding, space, or other institutional resources, but rather the fact that the frats could force people to sign up and host, advertise, and run one of the parties. I hosted one, once, in Wharton, and it was a PITA, between setting up and cleaning up … never again. The other social organizations tried, but most could only manage one party a year.

    All that being said, despite never being close to any frat guys, I ended up going to grad school with one and regretted not knowing him better at swat …

  20. Fraternity Member says:

    in reply to nord and dave, if someone is interested in joining a frat, they will be accepted as long as they aren’t huge assholes. Even when a prospective pledge (rush) is a little rough around the edges, if we think they have room to grow into a mature individual, we’ll give them a chance.

    in reply to lobster, i think frats must have been different in your day because homophobia is absolutely NOT tolerated by either frat.

    your claim that swat “funds” us is also pretty dubious. we pay for the house. it ain’t cheap. however, if a brother can’t pay his dues, the frat will accept him anyway. i know, i’ve been that brother (i’ve since gotten a campus job and can pay my dues). i’m curious as to what other student group would be willing to pay out of pocket every week for beer that is free for the rest of campus to drink. i have yet to be to another groups party that is not sac funded where i haven’t had to pay for alcohol.

    you can call the frats exclusionary, but they are probably the least exclusionary student groups on campus when you think about it. our house is open as a social space on thursday, friday and saturday nights to the ENTIRE SCHOOL and the rest of the week is spent cleaning it for the next weekend. we are also busy swatties, we don’t really spend time there basking in the glory of having a house. we’re too busy mopping up stale beer and cigarette butts before heading right back up to mccabe, or cornell in my case.

    im a little offended by your claim that the frats are a way for us to hold onto some social status that swarthmore won’t afford us. it’s just not like that. in reality, we value our brotherhood. we also value swarthmore. it’s not that way for all of us, but if you want to generalize us, that’s the most accurate generalization i’ve got.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the discussion is good, and I won’t get in the way of it too much. I think it’s exactly what ought to be happening.

    My one intervention is this: Swarthmore is exclusive. Anyone who has such an intense allergy to exclusivity that they cannot bear any association with it should not spend too much time worrying about the fraternities and should spend more time questioning whether the basic idea of selective higher education is legitimate. We even partner with an institution (Bryn Mawr) that is exclusive both in its admissions in general and on a gender-specific but non-ideological basis.

    If I were to somewhat cynically design a narrative for the existing fraternities that explained that they were exploring forms of traditional homosociality connected to conviviality, athleticism and invented kinship, what would happen to the argument that some groups are entitled to their exclusivity because of its content and others are not? The only way you could possibly distinguish between the two at the level of which deserved institutional funding, recognition or acceptance is to create some kind of hermeneutical truth-squad that would parse every group’s narrative and every group’s actual praxis against some standard of legitimate exclusivity.

    The safer thing by far is to say, “These are the people that I have to make some kind of relationship to in the next four years. Let’s see how it goes.” If you come to the conclusion that bright, ambitious people your age who otherwise met the criteria for admission to Swarthmore College are so utterly intolerable to you–or intolerant towards you–that you can reach no accommodation with them even with the passively supportive infrastructure of the college’s curriculum and residential life system, you have found out something very important about the political and social challenge ahead of you. Some students may feel that they already know at 18 as much as they care to know about the exclusions, discriminations and hatred ahead, and would like a surcease from those. I think that’s legitimate too, but if that’s all that Swarthmore was asking or affording–four years of perfected exclusion of any kind of ‘difference’ that rubs raw against our deepest hopes–I’m not sure it’s much of an education. Education, after all, can’t ever get away from being about transformation.

  22. TM says:

    Hey, Fraternity Member. You’re right that there’s not a significant difference, and I don’t particularly like it. But there’s two reasons that the gendering in sports is unavoidable, at least for the moment. No. 1: athletics involve people who aren’t part of this community and who understand gender differently. We’ve definitely encountered and socialed with players from other teams who treat women (and presumably gender-queer people) differently than we do or try to do. I suppose I’m saying it’s not our immediate responsibility to change people’s understanding of gender outside this community, but that we should have a higher standard in this one. No. 2: the average size of a player on our team is larger than the average size of a player on the women’s team, and I don’t think any of us are about to suggest we start hitting them. That’s a problem that I don’t know how to get around. There are individuals in the world at large who question the role gender plays in sports. Caster Semenya from South Africa. SI also published a pretty solid article on trans athletes in May (though it did assume trans means a one-to-one transition). So I don’t know how to solve that. I don’t know that Greek life has the same compelling reasons for making distinctions based on binary genders, or if it’s integral to forming social connections, or what. I could be wrong. But either way, the Greek system at Swat definitely leaves out those who don’t identify as a part of a binary gender, and possibly those who nominally identify as part of a binary gender but don’t express that gender normatively. The same statements might apply to rugby too, though.

    And maybe Prof. Burke is right in that this community should respect the bonds y’all have made on faith. I could be very, very wrong. If that’s the case, everyone should let you all be. But he also says that with reference to “the level of which [groups] deserved institutional funding, recognition or acceptance.” I am very far from the institutional level, and so are other students. At the moment, I’m torn between respecting the community that fraternities build among themselves and questioning what kind of spaces–especially identity-based spaces–belong in a community like Swarthmore.

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    What belongs is whatever we have. If you’re serious about diversity as a commitment, that’s what you have to at minimum accept and ideally even embrace. It’s not for you or me or anyone else–even at the “institutional level”–to decide what belongs and what doesn’t and enforce that decision. The most you can do is argue culturally against a group or subculture that you don’t like and hope your arguments are persuasive to them such that they change or disband. Making those arguments strictly in terms of your own privileged frames of reference and political commitments strikes me as a waste of time if you’re serious about the outcome.

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