Boxerman: We should abolish Greek life at NU, and it wouldn’t be as hard as you think

Aaron Boxerman, Op-Ed Contributor

When we think of the classic “college experience,” we often jump straight to Greek life: brotherhood, boozy tailgates and basement parties. Every college movie is full of these tropes. From “Animal House” to “Neighbors,” fraternities and sororities seem as American as apple pie.

In her column, “A call for self-critical participation in PHA and IFC,” Jessica Schwalb makes a powerful argument for how fraternities and sororities rest on rotten foundations. She amasses a serious pile of evidence — sexual assault, a history of violent hazing, toxic masculinity, elitism — for why they make Northwestern a more dangerous place for everyone, Greeks and independents alike.

Greek life enjoys a deference undeserved by its record. Fraternities are one of the only places on campus where you won’t get in trouble for drinking. You’re more likely to get written up when drinking in the safety of your own dorm surrounded by your friends than you are in the basement of a frat house.

And yet, at the end of her piece, Schwalb pulls back. She avoids the logical conclusion that fundamental change is required and instead encourages a greater degree of “self-criticism,” along with a few other stopgap solutions.

For Schwalb, everything hinges on one claim: that “Greek life exists on our campus, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.” But it only takes one thing for Greek life to end: If committed people join forces to advocate an end to the fraternity and sorority system at NU, anything is possible.

Is it really so unthinkable? The majority of students in our country who attend college don’t join a fraternity or sorority. Last year, 29 percent of undergraduate men joined fraternities and 32 percent of undergraduate women joined sororities at NU, according to University data. Plenty of schools our size — Tufts University and the University of Chicago among them — have a low or practically non-existent Greek presence. Despite this, these universities also manage to have vibrant campus communities.

Even many large universities, such as the University of Oregon, University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley, have fewer students in Greek life, proportionally, than we do. The dominance of Greek life is the province of a certain subset of schools. There is nothing “inevitable” about it.

But what about “self-critical participation”? I wish self-critical Greeks the best of luck, but I have little hope for their success. Your money, your face and your name are bound to an institution premised on elitism and exclusivity, both of which often cut across lines of race and class. Expanding financial aid and allowing sororities to throw parties are band-aids, as Schwalb herself suggests, to a fundamentally unjust arrangement.

It’s important to remember that these institutions don’t exist at NU alone. Greek organizations are national brands, with national leadership that severely restricts well-meaning students’ hopes for change. Exclusivity will always exist in student groups. But this is different — in many other clubs on campus, the problems are local. Students at NU can challenge their peers or the administration and demand answers. That option does not exist in the context of many of the biggest questions facing Greek life. Taking a “self-critical” stance within these institutions isn’t pragmatic — it’s an excuse for inaction.

To assert that Greek life is somehow an essential part of college is to present it as some kind of eternal, universal force. It’s not. To be sure, long years of tradition give the Greek system a veneer of strength. But the only thing that keeps fraternities and sororities going is the people who buy into them. In other words, we built it — and we can put it away for good, if we decide to.

Eliminating Greek life would not end sexual assault, classism or exclusion at NU. But it’d be a powerful start. Those students committed to making the world around them a better place should start thinking creatively about what a non-Greek NU campus could look like.

We must all begin to take seriously the following two questions: Should Greek life exist at all? And if not, what are we to do about it?

Aaron Boxerman is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.