“What is the worst fraternity on this campus? Who dropped a whole truck-load of fizzies into the swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring the toilets explode. … As of this moment I’m putting them on Double Secret Probation!”—Dean Vernon Wormer in Animal House
Movies like Animal House give parents nightmares and their entering college students unrealistic expectations about Greek life.
Take, for example, Annalise Miyashiro, a senior majoring in human and organizational development at Peabody. As she boarded the plane from Hawaii to Nashville in the summer of 2007, Miyashiro was concerned about pledging a sorority.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalls. “All I knew about sororities and fraternities came from movies and television, which did not present a positive picture of Greek life. I was worried about hazing.”
Miyashiro discovered a very different reality at Vanderbilt where, instead of hazing, she received gifts from her Alpha Omicron Pi sisters. Today the Chancellor’s Scholar and former Vanderbilt cheerleader is president of the Panhellenic Council, which governs 12 member sororities on campus.
“Being Greek has become a big part of my Vanderbilt experience,” she says.
Greek life is a tradition that predates the founding of the university (see sidebar). Today Vanderbilt is home to 20 national fraternities and 16 national sororities. About 43 percent of undergraduates, or 2,775 students, belong to Greek organizations. In January nearly 700 students pledged fraternities and sororities, slightly less than last year. More women than men—50 percent of all female undergraduates vs. 35 percent of males—are members of Greek organizations.
Membership in fraternities and sororities was very high in the late 1960s, when about 85 percent of Vanderbilt students were active members, says Sandy Stahl, BA’70, associate dean of students.
“The percentage began to drop off in the 1970s for a variety of reasons,” Stahl says. “They included the Vietnam War, the anti-establishment movement, a changing Vanderbilt population that was more balanced between men and women, and the merger with Peabody. We have remained fairly consistent since the 1980s.”
Not Your Daddy’s Greek Scene
The Greek organizations of today range from traditional fraternities and sororities governed by the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and National Panhellenic Council, to newer groups for African American, Latina and Southeast Asian students.
Historically African American fraternities joined the Vanderbilt community in 1971. Together with African American sororities, they come under the umbrella of the National Pan-Hellenic Council Inc. (NPHC). “They have been particularly important in supporting and retaining minority students,” notes Kristin Torrey, director of Greek life.
Last November the IFC approved the formation of a Delta Lambda Phi colony at Vanderbilt. A fraternity for gay, bisexual,transgendered and progressive men, Delta Lambda Phi was founded in 1986. Vanderbilt is also home to several religion-based fraternities and sororities, which are over-seen by the Office of Religious Life. (For more, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/religiouslife/groups.html.)
“A fraternity is more than a short-term social club,” says Charles Higgins, BE’71, MS’78, past alumni adviser to Phi Kappa Psi. “It is a lifelong participation in a national organization with larger ideals and values.”
Those values include mutual support, academic achievement, involvement in the life of the university, and community service. Last year Greek organizations contributed $342,536 to charitable organizations. Members performed 64,988 hours of community service, and 182 participated in Alternative Spring Break.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, belonging to a Greek organization doesn’t translate to lower academic performance. Freshmen must have at least a 2.5 grade-point average to pledge, but the average for new members actually exceeds 3.2. Last spring 52 percent of Greeks made the dean’s list. The average GPA of all Greek members was 3.42, while the average for all undergraduates was 3.35.
“Academic excellence may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Greek organizations, but the data is clear,” says Jim Lovensheimer, assistant professor of music history and literature and the 2009 Greek Community Faculty Member of the Year (see “In Class,” this issue). “In addition to substantial service within and outside Vanderbilt and a commitment to upholding the Fraternity and Sorority Standards, our Greek community also leads its peers in overall GPAs. This, perhaps more than any other factor of Greek life, demonstrates the high standards that our Greek community sets for itself and for the campus-wide community.”
Greek organizations foster leadership, with many members holding offices in some of the 350 other campus organizations outside the Greek system. They include Wyatt Smith, president of the Vanderbilt Student Government Association and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
“Both independents and Greeks play leadership roles on campus,” says Kyle Southern, BA’07, MPP’09, an independent who was president of Interhall. While Greeks may dominate the social scene, sorority and fraternity parties are open to nonmembers, and non-Greek organizations also sponsor campus-wide social events.
Greeks are sometimes criticized for being too exclusive or even segregated. The Office of Greek Life doesn’t keep racial statistics, but many chapters do have minority members.
“A lot of houses have minority members,” says former IFC President Charles Kirby, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “They include African Americans, Latinos, and Jewish and Middle Eastern students.”
The university also sponsors multicultural groups like Sigma Lambda Gamma (Gammas). A historically Latina-based national sorority, Gamma was established at Vanderbilt in 2007 “for women of all cultures,” according to its website.
Aspiring Greeks must have deep pockets. Dues range from $550 to $1,200 per semester for IFC men, from $700 to $1,000 for Panhellenic women, and $70 to $500 for National Pan-Hellenic Council members. Students may incur additional costs for meal plans, pictures, gifts, parties, T-shirts, etc. Members can use payment plans for dues, and individual chapters offer scholarships. Governing councils also have begun offering dues scholarships to allow more students the opportunity to have a Greek experience.
The Panhellenic Council tries to find a place for any woman who wants to pledge a Panhellenic sorority, and places about 80 to 85 percent of women who go through formal recruitment. Most of the other women withdraw, “usually because they were not asked back to their favorite sorority. Compared to other schools, that is very good,” Torrey states.
Not being accepted by a Greek organization could be one among many reasons why some students drop out, says Frank Wcislo, associate professor of history and dean of The Commons. However, more than 98 percent of entering freshmen graduate from Vanderbilt—a remarkable statistic. In contrast, nearly 50 percent of all students nationwide drop out of college without earning a degree, according to the Center for the Study of College Student Retention (2008).
Meshing Greek and Residential Life
Although some proponents of Greek life feared that The Commons—the residential system for first-year students that opened last year on the Peabody campus—would cause a decline in Greek membership, that hasn’t happened, say Torrey and Wcislo.
“The Commons creates a built-in community for freshmen on arrival and establishes another set of networks for them,” Wcislo says. “Many of those networks reach into Greek life and increase the social and intellectual diversity on campus.”
Because faculty members live at The Commons with the students, the university now has more eyes and ears on the ground. Today’s freshmen are stronger academically than ever before and more cognizant of their power in the Greek process, Wcislo says. “They are more activist in reporting hazing and more intolerant of pledge training,” he notes.
Students like Miyashiro find that joining a fraternity or sorority gives them a home away from home in a supportive community with a group of friends that shares their values and interests. For many alumni, lifelong friendships began at “the house.” Others fondly remember keg parties, road trips and pledge hazing as youthful rites of passage.
But the times, they are a-changin’—again.
Students at colleges and universities throughout the United States have died as a result of hazing and alcohol abuse in recent years. Universities and their administrators have been sued and charged with crimes as a result. National fraternal organizations have clamped down on local chapters, fearing lawsuits and cancellation of their liability insurance.
Although Vanderbilt has largely escaped terrible tragedies like those that have plagued other universities, students—both Greek and independent—have been involved in underage drinking, arrests and violence both on and off campus in the recent past.
Vanderbilt has the same high expectations for students whether they’re Greek or independent. Everyone is held to the same standards.
Probations and Suspensions
A number of incidents led the administration to take disciplinary action regarding some Greek organizations last year. During the 2008–2009 academic year, most fraternities—15 of the 17 Interfraternity Council (IFC) groups—and three sororities found themselves on social probation for at least part of the year. Activities where alcohol is present were restricted, and additional education and alcohol-free programs were required of the chapters. Sigma Phi Epsilon was suspended last spring for a variety of risk-management violations, and Phi Kappa Psi was suspended this fall for violating terms of their probation after a series of risk-management infractions.
Excessive consumption of alcohol directly contributed to the large number of probations, according to Dean of Students Mark Bandas. Violations of the hazing policy and the student honor code also were involved.
“Substance abuse, hazing, poor decision-making, inappropriate behavior and dishonesty have plagued the Greek community this year,” wrote Director of Greek Life Kristin Torrey in the 2008–2009 annual report. “While the university environment is changing, the Greek community has held on to traditions and activities that are inconsistent with the mission of the institution. Behaviors once tolerated by students and their families are no longer tolerated.”
“We used to say Vanderbilt was a ‘work hard, play hard’ university. Now it’s ‘work hard, play hard, be smart, be safe, be responsible.’”
~ former IFC President Charles Kirby
Vanderbilt enforces a zero-tolerance policy on hazing, consistent with Tennessee state law. The university defines hazing as “any activity that subjects members to harassment, ridicule, intimidation, physical exhaustion, abuse or mental distress,” and encourages students to report inappropriate behavior to the Office of Greek Life.
University officials and the Greeks themselves have taken steps to ensure such dangerous behavior doesn’t continue. Chapter presidents and council officers have identified specific initiatives addressing alcohol abuse, drug abuse, eating disorders and mental health issues.
Last spring IFC created Delta Force, a task force for improving the recruitment process. Their recommendations were implemented in fall 2009. “We recognized that we needed to address the systemic elements behind the disciplinary issues, or have them addressed for us,” says VSG President Wyatt Smith, leader of the task force.
As a result, fraternity rush has become more formal and structured, much like sorority rush. No longer do cars pull up to freshman residence halls on day one to take new students to illegal, off-campus fraternity parties. Chapters face a minimum fine of $5,000 for hosting parties where alcohol is served during freshman orientation.
“After the orientation time period is over, first-year students are permitted to attend events where alcohol is present,” Torrey says. “They should, of course, never be provided alcohol as they are not of legal drinking age.” This year three fraternities and no sororities were placed on probation. “The culture really did change,” says former IFC President Kirby. “We used to say Vanderbilt was a ‘work hard, play hard’ university. Now it’s ‘work hard, play hard, be smart, be safe, be responsible.’”
Vanderbilt claims more than 25,000 living Greek alumni who have gone on to excel in politics, business, education, industry and technology, medicine, law, entertainment and sports. Most provide needed guidance and advice to their active chapters.
“A fraternity adviser can be a resource for the active chapter to connect to the larger fraternal organization,” Higgins says. “He can help facilitate relations between the chapter and the university.”
Many, if not most, alumni feel their involvement in Greek life was an important and positive part of their Vanderbilt undergraduate experience.
“Looking back at my undergraduate career, nothing defined my college experience or shaped my character more than involvement in the Greek community,” says Andrew Wilson, BS’07, a young alumni trustee of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust, an M.D. and M.B.A. candidate at Baylor College of Medicine, and a member of Alpha Tau Omega.
“Most Vanderbilt graduates who were members of a Greek organization would tell you that their experience broadened their collegiate experience tremendously,” says Lawson C. Allen, BA’92, Sigma Chi International Chapter Adviser of the Year in 2002.
“The friendships developed through such organizations run deep and in many cases last a lifetime. Furthermore, the leadership opportunities are abundant; in fact, many of Vanderbilt’s most successful graduates around the world were members of fraternities and sororities during their undergraduate studies.”
University administrators agree. “Men and women in fraternities and sororities are committed to their academics, volunteer time in the community, develop and strengthen their leadership skills, and form a campus network with other Greeks,” says Torrey.
“The Greek community always has been, and will continue to be, an integral part of the undergraduate experience at Vanderbilt,” Smith says. “The fundamental strength of the community remains.”
Find out more: www.vanderbilt.edu/greek_life