The Gifts of the Greeks

Now that the presidential election is over there is probably no better issue for those addicted to acrimony than the role of fraternities and sororities within a liberal arts college setting. This topic is guaranteed to elicit a volatile concoction of passion, nostalgia, and high moral dudgeon among alumni, students, and faculty on all sides of the issue. So it would be understandable if some considered me rash — if not foolhardy — for inviting a community discussion on this topic during my first year as Muhlenberg’s President, through the formation of a Task Force on Greek Life.

I was fortunate to find courageous and fair-minded members of the Muhlenberg family to co-chair this effort: Tilghman Moyer, our Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations, and Psychology Professor Linda Bips, a former sorority member herself, mother of a Muhlenberg sorority alumna, and mother-in-law of a Muhlenberg fraternity alumnus. They, in turn, were assisted by a broad spectrum of students, faculty, staff, parents, Trustees, and alumni — some independents, others proud Greeks and Greek alumni. After months of discussion, including an on-campus forum with students and an e-mail survey of alumni that generated more than 180 responses reflecting widely varying perspectives, the Task Force submitted its final report to me at the end of November.

Photo of President HelmThe most fundamental and important Task Force recommendation was that Muhlenberg should find ways to strengthen its Greek system in support of the College’s mission as a vehicle for developing students’ character and leadership abilities. This was not as obvious a suggestion as some might think — after all, many of our country’s finest liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Williams) have banned Greek organizations entirely from their campuses. Yet this sort of radical Greekectomy does not seem called for at Muhlenberg. Our Greek system is not perfect, but neither is it currently in a state of crisis. So the appropriate questions would seem to be: how do we enhance Greek life at Muhlenberg? And what role should Greek organizations play on campus?

First, as the Task Force astutely noted, strengthening the Greek System does not mean expanding it. Our current roster of four sororities and four fraternities seems adequate for the number of students who are interested in a Greek experience. Adding additional organizations could strain membership as well as resources and weaken the system. Thus new fraternities and sororities may be added over time, but probably only as current ones become no longer viable. Of course, we need to take other steps to keep the system healthy, including:

  • A new relationship agreement, clearly articulating mutual expectations among the College, the chapters, and the Nationals. Greek members (both students and alumni) must have higher expectations for their organizations, and the College must encourage these higher expectations through leadership training and other forms of support.
  • A more transparent system for evaluating the viability of existing chapters. Alumni engagement will be an important criterion in gauging the success of individual chapters. Without the active engagement of Greek alumni as mentors and advisors, we cannot realize our aspirations for Greek life. Other important criteria must obviously include academic performance, responsible social behavior, appropriate risk management procedures, community service, and proper care of chapter property and facilities.
  • A consideration of fraternity and sorority needs as we plan the future of Muhlenberg’s residential facilities.
  • Better communication and collaboration among students in Greek organizations, other campus groups, and, in particular, our faculty and staff.

As I've emphasized since I was introduced as Muhlenberg’s President-elect in March of 2003, I support Greek life as a means of character and leadership development for students who find that approach congenial. I wince when people say the administration is “anti-Greek” because it’s just not true. I belonged both to a fraternity and a senior society during my undergraduate years at Yale. My wife Pat was a sorority sister at Colorado College. We know that such experiences can be positive and beneficial for students. But Greek life isn’t the right experience for everyone, nor should the Greek system be expected to provide the social life for everyone on campus. That wouldn’t be fair to the Greek organizations and it wouldn’t be satisfactory to many of our students who have little or no interest in Greek life. Muhlenberg must provide rewarding and varied social opportunities for all our students, in addition to whatever social options Greek life affords.

Success in this enterprise, as in so many other initiatives on Muhlenberg’s ambitious agenda, will require teamwork and shared commitment. I look forward to working with our students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff to make Muhlenberg’s Greek system a model that other schools will envy.

 

Peyton R. Helm
President
Muhlenberg College

 
The Last Word

 

 

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