January 23, 2020

WILK | The Power of the 2%: Our Unhealthy Relationship with Fraternity Life

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Oh, Fraternities. From their stupendously shitty taste in music to their toxic environment of elitist exclusivity to their growing count of associated rape cases and deaths, what’s not to love? Sorry if that was harsh, the hook has gotta be abrasive to weed out who really wants to read the entire thinkpiece, it’ll be worth it when you get to the body paragraphs. You understand, right?

It’s a surprise to absolutely no one that Greek life, at universities all across the United States, is ridden with a plethora of serious problems. So why, in spite of this universal truth, are these organizations allowed continued existence; An existence that inherently grants them power and authority? The answer is unfortunately cyclic: because of their power and authority.

The statistics of success pulled from the former-fraternity-member demographic are, admittedly, very impressive. A few years back, Cornell boasted of these correlations in the Greek life information section on the university website. On a page headlined “The Power of 2%,” our website rattled off the facts:

“Approximately 80% of the top executives of Fortune 500 companies are fraternity men. 76% of current United States Senators and Congressmen are fraternity men. 100 of 158 cabinet members since 1900 have been fraternity men. 40 of 47 Supreme Court Justices since 1910 have been fraternity men. All but two United States Presidents since 1825 have been fraternity men.”

At first glance, this seems like a tribute to the accomplished, outstanding men that fraternities produce. But the eerily high concentration of those with a Greek past who are streamlined to positions of prestige has little to do with their ability to encourage principles of “leadership,” “responsibility” or “scholastic achievement.” Rather, it is intertwined with the capacity of these organizations to attain their goals of reproducing enclaves of wealth and privilege, consequently imposing racial and class-based segregation.

Though Greek organizations are afforded opacity in their admissions information, (and overall surveillance of conduct within and throughout their brotherhoods) Princeton University collected information on its Greek system and put numbers to the trends that have been observable for centuries. In elite universities where student populations are already relatively homogeneously white, rich and with a background and future of opportunistic networks, fraternities amplified these disparities. Princeton found 73 percent of fraternity members were white, compared to 47 percent of its student body. 30 percent of fraternity members were legacies and over 60 percent came from private high schools. 95 percent were from the richest quartile, and more than 25 percent of Greek lifers belong to the top 1 percent. Greek life is created for and by, as Maria Konnikova put it in her article for The Atlantic, “the ‘innest’ of the in-groups.”

Fraternities are not bound by promises of inclusion, equality or diversity to maintain themselves. They know this and they are protected by this, which yields a system of blatant elitism, sexism, racism and danger –– not only physically to individuals but to the goal of egalitarianism on college campuses. Frats pose a threat to college students, but to the administration, they look like zeros on the endowment. The largest portion of lifetime donors to universities are alumni of Greek life; they donate four times more than non-Greeks, giving them a potentially heavy hand in university politics.

So, here they stand. Despite a history of and tendency to throw parties with racist themes. Despite a culture of sexism and female endangerment. Despite hazing rituals that too often, and as we know too well, end in injury or death. The Lord of the Flies-esque pledging process and hierarchy of these elite clubs won’t be cured by diversity quotas. It’s in the best interest of most of us to work to diminish their existence, or at least their influence. After all, while they do have money and power, they’re only 2 percent.

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.