So, What About Greek Life?

Greek life, at colleges and universities, is one of the most controversial topics. Everyone has an opinion, from your mom to your freshman year roommate. Recently, Greek life has become the target of many investigations and has had its systems challenged by important movements and current events. So as an active member of a chapter here at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I’m starting to ask questions: is there a future for Greek life?

Let’s start with COVID-19. As recently as this past week, the total number of infections has pushed past 7 million in the United States. Worse yet, many Americans haven’t been exposed yet so herd immunity isn’t really in the cards. 

While our government struggles to take action, UMass Amherst has claimed that they’ve done all that they can to keep students safe. Changing their previous decision regarding off-campus testing, the university now strongly recommends all students who live off-campus to get tested twice every week. This comes days before an email was sent out to the entire student body from Brandi Hephner LaBanc, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life. LaBanc asks students to refrain from hosting or attending parties or gatherings and encourages individuals to wear face coverings and get tested. Rumors followed this email and students were quick to blame some of the houses on Phillips St. in Amherst, MA. Phillips St. is home to many of the fraternities and sororities that reside on campus, many of whom have been caught throwing parties in broad daylight. Whether or not this uptick in cases was due to those fraternity and sorority members disregarding social distancing policies is up for debate. However, other students are quick to point fingers at Greek life organizations, which only reinforces their negative reputation. 

Unsplash / Nathan Dumlao

So, is Greek life to blame for the rise in COVID-19 cases at colleges and universities across the nation? The short answer is “it depends”. The long answer brings into question individual schools and their choice to bring or not to bring students back to campus. At the University of California-Berkeley, there was a spike in cases that administration contributed to the numerous fraternity and sorority parties being held around the campus. At the University of Mississippi, over 160 students tested positive for COVID-19, with these outbreaks being linked to [recruitment] parties- despite the ban on in-person recruitment. Here at UMass Amherst, out of the 57,270 tests that were conducted [as of 09/27/2020], there are only 39 cumulative positive cases. That makes for a cumulative positivity rate of 0.07%.

As a participant, I will say that UMass Amherst sororities have done well adapting to the circumstances. All eight sororities participated in virtual recruitment over Zoom from September 9th-14th, where enrollment numbers were higher than expected. Lauren Musshorn, Panhellenic Council President, emphasizes how many sorority members are very “‘respectful of the town that we live in, and [that] we really value our relationship with the Amherst community.’” Although weekly chapter meetings and ritual events haven't quite been the same, sororities are adapting the best they can. Even with recruitment, “‘you might have to sit at home for the semester, but you can have a core group of women to help you out,’” says Musshorn.

As an observer, UMass Amherst fraternities are leaving the Amherst community in the dark. Only a handful of students know which fraternities invited their members back to their house and even less know about the activities that go on inside. It raises questions about how seriously members of fraternities are following the local and state guidelines.

While COVID-19 rages on in our communities, so do the people. Greek life organizations have also been called into question with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. An article from a University of Southern California newspaper phrases it best, “the resonance of the Black Lives Matter movement prompts us to critically examine our own communities for racial injustice and disproportionate representation.” Sahiba Gill urges us to think about the statement put out by sororities and fraternities on campuses across the country and consider how sincere they really are. To her and many others, “words can only do so much.”

Some Greek life organizations, like Sigma Sigma Sigma and Delta Gamma, have abolished their legacy policies in response to this cry for accountability. In a statement from Sigma Sigma Sigma national headquarters, they acknowledge that “even though doors were opening to women, historical information reveals that the sorority experience was limited to those who were white.” 

Black lives matter protest Photo by Nicole Baster from Unsplash

This is not enough to fix a systematic problem that has persisted for years, but it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s exactly how Greek life is going to survive. Accountability is our biggest asset. We need to continue to build trust in our local communities and work together with the various levels of university, local, and state governments. If a member is unable to follow health and safety guidelines, we need to hold them accountable for their actions. If a fraternity or sorority is unable to work towards building a better foundation and future for its members, then hold them accountable, and make their actions match up with their words. It sends a powerful negative message if the Greek life community watches from the sidelines. Sure - we can prattle on about how it’s “wonderful to be a part of something larger than ourselves”, how the “alumnae connections are valuable”, and so on, but those things aren’t going to make our communities see the value in us. 

Unfortunately, there's no concrete answer that accompanies the idea of the future of Greek life. But it’s time to step up. Otherwise, we’ll be coming back to campus in an entirely different environment.