It’s dinnertime at the Sigma Chi house, and the noise level is rising as the brothers line up, cafeteria-style, to fill their Styrofoam plates. The dining room is rather spare, with long folding tables and metal chairs, and the cutlery is plastic; but there are steaming pans of ham, barbecue, sweet potatoes, and mixed vegetables. Just like Mom used to make.

“I’d say dinner is, like, a pretty important time of day for us,” says senior Jeffrey Borenstein, between bites, surveying the rapidly filling room. Behind him, there’s a sudden crash that makes Borenstein jump; one of his fraternity brothers has, inexplicably, attempted to leap over a chair, and didn’t quite clear it.

Dinner with the Sigma Chis is very casual, even a little chaotic. It’s a warm March day, and most of them are wearing shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. Several have wet hair, fresh from the shower or gym. They jostle, shove, and talk over one another until they’re almost yelling; inside jokes and offhand insults fly thick. But it’s clear this is a time they look forward to, a time to congregate and talk over the events of the day, and to make plans for the night.

About half of the sixty Sigma Chis, away from home for the first time as college students, live here in the house. Across from fraternity president David Politis, Jacques Edeline, a sophomore with an impish grin and wild, bushy hair that sticks up all over his head, takes a seat. He has a plate stacked with four pieces of white bread and good-sized mounds of peanut butter and jelly, presumably to fortify him for tonight’s chapter meeting. Is that his dinner?

“No, I had some ham and vegetables already,” he says. “This is just . . . my after-dinner snack.”

On a campus as sprawling, diverse, academically challenging, and potentially impersonal as Emory, joining a fraternity or sorority can provide students with a sense of community that helps keep them grounded. Some twenty-five percent of Emory’s six-thousand-plus undergraduates opt to go Greek, a high number for a private school, says Andrea Gaspardino (below), director of sorority and fraternity life. State schools average about ten percent.

“I think students really want to feel a sense of belonging, to feel they are part of something bigger,” Gaspardino says. “Being in a fraternity or sorority helps them to identify with Emory. They have a bigger place in their hearts for their organization, and for Emory, because of that experience.”

“The overall goal of Campus Life is to promote a sense of community among our student body, and I think fraternities and sororities create a sense of several communities within a larger one,” says John L. Ford, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life. “I think at large universities like this one, that bond within a fraternity or sorority often lasts through the undergraduate experience and beyond into one’s alumni years.”

Many freshmen choose to go through the recruitment process (they avoid the usual term “rush,” because it is thought to connote hazing) because of the social networking opportunities it offers. Brad Friedman (above), a junior from Boca Raton, Florida, who’s pre-med and also majoring in political science, said he participated in fraternity recruitment because one of the leaders in his freshman advisory group was president of the Inter-Fraternity Council at the time, a position Friedman holds now.

“He invited me over to his fraternity house and I met a lot of kids that way,” Friedman says. “I thought it was cool. Everyone ate together and seemed to have a great time.”

“Fraternities add so much to my college experience that I actually cannot even begin to explain it all,” says Travis Blalock (right), a senior from Dallas, Georgia, majoring in religion and ethics and a member of Kappa Alpha. “I live with my brothers, eat with them, party with them, study with them, and work with them. My love of Emory has been shaped by the potential growth and success of the fraternity community, despite the negative stereotypes fraternities take on.”

For Emory women, going Greek is a different experience from that of the men, mainly because the sorority lodges don’t accommodate more than a couple of residents, and chapter members don’t take regular meals there. Without more residential housing, it’s difficult for sororities to provide the same intense bonding opportunities that come from living under the same roof. But the lodges offer common spaces for studying, working, meeting, and just hanging out together.

Despite the differences, Emory’s nine sororities are thriving, with the largest chapter numbering 190 members. Of 1,301 freshmen, 452 women went through sorority recruitment this year (as compared to 312 men), and 401 were placed in chapters (188 men joined fraternities).

Elise Hammonds (left), a junior and president of the Inter-Sorority Council, says being in a sorority “makes Emory smaller. It’s 160 faces on campus you can know and say hello to. They’re your sisters and they help you out if you need it.”

“The Greek system is vital to this campus,” agrees Christopher Garcia, a senior Sigma Chi from San Diego majoring in business. “I guess it’s because of the social stuff–the mixers, date parties, socials. Greeks are always the fun people.”

Of course, it’s precisely because of the high level of “fun” associated with Greek life–commonly known to engender alcohol use and abuse, loud parties, hazing or abuse of new initiates, destructiveness, and a general propensity to debauchery a la the 1978 movie Animal House–that the fraternity and sorority system has become increasingly controversial at American universities, particularly in the last decade. More often than not, fraternities, not sororities, make headlines and get the credit for the Greeks’ bad reputation, perhaps because they tend to have bigger houses, longer histories, more elaborate traditions, and tougher expectations for their new initiates.

Ongoing troubles have led some colleges, including Bowdoin College, Colby College, and Alfred University, to abolish Greeks altogether; others have severely curtailed their activities. In 2001, Hamilton College President Eugene Tobin published an opinion in the Chronicle of Higher Education describing how, after years of struggling to manage unruly and socially dominant fraternities, Hamilton finally opted to close their houses, but allow the fraternities to remain as recognized student organizations. Although he ultimately declared the move a success, it was met with vehement resistance from both students and alumni.

Ten years ago, Emory’s Fraternity Row, too, was on thin ice. Its chapters were limping along, hobbled by lagging membership and houses that were in serious disrepair. Worse, the fraternities were frequently called on the carpet for violating national policies on alcohol use, recruitment, and new member initiation. Six of the fourteen chapters were temporarily banned from their houses in the last decade.

In the late 1980s, for instance, the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity was struggling with consistently poor grades. Its members were also known for high alcohol use, and were repeatedly cited for hazing.

Paul McLarty ’65C, an alumnus of the fraternity, says he went back to visit the house during his twenty-fifth reunion in 1988 and was disturbed by what he found.

“We were dead last in terms of GPA of all the Greek organizations,” McLarty says. “The house was just in terrible shape. The chapter did not have a chapter adviser. They were having hazing problems.”

The scene was a far cry from what McLarty remembered of his own experience as an ATO. “In my house and in most houses, we had a good leadership structure,” he recalls. “We were electing our best leaders to head the fraternity, and they were also likely to be on the honor council or in student government. When I came back all those years later, the fraternities wanted the leader to be the biggest party guy. I found that a little upsetting.”

McLarty, one of many Emory alumni who have continued to support their Greek chapters, became the chapter adviser and tried to help the brotherhood get back on the right track. Despite his efforts, though, in 1994 an ATO pledge wound up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning and the fraternity’s charter was terminated for a year. “We basically had to start all over,” McLarty says. “We went out and recruited a brand-new group of young men.”

Other party violations at Emory include a bash in 1993 where a fraternity destroyed all the fire alarms in their house, getting themselves kicked off campus. More recently, all frats were put on probation after a party with a dangerously high seven-hundred-person guest list.

Rather than disbanding fraternities or depriving them of their houses, Emory administrators resolved to pull them closer. Campus Life leaders developed the Phoenix Plan, which brought the responsibility for maintenance and oversight of the fraternity houses under University governance. Previously, chapter members paid their housing costs to local fraternity house corporation boards made up of alumni, who were responsible for maintaining the structures, with the help of student leaders. Now, says Bridget G. Riordan, assistant vice president for Campus Life, “The alumni don’t have to worry about fixing the facility all the time, just about making a strong chapter.” The University also placed full-time, paid house directors in each house.

Not surprisingly, Greek students and alumni had mixed reactions to the Phoenix Plan. Some strongly objected, saying it compromised their autonomy. But half a dozen years later, most have come to accept and even welcome it.

“There are pluses and minuses,” IFC president Friedman says, “but there are more pluses. It takes a lot of pressure off individual house leadership.”

Within a couple of years of the implementation of the Phoenix Plan in 1997, all the major maintenance issues had been addressed, and many of the fraternity houses had been fully refurbished. Now Fraternity Row boasts impressive, well-kept houses, with rooms similar to those in dorms. (Certain upgrades, like the gleaming billiard tables, leather chairs, and portrait of General Robert E. Lee in the KA house, are still helped along by alumni funds, although Emory oversees the work.) The students’ housing expenses, which they pay to the University, are about the same as the cost of living in dorms.

Plans are being formed to improve the sorority lodges, and will likely include building new, more residential homes for the sororities and including them in the Phoenix Plan, according to Riordan.

“I think we can be proud of the beautiful appearance of Fraternity Row, and much of that is due to the Phoenix Plan,” says Ford. “We are able to exert a positive influence on some potentially problematic aspects of Greek life.”

When ATO was re-chartered in 1995, their house was renovated under the Phoenix Plan. The chapter also had some new standards in place–among them a 3.2 GPA requirement, which altered the potential pool considerably. In the last six years, McLarty says, there have been only two semesters when ATO did not have the top GPA on the row, and they have won the Dean’s Cup twice. “I think the fraternity is doing very well,” McLarty says.

The Phoenix Plan, as hoped, revitalized more than just the houses. Fraternity membership is up as compared to a decade ago, and at this point all Emory fraternities are in good standing, says Riordan, with drinking and hazing policies being taken more seriously.

Indeed, Fraternity Row at Emory is considered to have a relatively tame party scene. A recent editorial in the Emory Wheel actually urged the University to “make Greek life fun again,” claiming a new party policy passed in 2002 by the IFC is so strict it’s stifling Greeks’ social life. Visitors to the fraternity houses are closely monitored during parties, and Emory police cars cruise the row to discourage underage drinking. “While student safety obviously should remain a top priority,” the Wheel wrote, “ . . . the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life needs to make sure it isn’t so concerned with taming the campus social scene that it kills it altogether.”

Hazing, too, is reputed to be mild at Emory. All fraternity and sorority members are required to sign a strict anti-hazing policy. “Our school is one of the best in making sure there is no hazing,” Friedman says. “The hazing policy at this point is so strong, it’s gotten rid of 90 percent of the problems.”

Emory administrators have been “extremely pleased,” with the Phoenix Plan and related developments in the Greek system, says Riordan. “We believe the students are having a valuable fraternity experience and also living in a place where they can have pride. We have been able to serve as a model community to many other universities.”

Academically, the average GPA of members is higher than the average of the University as a whole, according to Riordan–not the case at many universities. Most Emory fraternities and sororities have a minimum GPA requirement of at least 2.7 for membership. Many have study groups, and in the fraternity houses there are designated upperclassmen halls where serious studying is expected.

ISC president Hammonds chose not to pledge a sorority during her freshman year because she was concerned about how the commitment would affect her grades. But since she joined Kappa Kappa Gamma in her sophomore year, she says, her GPA has actually gone up. “If anything, the chapter has encouraged me to improve my grades,” Hammonds says. “If I’m having trouble with the class, there’s always someone who has taken it.”

During the fall semester, Greek students also put in 1,900 community service hours and more than five thousand philanthropy hours total, raising more than $30,000 for various charities, according to Gaspardino. Each organization works with particular philanthropies on projects throughout the school year, many of which are selected or encouraged by their national leadership. There are also all-campus events such as Greek Weekend, when sororities and fraternities join forces to raise money for various charities–and enjoy some friendly competition.

“A lot of our sisters are already involved in some kind of volunteer work when they join,” Hammonds says. “We take this very seriously.”

All Greeks participate in philanthropy to some extent, but the historically African-American fraternities and sororities place special emphasis on their service work. Senior religion major Alicia Goldsby, a former ISC president and member of Delta Sigma Theta, one of Emory’s two black sororities, says public service is the main focus of their tight-knit, seventeen-member chapter. They hold programs devoted to educational development, international awareness, economic development, physical and mental health, and political awareness. Although they do hold social events, the Deltas don’t host parties with alcohol or have “date parties.”

“Membership in the Greek community has afforded me the opportunity to hold leadership positions in my chapter and on campus, and to meet people I would not have met otherwise,” Goldsby says. “If you are interested in service, then it’s advantageous to join a black sorority; if not, you can find another chapter that fits you.”

More than just a social sisterhood, the black sororities were founded in part to help African-American students become successful women on all fronts. Most members stay active and involved long after college, taking advantage of their national chapter’s educational, social, and career networking opportunities. The intense, lasting commitment and serious attitude are a hallmark of most historically black Greek organizations.

Stanley Taylor, a senior political science major and president of Alpha Phi Alpha, one of three black fraternities, says he became interested in joining while still in high school, when he spent summers volunteering in a program for low-income youth in his hometown, New Orleans. Each summer there would be just a few black men who volunteered (most of the volunteers were women), and as it happened, all the college men were members of APhiA.

“Something about the way they carried themselves, and the way they gave back to that program, definitely piqued my interest,” Taylor says. “I wanted to find out what it was all about.”

The Alphas’ largest annual philanthropic event is the Step for Sickle Cell, one of the most profitable fund-raisers at Emory. The fraternity has raised more than $65,000 for the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia. The seventeen-member chapter and its alumni also work with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and volunteer at Wesley Woods Geriatric Center in partnership with their graduate chapter.

“I think when the historically black organizations were started, it was a time when African Americans were really in a struggle,” he says. “The purpose was to aid those students who were really a minority on campus, to help them be successful and aid others. That focus on community service and uplifting the community is essential to the founding of APhiA.”

“Historically” African American means the black Greek organizations are not exclusively black; the Emory APhiA chapter has included white, Asian, and Indian members. Likewise, the mainstream fraternities and sororities include a growing number of minority members. Two recent ISC presidents have been African American.

“No one at Emory recruits based on race. It’s just not done,” Friedman says.

It’s true that most Emory fraternities and sororities are considered more racially inclusive than some of the well-established organizations at large Southern schools, many of which have all-white chapters. The University of Alabama, for instance, came under fire in 2001 when a promising African-American woman rushed the white sororities and did not receive a single bid.

But Emory has had its own, albeit limited, clashes with Southern racial tensions. In 1998, an Emory student, reportedly not a member of the fraternity but a guest, was photographed wearing blackface at a Kappa Alpha Halloween party. The picture appeared in the 1999 yearbook, angering some black students. The incident was resolved through the Office of Student Conduct, Riordan says.

“Anytime we have an accusation of non-inclusiveness, we look at it very seriously,” Riordan says. “I would guess we probably have one of the most diverse Greek systems anywhere.”

Even so, diversity is an area where some, including Dean Ford, feel Emory’s Greek community could improve.

“Greek life is an effective way to create a sense of community, but the extent to which we can use it to help students from different backgrounds–racial, ethnic, or religious–to become a part of the same fraternity or sorority–it would be an important measure of our success if we could do more of that,” Ford says.

Greek organizations at many colleges are also notoriously unfriendly to gay students, with few or no openly gay members. Both Friedman and Chi Phi President Louis Graff (left), who hold leadership positions among Emory fraternities, say that a student’s sexual orientation is “not a problem,” and that there are openly gay men on Fraternity Row. But a recent editorial in the Emory Wheel suggests that anti-gay bias may still lurk under the surface. Gay 2003 graduate Mikiel Davids wrote to praise her own sorority for hosting a Speakers Bureau from the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life, but added that all Greeks should take a look at the climate they create around issues of sexual orientation.

“Running from the existence of homosexuality in Greek life not only makes houses that do so hypocritical, but threatens the justification for their existence,” she wrote. “These houses generally proclaim to provide an unconditional support system that members can rely on . . . However, brothers or sisters [cannot] truly come to know each other deeply if individuals feel they cannot openly and honestly express themselves.”

Some seventy percent of Emory students opt not to be a part of Greek life. Anton DiSclafani ’03C (right), class speaker at this year's Commencement, says she decided against pledging a sorority, although she does not have strong feelings against Greek students or the system as a whole.

DiSclafani does have close friends who are in sororities, but she says other friends, particularly those who are more artistically or intellectually inclined–the “alternative” crowd–shun Greeks altogether.

“I guess I just decided pretty early on that a sorority was not for me,” DiSclafani says. “I didn’t have anything against them, but I didn’t see myself belonging to such a group. Nobody in my family has ever belonged to a sorority. I understand that it’s a social outlet, but I like the idea of creating my own social avenues instead of depending on a group. The problem with the Greek system, if there is a problem, is that it gathers people who are similar anyway.”

Despite these concerns, Greeks at Emory generally have a reputation for offering a much more open, welcoming social network than those at many other schools. Most Greeks say that while some of their close friends are in their fraternity or sorority, they also have many friends outside their chapter.

Adam Teeter, a junior from Auburn and president of the Student Programming Council, says he grew up near Auburn University, where the Greek system is much more socially influential and exclusive than at Emory. Teeter opted not to pledge a fraternity because he says he didn’t want to limit himself socially, but by comparison, he says, the Greek climate at Emory is much more relaxed.

“At Auburn, it’s like, you only go to your own frat parties,” he says. “At Emory I see Greek kids at every party, every campus function. The houses are a lot more diverse and welcoming.”

Teeter says Greeks at Emory make a more positive contribution to the campus than they do at many other institutions, but from his perspective in student programming–which brings band parties, speakers, and a variety of social opportunities to campus–he wishes they carried an even greater presence at all-school events.

“We would appreciate it if the Greeks would show more school spirit, be out and take part more,” he says. “Because school spirit is so low, Greek life could be something that could really create a positive change.”

Like Greeks at most schools, fraternities and sororities at Emory seem likely to remain the subject of continuous, low-grade controversy–but they seem equally likely to remain a robust presence on campus, and an engaging, supportive community for those who join them.

“People in fraternities tend to be happier,” says senior Louis Graff, Chi Phi president, one evening as he checks in on a couple of sophomores hanging out in their room on the lower hall. They’re doing homework at their desks underneath a sleeping loft; they look up and wave. “Emory is much more palatable when you have this smaller group of guys to turn to. The fraternity is the thing that really keeps kids connected to campus.”

And then Graff has to go. It’s dinnertime.



© 2003 Emory University