Courtesy of Andrew Moisey

September 21, 2022

GREENE | “Greek Life is American Life” in Andrew Moisey’s ‘The American Fraternity’

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In recent years, the condition of American Greek Life has been a considerable topic in the media, while a cry for action, ringing in the wake of fraternity-related deaths, has effectuated abolish-Greek-Life movements at unsurprisingly liberal-thinking universities, such as Vanderbilt and Tufts. 

Prof. Andrew Moisey, photographer and Assistant Professor of Art History at Cornell, is a self-described realist on the issue. While working towards his PhD at UC Berkeley (2014), he spent more time in fraternity houses than he did as an undergraduate there. Over the course of seven years, Moisey photographed the happenings of an unnamed Greek organization on campus which, in his collection, “The American Fraternity,” is given the pseudonym Psi Rho.

Moisey’s book addresses the hegemony of Greek institutions’ pervasion into American culture. It is not just the ways in which privilege and power are bestowed upon fraternities members that is disconcerting to him, but the osmosis of those values into American life and politics, the antithetical behavior of fraternity men against advertised virtues of honor and integrity, and the institutional secrecy protecting this dichotomy from the scrutiny of the public.

“Greek Life is a culture in which you enjoy more protection than other people do to do what you want,” Moisey posited. “You can say one thing and do another without repercussion, and you’re protected by your peers and the strength of the institution in that secrecy. And that carries through up to other organizations –– this is the argument of the book –– up into the White House, up to Congress, up to all levels of leadership in which fraternity men learn to become, well, ‘men.’”

On the Saturday morning I spoke with Prof. Moisey about his book, we sat in the common space of the Art History Department at Cornell, speaking across a table made from butternut pyrographed with the outline of a single tree branch. Moisey, also a furniture maker, had made this table and two others in the garage of his Ithaca home so that students would have a place to work in the high-ceilinged space.

There, he told me that the best question he has ever been asked about American fraternities is this: “If they’re so good, then why the secrecy?”

With his project in mind years prior to its conception, Moisey lacked the material he needed to supplement the narrative arc of the photographs he wanted to take. One day, while strolling the campus at Berkeley, Moisey wandered into a recently abandoned house on fraternity row and found, lying on the floor in a disarranged room, an unattended fraternity manual, which he would go on to publish in excerpts along with years-worth of photographs taken just down the road.

Moisey sourced inspiration for his book from Robert Frank’s 1959 collection “The Americans,” which pushed the narrative boundaries of photography –– now canonical for 20th century art –– and William Eggleston’s “Guide,” which popularized color photography at the time of its 1976 debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exemplary narrative photography of these artists creates meaning from the calculated sequencing of their collections, which say more as a unit than the photos do on their own.

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Moisey refused to join a fraternity, viewing them as echo-chambers for paradoxical thought where, during the first formative years of independence in most young adults’ lives, men are abandoned to the indoctrination of an antiquated philosophy and fail to think for themselves. With a sigh, Moisey expressed contempt that despite the exorbitant tuition at universities, students are more influenced by the social ethos of a fraternity than the entirety of their education.

However, Moisey’s book is not a plea for universities to disband Greek Life and promote the greater influence of their curricula. Moisey does not believe in a big-brother role for universities over fraternities, where accountability is taken away from the fraternity. 

The longevity of Greek institutions and their sometimes deleterious effects is reason enough for Moisey to scoff at the term “institutional change.” He believes that fostering an intrinsic shift in values is the only practical path to the amendment of current traditions.

On the institutional level, and despite the evidence working against fraternities, Moisey points out that universities have not and will not cease to facilitate the churn of fraternity life because of their procured benefits.

In an article for Vox, Columbia University Associate Professor of Higher Education, Prof. Noah Drezner, stated that “Many of these fraternities and sororities have been on campuses for decades, and that’s led them to accumulate a strong alumni network that can be tapped as donors.” He added that it would be unwise for a university to alienate their donors.

Greek housing also works to the benefit of universities; on many campuses, high percentages of Greek involvement hamper the debacle of a housing crisis. Across 800 campuses in America, fraternities own roughly three billion dollars worth of real estate.  

The long symbiosis between fraternity and university, wherein universities reap the benefits of the financial and housing contributions of fraternities, is no surprise for Moisey. For him, this co-dependence confirms that institutional intervention is not a plausible remedy for fraternity culture, and that the DNA of American Greek Life is too deeply embedded to idealize a vision of compliance, rapport and transparency between fraternity and university.

“I don’t believe in a regulatory system changing this,” said Moisey. “Cultural change has to happen from people who do not want it anymore. This is how racism and sexism and homophobia go away –– when we have people who are born and raised with parents who are like ‘I don’t want those values for my children.’”

Another key element to Moisey’s argument is that fraternities do not want to change. Individuals will always seek status, and fraternities make such offerings by virtue of a promised power born from secrecy and institutional protection.

“The question is, can students join a fraternity that is not a secret society, that doesn’t haze, that has a culture of respect and does not protect its members from the legal system that everybody else has to be subjected to?” asked Moisey. “If they can do that, then they can rename themselves the rotary club.”

Nevertheless, Moisey is optimistic about the changing of tides. Abolish-Greek-Life movements may be piecemeal in a larger context of fraternity permanence, but they represent a cultural shift one can only hope will inspire like-mindedness. 

“We’re going to see a shrinking flame burning bright,” said Moisey, when describing the future American attitude towards Greek Life. “But that sense of being able to face the public with one set of values and behave behind them with a different set is one of the most disappointing things about being an American.”

To interpret the goal of Moisey’s book as an effort to simply besmirch the image of American Greek Life would be to reduce its greater essence. Moisey does not want the walls of the American fraternity to be torn down; they would rebuild themselves. He wants them turned to glass.

Connor Greene is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Ekphrasis runs alternate weeks this semester.