Greek trend puts new focus on social issues

by Rachel Osterman | 11/21/00 6:00am

When more than 100 students gathered last Thursday in Alumni Hall to discuss how the Greek system affects and reflects race relations on campus, their conversation was sometimes critical and sometimes composed. But it was not in isolation.

The recent trend among some fraternity and sorority organizations has been to move beyond their traditional role as venues for dance parties and beer pong -- although they still do that -- and offer self-reflective programming as well.

Recent events have addressed homophobia, gender relations and the promotion of the Indian symbol within the Greek system, and they have included such provocative titles as "Who'd you hook up with last night?"

Underlying this shift in emphasis is a combination of fraternity and sorority members trying to steer their organizations in new directions, individual houses fulfilling College quotas for non-alcoholic programming, the continuation of a public relations campaign on the part of coed organizations and a new willingness among Greek leaders to engage in introspective dialogue.

But while the extent to which the new programming will affect the future of the Greek system remains unclear, the campus is taking note. As a result, both new and old concerns are surfacing and, for perhaps the first time since the Trustee Initiative announcement, they are being addressed in a surprisingly non-defensive way.

"Some of the issues that we face in these discussions are issues that reasonable people can disagree about, and that's why we've held these discussions" said Ed Bialas '01, the vice president of Alpha Delta fraternity which has hosted several panels in the last month.

Indeed, the nature of the discussions have lent themselves to often heated conversations. But most participants have described them as constructive first steps in changing the Greek system.

"My friends are coming away with a lot of thoughts and questions, and that is great," said Liza Cowan '00, who is unaffiliated but familiar with many of the issues that have been addressed. She cautioned, though, against jumping toward hasty conclusions, saying: "I do have to question the audience in attendance, and those who are not there. And the question is, what are they doing with their awareness and knowledge?"

Of course, not all houses have been equally active in pursuing alternative programming, and most of the self-critical events have been concentrated among a few organizations.

Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity is one house that has not participated in the recent spurt of programming.

"I think that need has been addressed by other houses. I'm not sure we perceive a huge demand in holding anything in addition," said Alpha Chi president Eric Sirianni '01.

According to Greek members who have been active in the events, the impetus for raising the highlighted issues has been an identified need for both change within the fraternity and sorority structure as well as the more practical goal of changing the perception of the Greek system from the inside-out.

But also crucial in devising the programming was the role of a few particularly vocal individuals in pushing for the self-reflection.

"I was kind of unhappy with my experience," said Ben Gebre-Medhin '02, a member of AD who has helped organize that house's recent panels. "And I knew that there were enough people with enough energy to push for change."

Still, altering an institution's culture has never been an easy task.

Gebre-Medhin said he remains unsure about the effect the programming will have within the Greek system. One troubling pattern, he said, was that few of his house officers and older members have attended the events.

"I've been disappointed with their enthusiasm," he commented, adding, however, that the programming has been mandatory for new members and could therefore still influence the fraternity's future direction.

"You get articles in [The Dartmouth], and you get a buzz on campus about how things are changing," Gebre-Medhin explained. "But none of it really matters when only a tiny fraction of the brotherhood shows up."

Bialas also expressed ambivalence about the willingness of AD members to embrace the spirit of the new programming.

"There are people that want to change it and there are people who want it to stay where it is," he said.

But he, too, stressed the impact the new type of programming may very well have on sophomore members.

Also in play is the role of the Student Life Initiative in the changing nature of Greek events. While those involved with the events credit the Initiative for bringing controversial topics to the fore, most were hesitant to attribute the recent programming trend to the Trustee-generated changes on campus.

"In general, we're framing the conversation about founding values and issues of character and integrity," said Cassie Barnhardt of the Office of Residential Life. "But I think the Greek students are capable of whatever they want to achieve."

She said the shift in campus discourse about the Greek system stems from the coincidence of a number of factors, which the Initiative reflected.

"It's hard to look at it in a vacuum," Barnhardt said. "Whether the SLI happened or not, I really believe students would be looking at these things because it fits into the time that we're in at Dartmouth."