Schwartz: Dog Days epitomizes complexity of Greek life philanthropy

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

I don’t even like hot dogs. I can’t remember the last time I ate one, and I plan on keeping it that way. Last week, I did not purchase a single one no matter how many times the fraternity men in hot dog suits placed so auspiciously around campus asked me to. Yet, here I am writing an 700-word thinkpiece about hot dogs.

I remember first reading through Joseph Charney’s Letter to the Editor several weeks ago and thinking, “All this for a bunch of hot dogs?” The president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity made a passionate argument for their Dog Days event — in which AEPi brothers grilled hot dogs to sell to eager students throughout campus — that I was surprised to find coming from a Greek organization. I find most fraternity and sorority philanthropy events pretty lackluster, as if chapters have chosen a random charity out of a hat and left most of the efforts to a select few members who are actually dedicated to that kind of work. And I wonder whether the costs of these events are really being offset by whatever donations they bring in.

But Dog Days seemed different to me. Low overhead, high donations. And, more importantly, a tangible focus on the charitable nature of the event. It didn’t seem like the brothers of AEPi put on Dog Days to keep up some thin veil of philanthropic piety over the ugliness that is the rest of Greek life; it seemed like they were doing it because they actually cared about the cause. This passion seems inspired by Scott Boorstein, an AEPi brother who took his own life shortly before the start of Fall Quarter 2016. This year, Dog Days benefited the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Boorstein’s memory.

Dog Days has become almost a mini Dance Marathon: an established campus tradition that changes its beneficiary every year and is inextricably linked to Greek life. And with that distinction comes a host of criticisms, this year in the form of memes in the ever-present Northwestern Memes for Networking Teens Facebook group. One in particular suggested donating directly to charity to bypass supporting Greek organizations, triggering countless comments worth of what meme page moderators referred to as “discourse” when they told members to cool it with the online arguments. Paragraphs were fired back and forth, either praising the brothers of AEPi or condemning those who valorize them for just selling hot dogs.

Reading these comments, I wondered if I was overreacting to Dog Days. Were my expectations of frat boys so low that I felt they deserved to be praised for actually being decent people and donating to charity for a week, despite whatever ugly behavior they might engage in for the rest of the year? Should thousands of dollars in charitable donations absolve Greek organizations of the deep-seated, violent ideologies on which they were founded?

I’d have to say no. But we should recognize that this type of philanthropy can make a difference. Even DM, which is certainly not free from criticisms, sends millions of dollars a year to charity. I find it incredibly hard to believe that college students would be donating such large amounts of money if these events didn’t exist. We’re frugal; we need to know what’s in it for us in order to donate, whether it be a hot dog (or two, or three) from Dog Days, social clout from DM and so on. And the close-knit communities and social capital that come with Greek life, however negatively they may affect other aspects of campus life, give these organizations considerable philanthropic power.

Painting a monolithic picture of Greek life as being incapable of anything good is unproductive, especially when Dog Days demonstrates AEPi’s enthusiasm for philanthropy as a result of a tragedy their chapter experienced. It seems in poor taste to write off a group of people doing charity work in honor of their friend who passed away. Greek life has become an entrenched presence on this campus, both with its unsafe parties and its philanthropy events. We can be cognizant of its complexities and at the same time feel empowered to critique it.

Then again, I still won’t be buying any hot dogs next year. But that’s just a personal thing.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, 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.