August 30, 2017

LIEBERMAN | The Greek System is Detrimental to Cornell’s Campus Life

Print More

I grew up in a college town, passively aware of the hoards of girls in matching t-shirts living in beautiful houses. I knew about boys that traveled in wolf packs — the ones that threw parties. I was quietly accepting of Greek life as a simple fact, basking in a false sense of normalcy that I carried with me to the Northeast.

I’m a part of the Greek system. This is not a disclaimer or some sort of defensive, self-preservation technique. I’m not trying to be one of “the good ones,” or preempt claims of hypocrisy or deny anything you may accuse me of when you hear that I’m in a sorority. I’m only establishing that I’m well versed in the subject from both an external (townie) perspective and an internal (member) perspective.

With all my experience, I can say with conviction that Greek life is adverse to the Cornell experience overall. Time after time I have wished that it would just disappear. Sure, within the walls of my North Campus sorority house I found incredible support through serious traumas and silly, everyday trials. I also found some of my best friends. For this, I owe outstanding gratitude.

But I also found a lot of pain. I found a lot of privileged, white feminism. I found exclusivity. I found a system that pits girls against girls — ones that have all the same prelims and preoccupations as each other. I found an expectation to be deferential to the men who invited  me to their parties, to be gracious and gorgeous regardless of their behavior. I didn’t need a house rank to tell me that I didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t need the scale that sat in the entryway to tell me that I was taking up too much space.

Many members of the Greek system feel a sticky discomfort in speaking this way. It’s hard not to be protective of an institution you call your own — an institution you might even really like. The accessibility to social capital and the convenience of recreation are obvious upsides, and the greatest issues hide under the surface. But in one breath, I could confess my distaste with the fraternities that run rampant with power hierarchies, hazing, alcohol abuse, violence, toxic masculinity, deindividuation and privilege. Sororities, in their marriage to fraternities, become strikingly anti-feminist.

National leadership forbids sororities from throwing parties, denying women the physical domain they need to ensure their own safety and comfort. If drinking and parties are disallowed in our own homes, we become dangerously reliant on fraternities. Some of the most horrifying situations I’ve witnessed at Cornell were direct results of space and capital being used as tools of control, often manifested as hazing or sexual assault. This imbalance of power between men and women in the Greek system was one of my earliest grievances upon joining a sorority.

My feminism was challenged again and again throughout my experience. The vague concept of sororities is pretty good, which makes the result even more disappointing. Living in a house full of cool girls? Sign me up. Having my social media, outfit choices and behavior towards fraternity men scrutinized and sometimes even censored? Not my favorite thing.

Your house may be fine and free of these dynamics, and you may feel an urge to be defensive or detached. Instead, ask questions, look inward carefully and be mindful.

I understand a sense of loyalty to one’s house. I stayed, after all. The unprecedented sense of belonging and some sweet people had me stuck.

I have met great feminists in sororities and tender, kind men in fraternities. It’s hard for me to reconcile this with the issues I see in Greek life. This isn’t about total condemnation for all members, but I do believe that the Greek System is dangerous and divisive; an ill-conceived and outdated model that could one day be revolutionized and regulated. Abolition seems unrealistic but reform does not.

If you don’t agree with my frustrations, try to understand how anyone could feel this way. I know that I’ve questioned if I even deserve to be so distraught. I’m a middle-class, mostly-white woman, and this system is catered toward people just like me. I can’t assume the experiences of people of color or trans people, but I can refuse to feel passive, privileged comfort in an environment so hostile to so many.

These changes might seem fundamentally contradictory to our accepted conception of what Greek life is, but I am fully confident in the ability of all members of the Cornell community to express their discontent, especially if they believe they could actually change something. As Greeks, it’s our job to hold ourselves to an impeccable standard of progressive inclusion and intersectional feminism. The Greek System is not our friend. It’s not our job to stick up for it when it’s catching negative attention. But if we believe it’s worth sticking around for, it is our job to make sure everyone gets home safely.


Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester. 

  • Jay Wind

    The author makes the unsupported claim, “As Greeks, it’s our job to hold ourselves to an impeccable standard of progressive inclusion and intersectional feminism.” But the hallmark of Cornell is “Freedom with responsibility.” Cornell students properly have the freedom to chose what living unit they join. It would be healthy if each living unit has residents with a wide variety of political views, and Cornell values students respecting each other’s views.

    Deciding to join a single-sex organization allows a student to have candid discussions with peers about the role of gender in society. It allows for relaxed interaction instead of going into full “dating ritual” mode that is triggered in the presence of men. It also guarantees that the leaders of the group will emerge without competition from members of the other gender. Students reasonably expect those benefits without having to buy into or pretend to adopt “intersectional feminism.”

    Similarly, men can join a fraternity to explore with peers the role of gender in society, to have casual interactions and to select leadership without gender equity considerations. They can hang out without being confronted by feminist critiques.

    Since 1970, Cornell has also offered co-ed living units. Balch is still a non-Greek single-sex living unit, and I suppose that Cornell should probably offer a non-Greek single-sex option for males as well.

    Underage drinking is illegal, and national sororities ban parties in large part to avoid the liability issues associated with underaged drinking. Underage drinking is also not allowed at fraternities or the dorms. Yet, it frequently happens in sororities, fraternities and dorms. If the author’s concerns about “space and capital being used as tools of control”, then why not convince her sorority to sponsor a party in rented space outside her house?

    This all boils down to freedom of choice – students are free to live in single-sex or co-ed units. Students are free to accept or reject “intersectional feminism,” and students are free to accept the strictures of national sororities or form their own sorority without any national affiliation. The Greek system is not the cause of her discontent and her call for reform is unfocused and misdirected..

    • Inclusion

      I disagree with you on many fronts, though I do appreciate your sharing an important and dangerous perspective. I guess it does boil down, fundamentally, to whether you support creating a progressive and dynamic Greek community — one receptive to the possibility that the Greek community is NOT perfectly run, that present conditions within it may lead to the exclusion of particular groups — people supporting this perspective, people who believe that this school should foster communities built on inclusion, would be eager to accept any qualms in the process of CONTINUAL improvement. People of an opposing perspective (which you appear to represent) actively defy the CONTINUAL process of betterment, shutting their ears to the mere possibility that our current ways may be flawed.

      You’re right, the responsibility of considering inclusion is optional, as is any belief. So, when you are faced with the question: SHOULD I consider the possibility that the organization I participate in may contribute to feelings of exclusion (among other consequences)? You have the ability to say “No, I do not need to consider this because at the end of the day, no explicit acts of exclusion are being committed and I, a person of privilege, am not being affected.”

      I, a woman in the Greek system, can verify the validity of the author’s perspective that the Greek system is conducive to an uncomfortable environment for women. It is a topic I have even discussed with men in the Greek system. You can say that it was my choice to participate in Greek life, but in truth, coming from a hometown with little social organization/partying, I could not have predicted the environment I was to subject myself to, and which the university seems to endorse. The practice of Greek women being expected to visit men’s houses for Greek social events (and in my experience, even shamed for not attending) bears consequences which permeate beyond the events. As a Greek man said to me, “Girls cycle in and out of our houses. It creates an environment of judgement, guys can just watch the girls come in and out and talk rudely or inappropriately about them. It can be pretty disgusting.”

      This is not an organic practice. In the real world, random women do not cycle in and out of the homes of strange hoards of men. At this malleable age, some men are developing the impression that women are disposable objects of judgements and sex. National sorority standards prohibit sororities from throwing parties in their homes, as men can. That is a direct example of Greek inequality.

      And this is just one issue, not even touching upon the Greek system’s seeming lack of concern with intersectional feminism or homophobia or transphobia, what have you (which again, are optional topics of discussion, but then so is racism and any other form bigotry). You may assert “this is an unsupported claim! Show me a lack of concern!”. I will answer with a question, do the demographics of our Greek system reflect accurately the demographics of our school or beyond (racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, by sexual orientation or gender identity)? Are there correlations between race or SES and particular Greek fraternities or sororities? I think the answers may surprise you.

      • Jay Wind

        If one shifts through the wordiness, the author’s specific example is that National sororities do not allow parties (because they lead to liability for underage drinking.) So, sororities participate in planning parties at fraternity houses so that “space and capital being used as tools of control, often manifested as hazing or sexual assault.” What is not stated by the author is that many of the incidents listed at involved intoxicated women resulting in disciplinary action against fraternities. If Ms. Lieberman wants to change this, she can work to convince her sorority to plan their own social events 1) at their own house despite the national or 2) in a rented space, or 3) to hold only “dry” events or stop holding any social events.

        The author proclaims “my distaste with the fraternities that run rampant with power
        hierarchies, hazing, alcohol abuse, violence, toxic masculinity,
        deindividuation and privilege.” If she feels that a fraternity suffers from that problem, she should urge her sorority to break off contact with it. Similarly, ” kind men in fraternities” can work to address any member who engages in alcohol abuse, violence or toxic masculinity.

        The comment above asks, “Do the demographics of our Greek system reflect accurately the
        demographics of our school or beyond (racially, ethnically,
        socioeconomically, by sexual orientation or gender identity)? Are there
        correlations between race or SES and particular Greek fraternities or
        sororities?” Cornell in the late 1960’s took courageous action to force nationals to drop membership restrictions on race or religion. Most fraternities actively seek diversity. I believe that fraternities have a better diversity track record than sororities or MGLCs, but the point is that people are free to join these groups or find some other social/living arrangement. Society does not demand (nor should it demand) that people select their friends on some demographic quota.

        Implicit in the writing of Ms. Lieberman and “Inclusion” is the expectation that Cornell’s Greek System must work toward solving intractable societal problems. However, the goal of each fraternity chapter is to best serve its members with housing, dining, social events and personal growth. The relationship between male and female Cornell students has been complicated since the 1880s. Illegal underage drinking has only made matters worse. Neither Ms. Lieberman nor “Inclusion” as spelled out any workable solution.

  • Pingback: BIWEEKLY JOKES FOR EVERYDAY FOLKS | The Greek Reformer – Sunspots()