Greek life at Northwestern staying put

Alexandra Finkel

Tonight, hundreds of women will sit together in anticipation. Nervous chatter will fill the auditorium as they look to their neighbors for support. Once united by the common experience of recruitment, the students now hold an envelope that will divide them into 12 chapters.

Recruitment for sororities and fraternities is just one facet of Greek life on campus. At Northwestern, formal recruitment-the official process whereby potential members and active members mutually choose one another after a series of organized events-is deferred and takes place in January, much later than with other universities, which conduct recruitment in the fall.

It’s not surprising NU Greek membership will likely be higher than ever before, said representatives from the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference. Both organizations cite a recent increase in national membership, especially in the last three years.

“It speaks to this generation of college students,” said Ben Pendry, vice president for advancement for NIC. “This is a generation of students who have been joining groups all their lives.”

Over the past few years, overall Greek membership has increased, but the campus climate on Greek life as part of the NU student experience remains divided.Greek life comprises roughly 33 percent of the student body and has been present on campus for more than 150 years. Imagining NU without the Greek system is harder than imagining NU without the Rock.

The existence of a large percentage of Greek participants on campus impacts the undergraduate experience at NU, said Burgwell Howard, interim dean of students. NU is an “interesting hybrid” when it comes to being a private research university in an urban center like Chicago, Howard said. Schools similarly ranked with NU in U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges of 2010 have varying levels of Greek participation. Just 10 percent of students at the University of Chicago are involved with Greek life, while nearly 60 percent at Dartmouth College participate in fraternities and sororities.

“It’s significant when you have 30-odd percent involved,” Howard said. “It does change the character of campus.”

NU Greek life is almost as old as the University itself. NU’s first fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, was founded in 1859, a time when the University consisted of one building and when campus housing was nonexistent. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the chapter disbanded, but NU’s second chapter, Phi Kappa Psi, formed in 1864. Seven other fraternities came to campus before the turn of the century. The first female fraternity, Alpha Phi, arrived on campus 10 years after the first female student enrolled in 1869.

Today, there are 12 chapters in NU’s Panhellenic Association and 16 in the Interfraternity Council. Greek life now includes five culturally based organizations in the Multicultural Greek Council and seven historically black fraternities and sororities in the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

The past decade has seen the closing of several chapters due to lack of membership and risk-management violations. Most recently, Delta Tau Delta closed in 2007 and Lambda Phi Epsilon in 2008, as a result of violations to the University Code of Conduct. Chapter closures also fit into a national trend, Pendry said.

“The level of accountability is going up,” he said. “For those chapters that seek to soil the frat experience, we’re saying we’re not going to put up with it anymore. Those second and third chances aren’t happening.”

Problems relating to alcohol consumption and hazing have caused other universities, including Bowdoin College, Alfred University and Williams College, to abolish the Greek system entirely. Williams banned fraternity membership in 1962, said James Kolesar, the college’s director of public affairs.

“At that time, administrators were concerned about the self-segregation effect and a lack of intellectual engagement,” he said. “Fraternity life was very central to Williams at the time it stopped, but the lack of Greek culture has now become part of our college culture.”Abolishing the Greek system would be unnecessary at a larger university like NU, Howard said.

“NU is just like the City of Chicago,” he said. “It’s a city of communities. Greek life is another way of making a larger place seem more intimate.”

But a strong Greek presence can often cause social division on campus, said Nicholas Syrett, author of “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.”

“From the very beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, there have been complaints about the Greek group and the non-Greek group,” he said. “There was this idea where if you couldn’t get in them, you didn’t have as much fun. It absolutely segregated people.”

Jenna Fugate said she felt pressured to participate in recruitment her freshman year. Although Fugate went through the process, she dropped out shortly after accepting a bid from a sorority.

“I tried it, and when the whole process was over, I just couldn’t see myself in any particular sorority,” the Medill sophomore said. “I’ve heard that Northwestern was different, but a sorority is still a sorority.”

After going through the preview round of recruitment and being introduced to different chapters, Laura Ruch said she decided not to participate in formal recruitment.

“I got the feeling that either I would become like all the other girls there, or I was arbitrarily chosen to be in this group of girls who I wouldn’t have normally been friends with,” the Weinberg sophomore said. “I wanted to make my own friends.”

But “going Greek” offers a plethora of advantages, said Kris Bridges, the College Panhellenics Committee Chairman for NPC.

“Young women gain valuable leadership skills and networking opportunities,” Bridges said.

“But of course there is the social aspect and philanthropy work, as well.”Instead of dividing students, joining a fraternity or sorority can unite them, Pendry said.

“Anyone can have a fraternity experience,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s limiting or dividing in any way. What members truly provide is an opportunity for growth and for further engagement to become more tied to NU’s campus.”

Events like GreekBuild, a Greek-wide effort to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, give the community a positive image, Pendry said.

“NU has really put itself on the map as a university that values the fraternity and even interfraternal development,” Pendry said.

Weinberg junior Mitch Bergson said he joined a fraternity because it “seemed like a popular thing to do.”

Bergson, the president of Chi Psi, said students in Greek life are working to improve the relationship between the community and the administration.

University President Morton O. Schapiro did not experience Greek life at Williams but said in an e-mail to The DAILY he experienced a “vibrant Greek life” when he served as dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California.

“(Greek life) served a very valuable function in creating a student community,” he said. “So far at NU, I have been impressed with my interactions with the Greek community. “And it’s not going anywhere, Howard said.

“Will it always be there in the same numbers? It’s hard to say,” he said. “Students are fickle. What might be hot in 2010 might not be hot in 2014.”[email protected]