Opinion: Reform on greek life culture is imperative

Melinda Burgin

Greek life is typically viewed as a hallmark of the classic college experience. Much of the stereotypical Greek culture revolves around wild parties where students gather in fraternity houses to drink heavily and “hook up”. This can be passed off as typical college fun. The disguise of innocence covers a culture rife with misogyny, dangerous hazing practices, and classism. If fraternities and sororities are to continue to be a part of the modern college experience, serious changes need to be made. 

In a few instances of dangerous hazing, older members provided lethal amounts of hard alcohol to the vulnerable younger students that they were charged to mentor. At Ohio State, Sam Martinez died of alcohol poisoning after ingesting a bottle of rum and being left unconscious and in a basement for approximately 30 minutes before members finally called 911. By the time he was taken to the hospital, it was too late to save his life. At Virginia Commonwealth University student Adam Oakes, was left unconscious overnight and found dead in the morning, after being forced to drink a handle of whiskey. 

In all of these incidents, not only was drinking and partying prioritized over the health and safety of all members but a clear imbalance of power was established the minute the freshmen accepted the invitation. In 2021 alone, there have been three recorded deaths from hazing, according to professor Hank Nuwer of Franklin University. 

At fraternity events, heavy drinking impairs judgement and impulsive sexual activity rises. Many hazing activities also include pressure to partake in unwanted sexual activity, and put already inebriated members (unable to consent) in these situations, as the same fraternity where Adam Oakes died has been accused of doing. Clearly, whatever is being done is not enough to create change. The culture is deeply rooted in misogyny and a “boys club” mentality, where members do not hold each other or themselves accountable.

Fraternities can face consequences for hazing but they are often too little and too late. In the fraternity where Adam Oakes died, Delta Chi, was to be handed a four year suspension in 2018, but the fraternity’s influence on campus won and the sentence was reduced to just one year. Adam Oakes’ death could have possibly been prevented if the fraternity was given more than a slap on the hand. A truly healthy Greek culture would not result in even one death at normal fraternity activities, and no amount of suspensions or other temporary punishments are going to fix the root issue.
Greek culture is also known to be a place where misogyny thrives, and fraternity parties are known to be very high risk to experience sexual assault, harrassment, or rape. A study by the National Institute of Justice indicates that simply belonging to a sorority is a huge risk factor for sexual assault, with around 25% of sexual assault victims being members. Two Northwestern University students who attended a fraternity party were allegedly drugged and assaulted, at least one by a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Sigma Alpha Epsilon has only just this year returned from a suspension, which was handed out after similar accusations of druggings and sexual misconduct. 

Greek life, despite these flaws, can be argued to have many benefits, such as building friendships and professional connections that last a lifetime. But there are barriers in place that prevent these benefits from being accessible to the whole campus. The dues and expenses associated with belonging to a fraternity or sorority prevent many low-income students from joining, and the culture of privilege can prevent them from feeling welcome even if they do. To keep up socially with the spring break vacations and meals out, as well as philanthropic activities, of the wealthier members of the group is another set of expenses, and that price is often required to have the sense of belonging that many in Greek life seek. Attending college alone is already a financial hardship for many young students. To lock further privileges and community behind more and more fees is undeniably classist, and creates an exclusionary campus environment. 

It is not enough to take action after another young person’s life is cut short or another case of drugging and sexual violence occurs. Fraternities and sororities cannot be allowed to continue without a thorough overhauling of the Greek system. Unmonitored and unlimited drinking and  drug use can no longer be tolerated, especially at new member and recruitment events. Membership to Greek organizations should also involve a constant commitment to educating oneself and others on issues of diversity, inclusivity and equality, and financial barriers to joining should be limited as much as possible. Changing the culture to one of accountability and healthy community will take time, and potentially dangerous Greek activity should not be tolerated in the meantime. It is definitely possible for Greek life to reform. However, if it does not, it will become obsolete as college campuses continue to diversify and modernize.