The Rise of Greek Life
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
The perfect storm behind the titanic change in student life.
by Ben Schneider
“I never expected to be part of a sorority because I did think it was antifeminist,” Blair Wilson, CC ’18, and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, told Jessica Bennett of the New York Times in an April article entitled, “When a Feminist Pledges a Sorority.” Bennett spends much of the piece dealing with the tension between popular perceptions of Greek life, which, in Times reading circles, tend to mirror Wilson’s pre-conceptions, and the apparently hyper- progressive atmosphere in the Theta house, where “words like ‘safe space,’ ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and ‘intersectionality’ roll off these women’s tongues.
Whether or not Bennett is accurate in her assessment of Theta, or Ivy League sororities in general, her observations highlight the indisputable fact that Greek life is a far more significant force on Columbia’s campus than it has ever been before.
According to Spectator there were approximately 550 people in Inter-Greek Council (IGC) in the fall of 2006, including Panhellenic Council (PHC), Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) and Multicultural Greek Council (MGC). By the fall of 2010, there were more than 1,000 members in the three councils. In the 2015-2016 academic year there were approximately 1,800 people in Greek life, according to Jazmyn Pulley, Associate Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life.
Pulley estimates that of the 1,800 Greeks at Columbia, approximately 1,000 are in PHC, a little over 700 are in IFC, and 50 to 75 are MGC. (The numbers aren’t exact because each chapter keeps its own membership statistics, while numbers for IFC and MGC houses are somewhat more vague because they don’t have a formal recruitment process like PHC.) The 1,300 student growth in enrollment at CC, SEAS, and GS since 2006 (over 700 of whom are in GS, the least represented school in Greek Life) doesn’t come close to accounting for this three fold increase, which can reasonably be described as the most significant change in student life at Columbia in recent memory.
The War on Fun
Historically, the relative availability of social spaces on campus, the magnetic pull of the City, and the countercultural leanings of the student body kept fraternities and sororities on the fringes of life at Columbia. While the latter two factors have remained relatively constant, the availability of social spaces on campus has noticeably decreased, due to concerted efforts on the part of the university. This process, which was all the rage in campus media from about 2006 to 2010, was deemed the “War on Fun” by The Blue and White’s Managing Editor, Katy Reedy, CC ’09.
During these years, the administration aggressively sought to prevent underage drinking and other unsafe behaviors, which had the perhaps unintended side-effect of decreasing social opportunities for students. At the time, Columbia’s talking heads drew a connection between the increased enforcement and the beginning of Cristen Kromm’s tenure as Dean of Student Life. Reedy speculated that the university was circling its wagons against potential lawsuits and bad PR. Whatever the reason, RAs were suddenly expected to diligently enforce all of Columbia’s written policies.
“There was definitely an emphasis on adherence to protocol,” an anonymous RA told Reedy. The Office of Residential Life “emphasized how the policies contribute to a better community, which you can believe or not depending on your views.” According to Columbia Department of Safety’s annual report, the university went from ten disciplinary incidents for alcohol in 2005 to sixty-one in 2006, and from eight to twenty incidents for drugs. Parties in Ruggles and EC, which had previously gone untouched by the long arm of the Office of Student Life, were suddenly being broken up due to a previously unheard of ban on all students drinking in suite common rooms, which were technically considered “public spaces.”
Before the War, Bacchanal committee was the only club allowed to purchase alcohol, and would throw parties on and off campus in addition to its flagship event. It lost its ability to purchase alcohol during this period, and then stopped throwing parties. Lerner Party Space, which did, in fact, play host to parties, became much more heavily policed by Public Safety, who enforced strict two drink limits on students who were of age, ultimately discouraging people from using the space at all.
Rumors began to swirl in an environment Reedy likened to the Cold War. Some believed the administration trolled Facebook in order to break up parties before they had even begun, through Dean Kromm’s spectral account. Others speculated that RAs were expected to fill disciplinary quotas, or that the university provided ID scanners to local bars. The paranoia reached a fever pitch in December of 2009, when an anonymous poster (a double agent, perhaps) left a comment on Bwog alleging that Postcrypt Coffeehouse, a half-century old free folk music concert series in the basement of St. Paul’s, casually served alcohol to minors. After numerous meetings with administrators and foreboding headlines in Spectator, the group chose to stop selling beer, rather than hire a prohibitively expensive private security guard as the university demanded.
Greek organizations felt the pinch too, facing more frequent shutdowns and inspections. However, they remained the safest spaces (at least with regard to disciplinary consequences) for underage students to socialize and drink. In the spring of 2011, after a long and contentious process that included a college- wide poll, Barnard SGA voted to grant Greek organizations stage-two recognition, which gave IGC access to SGA funds. The council used these funds to deal with the “unmanageable” number of rushees at PHC’s four chapters. In the fall of 2012, Alpha Omicron Pi and Gamma Phi Beta—which was founded at Barnard in 1897—accepted invitations to colonize (yes, that’s the proper term) chapters at Columbia.
Meanwhile, fraternities used their growing influence to affect advantageous school policy changes. In the fall of 2009, the university revised its so called “Lerner Hall Policy,” which required fraternities to register parties ten days in advance, and mandated that “proctors” from outside of the Greek community monitor all events. The new rules allowed houses to register parties five days in advance, and permitted brothers trained in alcohol safety and risk management by the Alice! Health Promotion Program to act as monitors. In addition, fraternities won the right to have parties every night of NSOP. Unsurprisingly, the changes were a boon to Greek life.
“I would call the ‘War on Fun’ a myth,” IFC co-president David Salant, CC ’10, told Spectator in a December 2009 article. “At least, in fraternity life we have never had more flexibility, coordination and communication with the university.”
“Much More All-Encompassing Than Something Like That”
While the War on Fun occasionally slips back into the campus zeitgeist, these days it has become something of an unspoken fact of life at Columbia. The most recent reports from the Department of Public Safety make the numbers from a decade ago look like a bacchanalian paradise: 106 incidents of disciplinary action for alcohol in 2015, and 153 for drugs. It’s hard to believe students are drinking twice as much as they did before Vampire Weekend had graduated, or doing seven and a half times the amount of drugs. These statistics have been compounded by the dearth of viable social spaces on campus—no more organic beer at Postcrypt Coffeehouse, no more Bacchanal Committee open parties, and no more halfway-decent events in Lerner Party Space.
On most weekend nights, an underclassman desiring a drink or two in the company of more than ten or twelve people has two options: take a chance with the fickle bouncers at Mel’s or 1020 (R.I.P. Cannons), or go to a frat party. For many of the Greeks I spoke to, meeting new people and having more opportunities to socialize was a major reason for joining a house. Despite the fact that Columbia students tend to be involved in a large number of extracurriculars, many clubs lack the social component that Greek life provides. “I have some organizations that are really important to me,” said Sally Lindsay, CC ’17, the co-president of Design for America and a member of Theta, “but they don’t function on the weekends all the time.” Clubs are usually focused on specific projects and objectives, and on a campus full of diligent workers, groups may not prioritize getting together just for fun. Additionally, clubs, by their definition, are composed of people with shared interests, and more than likely, shared outlooks. This is also frequently the case among students of the same major, who spend much of their time studying together. It can be hard to break out of these self-reinforcing bubbles, Rebecca Ohaeri, CC ’18, and a member of Alpha Chi Omega, told me. “A lot of times at Columbia the people you know are the people you live with and the people you go to class with… so a lot of times they have similar perspectives on things.”
Ohaeri and other Greeks I spoke to were pleasantly surprised at the diversity they discovered during the rush process. Zach McNeal, CC ’19, and a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, believes that Greek life is “less exclusive” than it was in the past.
“When I thought about Ivy League fraternities before I got to school I thought they would all have incredibly similar people, either a special interest or a team. Now I feel like fraternities are much more all- encompassing than something like that.” While fraternities and sororities remain exclusive in that they select members based on arbitrary and opaque criteria, and some fraternities are in fact dominated by a sports team, the changing demo- graphics of the student body and the system’s overall growth have inevitably increased the diversity of Greek Life.
While IFC and PHC are often interested in becoming bigger and more heterogeneous, MGC organizations are specifically focused on creating spaces for people of similar backgrounds and interests. Although MGC houses make up less than five percent of Greek life, they too have experienced growth in recent years, according to David Jimenez CC ’17 and the president of Phi Eta Alpha, a Latino fraternity with a focus on Pan-Americanism. With ten members, his house is one of the larger MGC organizations. But being in such an intimate, familial environment is part of the appeal of MGC, Jimenez said.
Even before joining, “there were people who were genuinely interested in my well-being and making sure that as people of color and minorities on campus we support each other a little bit because sometimes the resources are a little bit harder to find.” MGC houses tend to be more closely linked to one another, as well as their sibling chapters in the New York area, which creates a larger sense of community. “I don’t think [PHC and IFC] organizations interact with off-campus chapters as much,” Jimenez speculated. Still, across the councils, there seems to be a surprisingly symbiotic relationship between Greek life and the unique opportunities New York City affords.
“It’s a Marketing Strategy”
Despite being primarily social organizations, Greek houses can help facilitate the Type A lifestyle that Columbia and the City are infamous for. Having a packed schedule is a virtue unto itself, Natasha Przedborski, BC ’17, and a member of Sigma Delta Tau, observed.
“Everyone always wants to be busy here, and sororities give you extra stuff to do… My friends will be like, it’s dope you have mixers every weekend, and I’m like yeah, they’re not fun, but at least it’s some- thing I can do.”
Although some of the upperclassmen I spoke to mentioned they were tired of frat parties, they still appreciate having options. In addition to providing a wider menu of social opportunities, going Greek is also widely thought to improve one’s career prospects. This was the very first factor Pulley cited when I asked her why Greek life had become so much more popular in recent years.
“Columbia students work really hard when they’re here, and they want to have a great job when they leave, so the network that comes with the alumni is huge.” Internship hand-offs, Principles of Econ study guides, and alumni mixers have a powerful and familiar allure for a student body that is well trained in ladder climbing. Greek organizations have learned to play up this strength, emphasizing the resources of the City of New York, with its seemingly endless supply of recently graduated big brothers and sisters.
It also appears that all of those consulting internships have started to leave a mark on the organizations themselves. Not only do Greek organizations help their members succeed in business, they themselves have found success by acting more like businesses.
“It’s a marketing strategy,” McNeal said of Sig- Ep’s recruiting process. “How can we get really cool kids to join our organization? How can we expand what we have?… I think there are a lot of organizations on campus that have a similar strategy.”
“The FOMO Becomes , Like, Real, or Whatever”
In the past, the popularity of Greek life rose and fell in tandem with its representations in popular media. Most notably, the 1978 film “Animal House” presided over a substantial boost in Greek participation nationwide, albeit “not a positive boost,” according to Pulley. Although the “Neighbors” franchise stands out as a recent depiction of Greek life on the big screen, smaller screens seem to have had a much larger influence on popular perceptions of the system.
The dramatic increase in Columbia’s Greek population happens to correlate to the widespread adoption of smartphones and social media. These innovations have given Greek organizations the opportunity to shape their own media narratives. As a sophomore deciding whether to join a house, Facebook was one of Ohaeri’s main avenues of research.
“As a person who wasn’t in Greek life previously, the only reason I knew about it was because I would see posts on Facebook saying, we did this, or I know this and this and this person.” Ohaeri’s initial means of encountering the Greek system is far from unique. Today’s underclass- men may have begun following the exploits of their Greek friends and siblings on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook as early as middle school. Inevitably, these curated images convey an aura of popularity, fun, and sexiness that may not necessarily reflect the reality. “The way that the culture is portrayed is incredibly appealing,” McNeal, who is from Texas, said of all the photos he saw in high school of Gulf Shores, Alabama, where hundreds of Southern houses go to party during spring break, all decked out in their letters
Although the scene at Columbia isn’t quite as conspicuous, it still makes for some tantalizing images, according to McNeal. “Going on trips to New Orleans or Mexico, taking retreats to rural Connecticut or Upstate New York, parties in the backyard where there are two hundred kids, having cool shirts that people design and awesome events with decoration and stuff—it presents really good photo opportunities.”
When broadcast on social media, these picture-perfect moments become public declarations of coolness for those who were there, and salt in the wounds of those who weren’t invited. Exclusion has never been more garish. Luckily, there is a way to feel included once more: rush!
“Because of social media, you never want to be missing out on stuff,” Przedborski said. “And the F.O.M.O. becomes, like, real, or whatever. I think that’s what the young people say these days. And there’s this idea that you should be at every party, and in the minds of some, that’s always associated with Greek life.”
Even on one of the nation’s most progressive campus, Greek life’s exclusivity, its dubious gender politics (which deserves its own article or three), and its historical associations with racism and other forms of oppression can be easily overlooked. Generally speaking, college students want to be social and they want to be well-liked. If there’s a fun event happening on campus, no one wants to miss out. At Columbia and ever more schools like it, Greek life is by far the easiest way to fulfill these very normal desires.
And yet, at Wesleyan, Middlebury, and quite possibly Harvard, Greek life as we know it is in the process of being abolished. These contradictory developments reflect the vocabulary of the medium upon which this Greek drama is unfolding. Does the system need to be disrupted, as indicated by a 2007 study that found fraternity members are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than non-members? Or can it be optimized, as evinced by Jessica Bennett’s utopian 2016 article?
Whatever becomes of the Greek system, it serves as a timely reminder that our institutions are only as righteous as the ethos in which they exist.