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"New Scrutiny for Powerful Greek Systems"
Eric Hoover
The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 8, 2001

Hoover discusses recent incidents that have called into question the Greek systems at the University of Alabama and Dartmouth College. At the University of Alabama, several sororities are charged with racism for not admitting black students, and Dartmouth fraternities have caused embarrassment to the institution for public bragging about sexual escapades.

By mid-May, spring had done its work at the University of Alabama, having unsheathed the magnolia buds and thickened the grass on the campus green. A few days before graduation, crimson Frisbees sailed and the dollar drafts flowed freely in Tuscaloosa.

In Hanover, N.H., about 1,100 miles away, fog was rolling off the White Mountains near Dartmouth College. The ivy was damp on the red bricks of colonial buildings, and students were ordering herbal tea and lattes inside small cafes.

Separated by vast differences in geography, wealth, and prestige, Dartmouth and Alabama nonetheless share a common history, represented by the sprawling mansions with Greek lettering that for generations have stood at the heart of each campus. They are places to party, privileged societies with secret rituals, and bastions of the powerful whose alumni traditionally have shaped policy and fund raising at their respective institutions.

Recently, however, embarrassing incidents have mobilized their critics, who have fresh reasons to ask an old question: What will it take to change the system?

Since the university's inception in 1831, Alabama's main Greek system has not offered membership to a single black student. Last fall, Melody Twilley, a black student who participated in sorority rush, could have been the one who ended that lily-white tradition. Yet, while more than 75 percent of the women who signed up for the white-sorority rush went on to receive bids, Ms. Twilley did not even make it past the second round of the four-part selection process.

Following press accounts of Ms. Twilley's rejection, critics once more are charging that Alabama's Greek system is racist. Many faculty members are calling for the administration to integrate the system.

At Dartmouth, members of the campus's Zeta Psi fraternity printed and distributed two newsletters that described fraternity members' sexual escapades, naming female students and promising a future issue containing "patented date-rape techniques." Soon after copies were leaked to the press in April, the administration revoked the fraternity's campus charter. Although Zeta Psi has been booted, opponents of the Greek system say college officials should not stop there. Last month, more than 100 faculty members signed a proposal urging the administration to banish all of Dartmouth's fraternities and sororities.

At both campuses, faculty members and students who had previously pushed for reform are now saying that their campuses cannot afford to view these episodes as isolated incidents.

"A system that promotes racist, sexist attitudes is antithetical to the spirit of what a college is supposed to be," says Agnes Lugo- Ortiz, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth. "Quite simply, the Greek system is antiquated, a remnant of the past."

Yet for supporters of the Greek system, some traditions are treasures, not relics. Even as critics gathered force last month, the system's many backers were visible everywhere. In Alabama, they browsed the abundant aisles of Greek apparel at Ginger's clothing store during graduation week. They were silver-haired men in Greek- lettered sweatshirts who, during alumni weekend at Dartmouth, promised to start letter-writing campaigns against their alma mater should the college push for an overhaul.

On each campus, they are fighting battles that seem unlikely to end anytime soon.

On a sticky Tuscaloosa afternoon in May, Melody Twilley has just finished packing up her dorm room when she stops to survey the University of Alabama campus.

Across the street is Foster Auditorium, where in 1963 Gov. George Wallace made his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door that briefly kept two black students from enrolling. Over her shoulder is the English-department building, the lobby of which contains a gilt- framed portrait of John Tyler Morgan, a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and later a U.S. senator who was a father of the Jim Crow South. At Alabama, history even lies underfoot: The remains of university buildings destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War are buried in a hallowed site known as "the mound," which bulges near the center of campus.

Despite these many vestiges of the South's segregated past, Ms. Twilley, 17, says she had no qualms about coming to Tuscaloosa, which she chose over Duke and Georgetown Universities when Alabama offered her a scholarship. Eager to experience the friendships and camaraderie that Alabama's storied Greek system promises to members, Ms. Twilley imagined that she would fit in easily at one of Alabama's 15 sororities. After all, she had attended the prestigious Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile and hailed from what she describes as an upper-middle-class family. Evidence of her sorority credentials is the white Jeep Grand Cherokee that her father bought her as a Valentine's Day gift.

Ms. Twilley, tall and thin, with a smile that hints at her self- assuredness, graduated from high school with a near-perfect grade- point average and a long record of volunteer service, a quality that should have helped her in a sorority system that says it favors students who are community minded. She says she chose to rush the white sororities last September mainly because black sororities hold their rush later in the fall. She did not know at the time that no black student had ever broken the color barrier in Alabama's main Greek system.

"I've worked hard on being likable, so I was confident," says Ms. Twilley, who says her interactions during rush were pleasant. "I expected sororities to jump all over me."

They did not. Although Ms. Twilley received seven invitations after the first round of rush events, she received none after the second round. Of 822 women who vied for sorority bids last year, 631 who completed the rush process later received bids. "I was shocked and confused," Ms. Twilley says. "I couldn't think of any other reason I was excluded other than race."

Nearly 40 years after the school's integration, many here agree. In a May letter to Ms. Twilley, J. Norman Baldwin, an associate professor of political science and president of the faculty senate, cast Ms. Twilley's rush disappointment as the latest chapter in the university's civil-rights history.

Faculty members "would like to extend [their] most heartfelt admiration for the courage that you demonstrated by participating in rush," Mr. Baldwin wrote. "Please do not feel alone in the struggle with racism."

Greer Gray, president of Alabama's Panhellenic Association, insists that no sororities discriminated against Ms. Twilley.

"All of the houses give everyone a fair chance," Ms. Gray says. "Race does not factor in at all." But when asked to assess Ms. Twilley's academic and volunteer achievements, Ms. Gray declines to comment.

Although she says the incident hurt, Ms. Twilley says she may rush again in the fall. Meanwhile, some Alabama administrators speculate that she might file a lawsuit against the university; she says only that she is keeping "all options open."

Ms. Twilley says she recently received several letters of support from alumnae of the white sorority system at Alabama, which may increase her chances of joining one of its houses. Yet she is wary of tokenism.

"I don't want it to be the case where one sorority lets me in but other black students down the line are scared of the Greek system," Ms. Twilley says.

Late on a Monday night in May, a dozen fraternity members shoot pool and drink Budweiser at Gallette's, a popular Tuscaloosa bar with a sticky floor. Nearly all of them have strong opinions about Ms. Twilley, whose name has appeared repeatedly in The Tuscaloosa News.

Fingering a hole in his ragged baseball cap, Ryan Booth, a member of Alabama's Delta Kappa Epsilon house, concedes that the color of Ms. Twilley's skin probably kept her from gaining a sorority bid. But he is also quick to defend the status quo.

"If I had to vote right now on whether to bring a black member into my fraternity, I'd probably vote no," Mr. Booth says. "But it is not that I am a racist. It is just that white fraternities and black fraternities have always been separate, and nobody wants to be the first to change that."

Members of the black Greek system express similar views. The two distinct systems are holdovers from the era of segregation, and many Greeks, both black and white, tend to be suspicious of one another. Yet members of both systems have argued that forcing integration would be degrading to blacks and whites alike. One black fraternity member says, "Given the history here, I can't imagine why a black student would want to be in a white fraternity, or vice versa."

Actually, the black Greek system has had a handful of white members in the past. Yet while 15 percent (439 students) of last fall's freshman class were black, many black and white students at Alabama have never interacted with each other outside the classrooms or athletics fields. Roughly 20 percent of students are members of one of the two Greek systems. Besides the 21 fraternities and 15 sororities that are traditionally white, there are four black fraternities and four black sororities.

The separate systems are not necessarily equal. With approximately 3,000 members, the white Greek system is roughly 10 times the size of the black Greek system. The white organizations recruit some students while they are still in high school. The black groups frequently tap new members as sophomores.

The white Greek system is also a channel for professional development, producing a host of the state's leading businessmen and political leaders, including its current governor.

Many faculty members and students say race relations have improved since 1986, when someone put a burning cross on the lawn of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority to move into Alabama's sorority row. Still, other memories linger. In the early 1990's, for instance, there were several theme parties called "Who Rides the Bus?" in which sorority women, wearing blackface and Afros, mocked a major struggle of the civil-rights movement.

Some observers speculate privately that the strongest opposition to Greek integration comes from those who fear a rise in interracial dating. White Greeks routinely hold "swaps," in which fraternity and sorority members pair off for social outings. Affiliations with particular houses can determine not only whom Greeks date, but whom they marry.

Pat Hermann, an English professor who moved to Tuscaloosa shortly after the cross-burning incident, says the segregated system must end. Mr. Hermann, a self-described liberal, has been trying to integrate the Greek system for more than a decade. He has lobbied Greek leaders, encouraged black freshmen to rush, and dashed off memos to more than one university president. He also has threatened to sue the university for "subsidizing segregation."

"The administration has been engaging in foot-dragging and happy talk for years," Mr. Hermann says. "We think we are an institution of higher education, but even elementary schools do not allow clubs to discriminate the way we do."

The sign that hangs above Mr. Hermann's door reads, "The harder you fight, the harder it is to surrender." But his fight to reform the Greek system has often been a lonely one. At a university that came late to integration, many have traditionally accepted the Greek system's racial divide as if it were a prolonged rainfall, a benign, naturally occurring event that would eventually pass. Given that prevalent opinion, the delicacy of race issues, and the influence of Greek alumni groups, the administration has not pushed for desegregation.

In the last year, Alabama's faculty senate passed resolutions condemning the university's white Greek organizations for failing to accept black students. Sparked by the incident involving Ms. Twilley, some faculty members say they will go a step further by urging the university's board to require Greek desegregation at its regular meeting June 22. Yet without a consensus on how to accomplish that goal, some faculty members doubt that the proposal will have much impact.

The university last year tried to increase minority participation in rush by delaying it until after the start of the fall semester; according to one Alabama administrator, the hope was that minority students might feel more comfortable socially, and therefore more willing to rush, if they had more time to acclimate to campus life. But few black students participated.

It is not clear what further steps, if any, the administration will take. Fraternities and sororities now lease the land on which their houses are located from Alabama, for the sweetheart sums of $100 per year. Alabama officials say privately that they have no plans to evict houses that do not add black members, as Mr. Hermann has advocated.

Several Alabama trustees decline to speculate on what the board will do. "I do definitely support diversity," a trustee, John Russell Thomas, told The Tuscaloosa News in April. "How you go about forcing it on college students, I don't know."

While Alabama wrestles with racial issues, the days are long in Hanover as Dartmouth continues to reel from this spring's bad headlines. Stung by weeks of negative publicity resulting from the Zeta Psi sex newsletters, some Dartmouth's officials are practically holding their breath in anticipation of the last day of the quarter.

On a misty Thursday in May, the controversy has clearly frayed the nerves of many students. When asked to comment on the incident, several fraternity members slam their front doors shut. More than a few students munching pizza and sipping sodas in the Collis Center groan and shake their heads. Out on the main campus green, a faculty member holding an armful of folders to her chest pleads, "Oh, leave us alone."

The two newsletters that launched Dartmouth's scandal contain detailed accounts of alleged sex acts between fraternity brothers and female students, several of whom are identified and described as "loose" and "guaranteed hookups." One newsletter reads, "If young [name deleted] hooks up with one more Zete, I'm going to need a flow chart just to keep up."

Although the newsletters apparently were intended only for in- house reading, a fraternity member later gave a copy to Melissa Heaton, one of the students mentioned in the edition titled the "Zetemouth." Ms. Heaton, a junior from Atlanta, says she was shocked. She had considered some of the men in Zeta Psi her friends. In May, she told the New York Post, "It was the worst thing I ever read." Ms. Heaton declined to comment further to The Chronicle.

Many people at Dartmouth, including students, faculty members, and administrators, have praised Ms. Heaton for bringing the newsletters to the attention of a dean and for speaking publicly about the incident. However, some students, including members of the Greek system, have shunned her for her actions. "There are people here who have told her that she is no longer welcome on fraternity row," says one student who asked not to be identified. "To some people, she is a traitor to the Greek system."

Around campus, many students and faculty members are convinced that the only difference between Zeta Psi and other houses was that Zeta Psi left a paper trail.

Prompted by the incident, Susan Ackerman, an associate professor of religion, and several of her colleagues co-wrote a letter in May criticizing the college's president, James Wright, and trustees for not eliminating the Greek system. Signed by 101 members of the faculty, the letter states that as a result of Greek abuses, female and minority students at Dartmouth endure "institutionalized practices of sexist and racist humiliation that fester largely unabated within a secretive fraternity culture."

Ms. Ackerman first came to Hanover as a freshman a few years after Dartmouth became coeducational, in 1972. She recalls the uncomfortable feeling of setting foot on a campus that for two centuries was inhabited only by men.

In those days, when women walked into the dining hall, male students would often hold up cards with numbers on them, rating their looks the way Olympic judges rate athletes. Although much has changed since then, Ms. Ackerman believes that the newsletters are proof that antipathy toward women endures at Dartmouth.

"Reforming the Greek system is not possible because of the very nature of these organizations," Ms. Ackerman says. "The bottom line is that social clubs that [discriminate] on the basis of gender or other factors will result only in problems for the Dartmouth community."

For many, what's at stake is Dartmouth's overall image. Proponents of ending the Greek system say that fraternities threaten Dartmouth's status as an elite institution and intellectual community. Simultaneously, many students believe Dartmouth's strong fraternity ties make it more fun than rival institutions, like Williams College, which abolished its Greek system in the 1960's.

"The Greek system presents an identity crisis for Dartmouth," says Ellie Leahy, a senior who is urging the administration to eliminate fraternities. "On one hand, it is an elite institution. But at few other elite institutions does being Greek define the experience of being in college the way it does here."

Critics such as Ms. Leahy contend that Mr. Wright has reneged on a promise to abolish, or at least overhaul, the Greek system. In 1999, the college unveiled the "Student Life Initiative," a broad plan to create new social options at Dartmouth, including additional coed housing. After the Dartmouth Board of Trustees announced its intention to make residential and social life "substantially coeducational," many students and faculty members believed that the initiative was designed to eliminate the Greek system's single-sex houses. That announcement sparked a series of angry rallies at Dartmouth and a deluge of letters from Greek alumni, many of whom threatened to withhold donations to the college.

In the wake of intense criticism, the administration backed down, saying the Greek system could continue, but would play a lesser role. Greek leaders agreed to try and reflect Dartmouth's values better by volunteering, improving their grades, and becoming more diverse. (Although Dartmouth's Greek system is predominantly white, many houses have several minority students.)

The anticipated ban on fraternities never transpired. But Mr. Wright had arguably tried to accomplish exactly what many critics now demand -- only without pulling it off.

Mr. Wright has strongly criticized Zeta Psi's tasteless publishing venture, although he now maintains that the Greek system at Dartmouth should continue. "The perceptions that the college moved to take up an anti-Greek initiative were wrong," says Mr. Wright. "Some students and faculty members might believe there is a systemic problem with fraternities, but I respectfully disagree."

The Zeta Psi incident has not helped the college free itself from its unwelcome association with National Lampoon's Animal House, director John Landis's 1978 comedy about an outrageous war of wills between a fraternity and the administration at a fictional college. Inspired by wild parties and other events at Dartmouth in the 1960's, the movie has become a metaphor for the ills of Greek life in general, and that of Dartmouth in particular. College officials could not have been happy about a recent New York Post article about the incident that appeared under the headline, "'Animal House' in porn shocker."

Featuring beer-drenched toga parties, the film is generally not thought of for its deeper meaning, but one of its more serious scenes is relevant to the Dartmouth discussion. In that scene, a member of the embattled fraternity tells a disbelieving dean that the administration has no right to revoke his house's charter. "You can't hold a whole fraternity responsible," he says "for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals."

Even as faculty members are criticizing Mr. Wright for being too soft on the Greek system, many Greeks are condemning the administration's de-recognition of Zeta Psi as heavy-handed.

"This is just the first shot at the Greek system," says one fraternity president who asked not to be named. "There is the worry that Zeta Psi's punishment is a signal that we're all going to be in for it sooner or later."

Todd Zywicki, a former Zeta Psi member who graduated in 1988, says many of the college's Greek alumni are outraged over what he describes as the administration's decades-long campaign against the Greek system.

"The sex newsletters were clearly disgusting, but the college's response was completely disproportionate," says Mr. Zywicki, who is now a law professor at George Mason University and one of many Dartmouth graduates to have criticized the administration in the college's alumni magazine recently. "To permanently de-recognize an entire fraternity on the basis of speech is an inappropriate and irrational punishment that can only be a pretense for a larger goal."

Gene Boyle, Zeta Psi's Dartmouth president, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. An automatic-reply message sent from Mr. Boyle's e-mail account contained only a verse written by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, a Native American author: "I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not look back."

On a cool Friday night in May, the Greek system is alive and well in Hanover. The bass blasting from speakers inside a large brick colonial vibrates the side mirrors of cars parked on Webster Avenue, Dartmouth's fraternity row. Red and purple disco lights swirl from windows. Hundreds of students meander up and down the street, clutching plastic cups of beer, hopping from house to house.

Fraternities dominate the social life in Hanover, where the tree limbs hang low over the busiest intersection in town and the few local bars close early. More than one-third of the college's 4,300 undergraduates are members of the 25 single-sex fraternities and sororities. (Dartmouth also has three coed Greek organizations.)

On a typical Friday night, there is little to do except stroll down Webster. It's not a likely place to find critics of the Greek system, and tonight there are no exceptions. One after the other, partygoers, both Greek and non-Greek, say that the Zeta Psi incident does not signify a larger problem with the fraternity system. Most women say that the majority of fraternity men at Dartmouth respect women and do not resemble the thuggish characters suggested by the Zeta Psi newsletters.

However, many of the revelers do believe that the administration is preparing for a major crackdown, leading some to respond with hand gestures and expletives. Asked to imagine Dartmouth without fraternity parties, four women, all decked out in semiformal dresses and heels, stop in the middle of the street and burst into song.

They belt out a snippet of "American Pie," by Don McLean. Not quite singing in unison, the women manage a spirited chorus: "Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye / singing this'll be the day that I die."

If the death of the Greek system seems fanciful in Hanover, it is outright inconceivable in Tuscaloosa. While Friday nights on Webster are the visible manifestation of Dartmouth's Greek influence, the power of Alabama's system, some say, emanates from a secret source.

"The Machine" is the name given to an underground network of white Greek members that many believe has controlled student-government elections in Tuscaloosa for 70 years. Members allegedly force virtually all Greek members to vote for a predetermined slate of Greek candidates, who almost always win. Fraternity members deny its very existence. But some do so with a wink.

Critics say change is impossible so long as "The Machine" is in operation. Stan Uncaphur, a junior at Alabama, is the rare student who has seen the Greek system from the inside and is willing to talk about it. As a freshman, Mr. Uncaphur pledged a fraternity at the behest of his parents.

But he de-pledged months later, mostly because he found many of his house's traditions deplorable. Mr. Uncaphur says brothers routinely played games in which they mimicked minorities and forced pledges to do impersonations of black women fighting.

"What we're talking about here is larger than racism," says Mr. Uncaphur. "The majority of Greeks are not hard-core racists. But the system's pledging rituals, the conceptions of brotherhood, these make it easy for everyone else to go along with the one guy in a house who is a racist."

He perhaps speaks for critics at Dartmouth as well when he says: "It is a system with great potential that has just gone horribly wrong."