Recognition or prohibition? The future of Greek life
During a reunion of Sigma Alpha Epsilon alumni at a campus tailgate, a freshman pledge was made to consume dangerous amounts of Everclear. Later that day, the pledge was rushed to the University Medical Center at Princeton, where doctors found he had a blood alcohol level of 0.40.
“He should have been dead, I remember them telling us that,” said John Burford ’12, who was also pledging Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the time. Burford eventually dropped out of the pledging process, but the memories of being whipped in strip clubs, chugging tobacco spit and swimming naked in frozen ponds have led him to push the University to recognize the Greek organizations on its campus.
Though the University no longer bans fraternities and sororities, as it did from 1855 until the 1940s, it continues to deny them official recognition, citing concerns about hazing, alcohol and social segregation. This has left Princeton’s chapters to operate in a nebulous gray area for the past three decades: Since undergraduates have no formal disincentive to join, the total number of members in Greek organizations has hovered at around 15 percent of the total undergraduate population for the past five years, but these groups continue to lack the oversight and support their counterparts receive at other schools.
Rider University, seven miles from Princeton’s campus, recognizes its Greek organizations and was therefore able to shut down its Phi Kappa Tau chapter after freshman Gary DeVercelly died of alcohol poisoning in March 2007. At the time of his death, DeVercelly had a blood alcohol level of 0.426, only slightly higher than that of the freshman Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge 19 months later. But the Princeton event elicited no response from University administrators — if they even knew about it at all.
Is Princeton’s policy really the best approach?
Several alumni and current members of Princeton’s Greek organizations say it isn’t and have called on administrators to re-evaluate their refusal to recognize the chapters on campus.
“Eventually you just need to suck it up and decide whether you care more about your quote-unquote ideals or what your students are actually doing to one another,” Burford said. “The University is on its high horse … Their position is, fraternities and sororities are against the academic mission of the school, and I’ll give them that, but that doesn’t really help anything.”
David Wynne ’01, a former vice president of the fraternity Kappa Alpha, said he was “disappointed” that the University has not embraced its fraternities and sororities.
“I think there’s a lot of good to come from Greek life,” he explained. “For people who aren’t involved in different extracurricular activities … it’s a great way to meet more people on campus and to make more friends across age groups and class lines. I think the positives certainly outweigh the negatives.”
But President Tilghman said she could not “in good conscience” recognize the Greek organizations, which she called “antithetical to Princeton’s educational mission.”
“There are certainly people who think we’d be much better off recognizing them and ‘regulating’ them than we would with our current situation of ‘head in the sand,’ ” she said, emphasizing that she did not think such regulation would be very successful.
Princeton, like most American universities, saw a budding underground Greek life movement in the mid-19th century after its first fraternity appeared in 1843. But unlike most American universities, Princeton took active steps to ban Greek organizations, afraid of social stratification and concerned the groups would undermine college discipline and detract from the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, the undergraduate debating organization.
In 1855, then-University President John Maclean took the unprecedented action of requiring incoming students to sign the following pledge promising to eschew fraternities or risk expulsion:
“I pledge myself, without any mental reservation, that I will have no connection whatever with any secret society in this institution so long as I am a member of Princeton University … I also declare that I regard myself bound to keep this promise and on no account whatever to violate it.”
For more than a century, Greek life at Princeton lay dormant. Meanwhile, the college approved the creation of boardinghouses that would, over time, transform into eating clubs.
The ban was left out of a revision of “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” during the 1940s, Tilghman said, adding that Greek organizations resurfaced on campus in the 1980s, when alumni from Texas lamented that they could not “integrate into Texas society” without participating in Greek organizations.
Though Tilghman strongly disapproves of the Greek organizations on campus, she has not taken steps to reinstate Maclean’s ban.
“The major thing that’s holding us back from doing something that dramatic is respecting freedom of association,” Tilghman said. “If I were to say what would get us beyond the freedom of association arguments, it would be the judgment that these organizations, particularly the fraternities, had simply pushed the envelope so far that we were now putting students’ lives at risk.”
In the past, the University’s decision not to ban Greek organizations may have been partly due to the emergence of black fraternities and sororities on campus.
In a November 2003 article in The Daily Princetonian, former Butler College master Robert Hollander '55 said that, in the early 1990s, the presence of black fraternities on campus shielded all fraternities from some University crackdowns.
“When I was master, some people, whether well informed or not, said to me that the administration … did not want to make frats ‘illegal’ partly because it felt the minority organizations were of a different order and character from the non-minority ones,’’ Hollander said in a 2003 e-mail to the ‘Prince.’
Hollander declined to comment for this article.
Chanel Lattimer-Tingan ’05, a member of the now-inactive Princeton chapter of the black sorority Zeta Phi Beta, said black sororities differed from the other Greek organizations on campus because they focused primarily on service initiatives and only allowed sophomores to rush.
“I think the administration recognized that there is a difference between the historically black sororities and the other Greek organizations, but the issue that they face is how can you give funding to or recognize a certain type of sorority and not the others?” Lattimer-Tingan said.
There were two other black sororities on campus, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, she added, and all three had a total membership of roughly 20 students. The Delta Sigma Theta chapter is still active on campus. Three of its members declined to comment for this article.
Tilghman, who noted she was not previously aware that the black sororities on campus delayed rush until sophomore year, said she would “absolutely be willing to have a conversation” about recognizing organizations that had made this concession.
But for the past six years, no such conversation has occurred between any administrator and Greek organization representative. Instead, the administration has essentially ignored the fraternities and sororities on campus. The groups are technically forbidden from using campus facilities or participating in school-sponsored events, but sororities hold weekly meetings in McCosh Hall lecture rooms and fraternity teams regularly enter in the USG-sponsored Dodgeball Tournament under fake names.
Tilghman said she thought the Greek organizations were not harmed by the University’s decision not to recognize them.
“I don’t think it weakens them,” she explained. “I think it makes it more difficult for them to function on campus. We don’t let them use University space, at least knowingly … We don’t want them on our campus.”
Panhellenic Council president Kelsey Platt ’11 said the sororities would like to be recognized because they want to be able to host events on campus, like the recent fundraising concert for Haiti held at Cloister Inn.
“I am more than happy to schedule a meeting between the Panhellenic Council and the University to consider renegotiating the timeline of rush,” Platt said in an e-mail. “The only other possible time to schedule recruitment would be the week after Fall Break, which is usually the first week in November. However, even this option has some setbacks ... Some classes have midterms or papers during this week, which would prohibit a number of potential new members from rushing.”
Tilghman cited disciplinary problems and binge drinking, in addition to early rush, as her major objections to the presence of fraternities and sororities at Princeton.
In 1990, the Disciplinary Committee suspended 11 members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and required the fraternity’s president to withdraw for one year after a freshman pledge was transported to what was then Princeton Medical Center for excessive alcohol consumption at the fraternity’s “Golf Night.” The student later lapsed into a coma.
“Since then, we have not taken action against this large a number of students for misbehavior during a single fraternity-related event,” Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan said in an e-mail. “However, we have disciplined individual students who, as a result of alcohol-related fraternity pledging activities, have engaged in conduct that violates our community standards. Some of those students have been suspended.”
Alcohol consumption is also higher among members of Greek organizations, according to a survey of 1,000 undergraduates conducted in January 2010 by the ‘Prince.’ Of respondents who said they are members of Greek organizations, 32 percent said they consume five or more drinks several times per week, while this was true for only 9.5 percent of other students. Nearly 18 percent of fraternity or sorority members said they had been taken to McCosh for alcohol consumption, compared to only 6.5 percent of non-members.
“We have very clear and compelling data that membership in a fraternity increases your likelihood of encountering the discipline system in all its glory, of encountering [the McCosh Health Center] with transports, and the data for sororities is much, much less compelling in that regard,” Tilghman explained. “In that regard, there is a difference between fraternities and sororities, there’s no question … But I think it would be very hard to make a different decision about one versus the other.”
Platt also stressed that there was a difference between fraternities and sororities.
“As of right now, the Panhellenic Council’s main concern is to improve relations with the University and stress that sororities and frats shouldn’t be perceived in the same light,” she said.
Platt’s eagerness to engage with the University is a change from the attitude of some past Panhellenic presidents.
“It kind of worked for us not to be recognized,” said Emily Somerville ’06, a former president of the Panhellenic Council and Kappa Kappa Gamma member. “We had a little bit more autonomy. At the University of Texas, where I am now, they have a very strong Greek life, and there are certain regulations. I don’t know what Princeton would require under that relationship, so I’m not really sure that would be better.”
But some alumni said regulations could help the University control the hazing and binge drinking that freshmen often encounter during the pledging process.
“Recognizing the fraternities and sororities would certainly help with sound governance of the social organizations,” said Evan Baehr ’05, a former member of Kappa Alpha. “It would enable more transparent communication, event planning and safer management around alcohol and transportation.”
Still, he added, he would be wary of the University’s attempts to reach out to leaders of Greek organizations. “If the University decided to recognize them, I would be fairly skeptical that this is merely a ploy by the administration to get their hands on the fraternities and sororities and crush them,” he explained.
Recognition could “significantly change” the way fraternities and sororities operate on campus, giving the University much more control over them, said Alison Milam ’03, who served as president of Pi Beta Phi.
“I think it would give the school a lot more control if they recognized them,” Milam said. “That always struck me as a disconnect.”
But Tilghman said she doubted whether recognizing Greek organizations would actually improve the University’s ability to regulate them.
“If an ethos has developed within a fraternity which gets passed from each class to the next class that being cool, that being a member, involves things that put people’s lives at risk, I don’t think that any amount of somebody in West College saying we’re going to hold you accountable is going to stop that,” she explained. “Would we be having a different conversation if a student had just died? That’s a serious question. We know these things happen. We know they’re going on. We know they’re putting students’ lives at risk. What is it going to take for us to take this seriously?”
This is the final article in a five-part series on Greek life at the University.