Six years of silence: Shirley & the Greeks
Fourteen representatives of Princeton’s fraternities and sororities met with Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan to discuss the presence of Greek organizations at a university where they have long gone unrecognized and unregulated. The University’s decision to formally reach out to members of the Greek organizations on campus marked a major departure from its policy dating back to the mid-1850s of refusing to acknowledge their presence.
The subject of the meeting: rush. Administrators asked the fraternities and sororities to move rush from September to later in the academic year. The representatives from the fraternities and sororities rejected the request, and the meeting went nowhere.
The outcome: six years of silence.
“We tried, and I think very sincerely, to engage them in considering the possibility of doing their rush either in the spring of the freshman year, which would be a modest improvement, or even better, waiting until sophomore year,” President Shirley Tilghman said. “Their answer was no. And that was the last time we have had a serious discussion with them.”
Over the past several years, the University has shifted from a more open perspective on fraternities and sororities to a completely closed policy of neither recognizing the groups nor attempting to approach or work with Greek leaders. Due in large part to the failed negotiations to move rush later in the year, some administrators who once indicated they would like to meet with representatives of Greek organizations and find a way to incorporate them into campus life said this is no longer the case.
“Having come from Duke, which has a very large and influential Greek system, I was initially open to the idea of recognition and, thus, regulation of fraternities and sororities on campus,” Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson said in an e-mail. “However, as I came to know Princeton’s history and culture, I was persuaded otherwise. While other schools may have fraternal organizations, Princeton has eating clubs. We have an interest in strengthening relationships with the clubs and are not willing to recognize fraternities and sororities.”
Dickerson and other administrators said much of their objection to the Greek presence on campus stems from the timing of rush, which starts just days into the academic year.
“It is the preying on very vulnerable freshmen, at a moment when they are feeling most vulnerable, that I find really objectionable,” Tilghman said of rush. “If those students who decide to join sororities or fraternities had even six months to just get their sea legs under them and get a feeling of where their home at Princeton was going to be, they would be making a much more informed decision.”
In 2008, all three of Yale’s sororities decided to move rush from the fall semester to the spring semester to allow freshmen to learn more about the organizations before deciding whether to rush. Following the change, all three sororities reported larger pledge classes than ever before.
But University administrators said their efforts to effect a similar change at Princeton have fallen on deaf ears. Several current and former members of Greek organizations said this is because holding rush soon after incoming freshmen arrive on campus has many benefits, while moving rush to the spring would interfere with Bicker.
Sorority rush at Princeton is well-organized and operates under timelines and guidelines established by the Panhellenic Council, a governing body that includes representatives from all three sororities. Sorority rush lasts four days and involves a process of mutual selection by both prospective members and the sororities, Panhellenic Council president Kelsey Platt ’11 said in an e-mail. Each potential new member visits all three sororities for the first two days of rush, and is then matched with a sorority in a process overseen by the sorority advisers, alumnae who live in the Princeton area. Not all individuals who rush receive a bid from one of the sororities.
“I like having rush in the fall. As a new student on campus, it’s great to have that sense of community and family right away,” said Emily Somerville ’06, a former president of the Panhellenic Council and Kappa Kappa Gamma member. “They come pick you up, and I remember that first night we all had to go to a meeting, and they gave us a packet of info listing great professors, great classes, good places to study on campus. I really enjoyed having that right away.”
Platt said early rush can also help introduce new members to other extracurricular activities.
“One of the positive aspects of early membership is that it exposes our members to the many diverse clubs and organizations available on campus, mostly through current sorority members who belong to and are often leaders of these groups,” she explained.
Fraternity rush is much more drawn out and no interfraternity council exists at Princeton to oversee the process, as it does at many other schools.
“The pledging process is supposed to last about eight weeks, and that is what the program is at other universities around the country,” said Evan Baehr ’05, a former member of the fraternity Kappa Alpha. “Because the fraternity scene is not recognized at Princeton, it is not regulated, so the lack of regulation and recognition means that fraternities can run their pledging process however they like.”
Baehr said his pledging period lasted roughly four months, adding that the process is often unclear to prospective members, and that older fraternity brothers gave only vague descriptions of it beforehand. Still, Baehr called his time as a pledge “very fun,” adding that, “the community that emerged was very strong.”
John Burford ’12 rushed the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon last year but left midway through the pledging process, which he said lasted from early October until April.
“The national SAE organization says you can only have a pledge period of a maximum eight weeks, and since Princeton doesn’t formally recognize fraternities or sororities, the SAE chapter here … is able to kind of flout the rules,” he said.
Brandon Weghorst, the associate executive director of communications for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon national organization, declined to comment on Burford’s allegations.
David Wynne ’01, a former vice president of Kappa Alpha, said he is torn on the issue of the fraternity pledging timeline.
“Rush could be pushed back a little bit, but you know who your friends are pretty quickly and kind of what groups you want to hang out with and if a fraternity is something that you’d be interested in or not,” he said. “It’s not like you close off the rest of Princeton social life or life in general. It’s kind of an addition. It expanded my enjoyment of Princeton and grew my circles of friends rather than limited them.”
But Deignan said she thought the early rush timeline was harmful for freshmen. “The rush process works at cross-purposes with our goal of early inclusiveness in the freshman year,” she said in an e-mail. “Because students may feel that membership in a fraternity or sorority appears to enhance one’s chances of gaining membership to selective eating clubs, freshman-year rush heightens the pressure to make social decisions before students have had the time and opportunity to acclimate to their classes, their college and explore other activities.”
In December 2003, the University convened the Committee on the Freshman Year Social Experience to examine the first 100 days of freshman year. As part of its research, the committee called for the 2004 meeting that brought together Deignan, six other committee members, and 14 fraternity and sorority representatives.
“Recognizing that many students feel forced to make a commitment [to join a fraternity or sorority] without complete information and before they may be ready to do so, committee members proposed … that rush be moved back at least to December to give freshmen the opportunity to settle in and also not to have Greek affiliations divide the class,” the committee wrote in its final report, issued in summer 2004. “This proposal was not met with any interest and we think it unlikely that the sororities and fraternities will pursue the suggestion.”
The report also noted that freshmen were uncertain about the University’s official stance with regard to Princeton’s Greek organizations.
“While the University does have a firm policy not to extend to Greek organizations the same privileges accorded to recognized groups, many students remain confused about this,” the report stated. “The administration’s silence is, for many freshmen, difficult to interpret.”
That summer, in an effort to clarify the University’s position, Deignan and Dickerson began sending a letter to every incoming freshman.
“While we do not prohibit students from joining fraternities or sororities, we strongly discourage such membership and ... we do not formally recognize these organizations or officially permit them to operate on campus,” the 2008 letter states. “We especially discourage students from being rushed into making a choice about membership in these organizations that can — and should — wait until they have been at Princeton long enough to understand the role they play on campus and to appreciate the many other social, recreational and service opportunities that Princeton provides.”
Though Deignan and Dickerson have sent out this letter each of the last six summers, some administrators have raised doubts about its effectiveness.
“I have to confess that I understand that that letter has not been effective,” Tilghman said, adding that she worries the letter may actually raise the profile of Princeton’s Greek organizations by informing incoming freshmen that they exist.
“Absolutely, we have discussed whether it is counterproductive and whether we would simply be better off not sending the letter,” Tilghman said. “In a way, we are sending it now to make our position as clear as we possibly can to parents who often have to pay the dues, and we just want them to know that, in our view, these are not organizations that add to the quality of the Princeton experience. But we have no illusions that this is having a profound effect.”
Dickerson said she was “not sure” how effective the letter had been. “While many students and their parents express appreciation for our letter and surprise that there are fraternal organizations at Princeton, there may have been other students whose interest in fraternities and sororities was piqued because we called attention to them,” she said. “In any case, we believe that our message is timely and constructive.”
Baehr said he and his Kappa Alpha brothers were not upset when the University began sending the letter to incoming freshmen in 2004.
“We laughed,” he said. “That fall, every male student knew about fraternities. As a result, we saw a huge increase in the rush numbers in Princeton for KA.”
But several sorority alumnae said they were disappointed by the University’s decision to single out Greek organizations for reproach.
“It’s kind of discouraging,” said Angela Covington ’03, former president of Kappa Kappa Gamma. “There are other organizations on campus that could have the same negative impact. They’re not sending letters out saying, ‘Don’t join the eating clubs.’ I think it’s a little unfair.”
The University’s relationship with the eating clubs stands in contrast to its interactions with Greek organizations. Though the eating clubs are also independent of the University, the Interclub Council of all 10 eating club presidents meets weekly with Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Maria Flores-Mills, who serves as the University’s liaison to the Street.
Since 2004, the administration has not had any official communication with fraternity or sorority leaders. This impasse resulted not just from the failed negotiations over the timing of rush, but also from additional concerns about alcohol consumption by minors, hazing and other disciplinary issues involving fraternity and sorority members, Tilghman said.
Somerville said that during her time as president of the Panhellenic Council, the University administration was “very backhanded” in its interactions with the Greek organizations.
“I knew they were trying to prevent people from joining fraternities and sororities, but it was all sort of under the table,” she explained. “They never reached out to me other than to say we couldn’t have events on campus, so we had them at the eating clubs. They scheduled a surprise mandatory info session for new freshmen our first night of rush, so we had to change that. No one ever said that it was intentional, but I’m pretty sure it was.”
Baehr said that when he was an undergraduate, the relationship between the fraternities and the administration was more openly hostile.
“President Tilghman kept lists of members of fraternities like the lists of communists during the Cold War,” Baehr alleged. “These students were regularly targeted by Public Safety. Public Safety cracked down especially hard on social events that they knew were hosted by fraternities, and they would often attempt to seize membership lists of the students.”
Tilghman denied that she or any other administrator had ever kept lists of fraternity or sorority members. “I think Evan is exaggerating the amount of free time we have to focus on this,” she said. “On the other hand, we are really concerned about the alcohol consumption, and we’re concerned about the hazing. Both of which, frankly, are against the law.”
Though these issues have long been concerns for University administrators and trustees, Tilghman’s own opinions about fraternities and sororities have hardened during her eight-year tenure as president.
In an April 2002 interview with The Daily Princetonian, Tilghman said she thought fraternities and sororities were not incompatible with the Princeton experience.
“I hope, at some point, to sit down with the leaders of the fraternities and sororities and talk very openly and frankly about these issues,” Tilghman told the ‘Prince’ at the time. “The greater degree to which we can get their participation in thinking through the appropriate place for them on campus, the better off we are.”
In an interview earlier this month, however, it was clear that her perspective had changed, especially following the failed negotiations over the timing of rush. She explained, “Having that kind of self-segregation happening to freshmen in the fall of their freshmen year is, frankly, antithetical to the whole educational philosophy of the University.”
This is the third article in a five-part series on Greek life at the University. Tomorrow: A look at the semi-secret society St. A’s.