Once making up 41% of the school population, Greek life has faced a decline in membership in recent years. There was an 11% decline in membership from 2016 to 2019. In addition, the looming presence of the external review has left the future of Greek life at Whitman looking unsteady.
Junior Alex Pratt, Interfraternity Council (IFC) President, said, “Historically, the percentage of all incoming students who have declared an interest in Greek life is extremely low. Less than 10%, based on student surveys.”
According to Pratt, in 2016, Greek membership on campus comprised a total of 616 students. In 2019, there were 466 students involved in Greek life.
Junior Sophie Leibsohn believes that one of the reasons for the recent lack of interest is a cultural shift in negative attitudes about Greek life on campus.
“Campus culture has shifted in a different way,” Leibsohn said. “I think a lot of people come into school with assumptions about Greek life.”
However, Dean of Students Kazi Joshua placed these lowered numbers within a broader national pattern of reduced interest in Greek life.
“There is a national trend across the country of less interest in Greek life,” Joshua said. “There is even a national movement to ban Greek life. Locally at Whitman, the college demographic has both changed and grown in the last 30 years … As the college has become more diverse and [acquired] a cumulatively, culturally critical posture towards class and gender, there has been less and less interest.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to online learning have also put a strain on recruiting new members. Junior Panhellenic President Stephanie Fulton weighed in on the struggle to conduct recruitment entirely online.
“I think more recently, a big part of that [decreased recruitment] is obviously due to the pandemic … and how a lot of the perceived benefits of Greek life … are not possible, which is understandably a reason why people don’t want to join right now.”
Fulton added, “A big [barrier] is simply financial — it costs money to be in a sorority or any Greek organization.”
The price of joining Greek life has long been a barrier to first-generation working-class (FGWC) students and others who may not be able to afford to join. Greek organizations have made an effort in recent years to increase financial transparency. However, how much organizations are willing to disclose during recruitment is ultimately up to the individual organizations themselves. Even scholarship opportunities, such as the Brotherhood and Sisterhood funds, do not cover 100% of costs associated with membership.
There is a particular financial incentive for male students to join Greek life. For sophomore Nasser Guelleh, current Sigma Chi President, the financial advantage to living in his fraternity instead of on campus was one of the things that initially drew him to joining Greek life.
Pratt added, “For me, it cost a little bit over $4,000 for room and board for me to live in Sig … and that’s multiple thousand dollars cheaper than at the school. And you’re not allowed to live off campus as a sophomore unless you’re a Greek member and a male.”
Unlike men, sophomore women are not allowed to live off campus and instead are relegated to specifically designated sorority sections in Prentiss Hall.
“[The rule] is permitting men to live off campus at a lower cost than women,” Leibsohn said.
Fulton added that the lack of sorority housing also means sororities have to rely on fraternities to be social spaces and must ask fraternities for permission to throw events. Leibsohn mentioned that this can be uncomfortable for sorority members, who may have previously experienced trauma in these male-dominated spaces.
Leibsohn and Fulton, alongside other members of Panhellenic and IFC, recently met with members of the college administration. The meeting was conducted in order to bring concerns about gender disparities in Greek life in front of the college.
“All we were asking for was the permission [for sophomore women to live off campus] and we were denied on the basis of the fact that the external review will come to tell us whether there are inequities in Greek life,” Leibsohn said.
The external review of Greek life came out of a faculty motion initiated by Professor Dana Burgess in 2018, which called for an examination of whether single-sex organizations are appropriate to the culture and mission of the college.
Joshua cited the external review of Greek life as reasoning for the faculty’s lack of action on gendered inequities in Greek life.
“The administration would be wrong to run ahead of the external review, and ahead of faculty action on the motion, and just do something for doing something,” Joshua said.
The lack of clarity around the purpose of the external review has been a source of anxiety in the Greek community.
“I think there has been a lot of misinformation that goes, ‘Oh, the external review is just to get rid of Greek life’… it is not to do that … it is to look at the issues and barriers in Greek life,” Leibsohn said.
Joshua clarified, “External reviews are a standard part of college operations. They happen in academic departments and other programs outside of the academic program. Recently, the counseling center, Power & Privilege, Encounters [and] global studies have all undergone external reviews. They provide information from external experts for improvement of the program.”
“[The motion, and subsequent external review,] was read as the faculty wanting to end Greek life. That is not what it was. It was examining the values … from an equity and inclusion point of view.”
Fulton added, “What I think the external review is and should be, is a review of our system from a professional standpoint, where people are trained to do this. Seeing how we can better the Greek system at Whitman and how the administration can support us. It’s reciprocal.”
Since her first year at Whitman, Leibsohn has recalled hearing about the upcoming external review of Greek life.
“We have four years, on average, here,” she said. “People have graduated in the time we’ve been talking about this.”
According to Joshua, the external review consists of two parts: firstly, a self-study in which organizations pose questions to themselves and write a report summarizing their findings. This report is then sent to the external reviewers. In the second phase, the reviewers receive the report and then conduct a campus visit to meet with various constituencies.
Whitman is in the second phase of the external review. The campus visit was scheduled for Spring 2020. It has since been postponed to the 2021-22 school year.
“That report and the action of the faculty will then let the administration respond to those recommendations. We don’t know what the faculty will do.” Joshua continued, “The administration is not going to take any bold activity in any direction until the faculty completes its work.”
For Leibsohn and Fulton, the external review has been a source of frustration.
“It feels like they’ve used the external review as a mechanism to not deal with issues presented to them,” Leibsohn said.
Fulton continued, “For so long … the administration has been putting things off and saying … ‘In a few years,’ and by the time a few years comes around you have new people who don’t know what was up.”
For Pratt, the biggest problem in Greek life is the blatant inequity between fraternities and sororities. Pratt cited Willamette University’s recent external review of Greek life as a source of optimism.
“Willamette … recently had an external review and it went really well for them,” Pratt said. The review provided recommendations for addressing the challenges associated with Greek life at Willamette.
“I think there’s lots of rhetoric going around that [the external review’s] going to kill us … but it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me,” Pratt said. He clarified further over email. “I don’t think it will solve all our problems, but I think it will encourage the college to assist [with] problems we can’t fix ourselves.”
Regardless of the results of the external review, some members of IFC, Panhellenic and individual organizations are working to make Greek life more inclusive.
“One of our biggest things this summer is working on our outreach to incoming students and students on campus,” Pratt said. He plans to involve the Greek community more heavily in the international student orientation and the summer fly-in for first year FGWC students.
“Oftentimes, those groups of people [international students and FGWC students] do not feel welcome in Greek life, so the goal is to open it up and make sure that everyone feels like they belong,” Pratt said.
“The most powerful predictor, of whether one will join or not,” Joshua said, “is if you believe the people inviting you care about [you], and you consider them friends.”
For Fulton, the primary reason that she considered joining Greek life was that her fly-in leader was involved.
“Having that contact and showing you belong here can play a big role in getting people to join or even just consider it.”
Sigma Chi President Nasser Guelleh’s reasoning was similar:
“I can’t speak on the other houses, but for me, being a person of color, I think the biggest thing was that I felt an inclusive space as soon as I stepped in [Sig]. And I don’t know if you’re guaranteed that in every house.”
He continued, “Just seeing other members who shared similar identities as me, just being in these spaces, felt like maybe I could possibly want a space like this.”