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Greek life is part of Syracuse’s larger cultural problem

SU is one of many universities that needs a solution here.

Colgate v Syracuse Photo by Nate Shron/Getty Images

I’ll start by saying this is not intended to be some broad takedown of Greek life at Syracuse. This blog has a long history of being fairly anti-Greek life, and there are good reasons for that, shaped by a combination of personal experiences, the public information at hand, and the fact that many defenders see zero problem with its current form.

That attitude, of course, is part of the problem -- with Greek life or any organization. The second everyone shuts out the ability to accept criticism or address issues is when people and the institutions they comprise start acting like there are no consequences for their actions. That anything occurring behind closed doors will just stay there because it’s “their” business alone.

An atmosphere like this, one without fear of consequences, is part of how you end up with the appalling situation around Theta Tau, Syracuse’s engineering fraternity, this week.

A quick rundown for those that weren’t following yesterday:

Theta Tau was suspended from campus on Wednesday after videos obtained by the Daily Orange showed members of the house forced to take a hate-fueled oath to the fraternity. SU issued a statement about being appalled, and they’ll be pursuing the matter further to identify the individuals involved and take action against them.

Even as a one-off occurrence, this would be horrifying to see at any college campus. Yet, incidents around Greek life are increasingly commonplace at Syracuse and other campuses across the country. At SU alone, there have now been four suspensions in 2017-18, continuing a long-standing tradition of houses on the Hill being in hot water for one reason or another over the years. Two of the other three suspended Greek organizations -- Sigma Alpha Mu and Delta Tau Delta — were due to hazing-related offenses. Another suspended fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, was suspended for non-hazing related violations of the student code of conduct that threatened student safety.

I’ve said it before, and mentioned it again on Twitter last night; college campuses would probably be better off without the entire institution of Greek life. For the “good” — lasting friendships and philanthropy -- there’s all of the bad. Hazing, built-in issues around social norms, status, privilege, race, sexuality... these are all part of Greek life (ALL Greek life) too. And the positives? You can find lasting friendships and philanthropy on campus without the letter-adorned sweatshirts to accompany them. You don’t need these houses to volunteer or meet people you’ll form life-long bonds with (I speak from experience there).

But again, this isn’t about teeing off on Greek life — rather, it’s the culture Greek life helped build at Syracuse over time (same as it has on plenty of other campuses). We’re aware that not every house or every member of Greek life is party to the ills of the organizations. When issues become this widespread, though, there needs to be action take to correct the most obvious contributors to a negative culture on campus.

Syracuse may be diverse in terms of the make-up of its student body (if you’re to believe one account of things), but the experiences students have are far from it. What was once seen as a very diverse and desegregated campus as recently as 15-20 years ago has now regressed the other way. Conversations were ongoing while I was a student there (c/o 2010) about how to desegregate. It’s only gotten worse since then. Greek life, in particular, has played its part in this separation. That has also helped push the development of entirely different campus experiences for students of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions and financial status.

These separations are what create an environment like the one that motivated Theta Tau’s videos. Greek life has long been causing other ills around U.S. college campuses as well, though:

One New York Times op-ed piece late last year was entitled, “Their Pledges Die. So Should Fraternities.” The piece was in reaction to a rash of hazing-related deaths at major universities, with data to back up the long-standing “tradition” of these sorts of deaths happening country-wide. Additional background within the article points out the history of privilege and status-related issues that Greek life creates, plus the the dangerous atmosphere it cultivates for women (see: all-male frat member views on consent, frat party attendance increasing chance of sexual assault).

This doesn’t mean these views or instances are exclusive to fraternities. But they become part of the larger concern for women’s safety on campus at a time when the national conversation is encouraging assault victims and potential victims to stand up for themselves more than ever before. Syracuse, like every college campus, is obligated to take action to repair this environment. So how do they do so in a meaningful way?

Banning Greek life (all Greek life) is no panacea. It may result in positives like a reduction in sexual assaults and perhaps fewer instances of hazing and outward racism as depicted in the Theta Tau video. But over the last few decades, it’s helped build much of the college experience into a privileged, segregated, misogynistic, intolerant, and at times dangerous foray into young adulthood.

For places of higher learning, that was never supposed to be the intent. I don’t have a perfect solution to fixing all of this, but open conversations (like I hope this becomes) could help find new ideas to building a better Syracuse — and U.S. college — experience going forward.