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Fraternities & Sororities

We were asked to consider what the role of fraternities and sororities at Princeton is and should be. We brought to this question a broad range of personal experiences: Some members of the working group are or have been members of fraternities and sororities at Princeton and elsewhere (one even played a major leadership role), while others were learning about these organizations for the first time. We also brought to the question an awareness of Princeton's history, which we summarized earlier in this report. Princeton was home to some of the earliest fraternity chapters in the country in the mid-1800s, and then for almost a century fraternities were banned at Princeton and the penalty for violation of the ban was expulsion.

Because of this history, a paradigm developed at Princeton where dining and social life in the junior and senior years revolved around the eating clubs, while freshmen and sophomore dining life revolved around the shared experience of Commons. In the 1980s a residential college system was established to provide freshmen and sophomores with more attractive dining options as well as opportunities to engage in community life within their colleges. Since the colleges focused on a student's first two years and club membership did not begin until the spring semester of sophomore year, there was a natural progression from college life in the first two years to club life in the last two years. From the beginning of the residential college system there were some students who chose not to join the clubs, and the absence of enough attractive options for them led to the development of four-year colleges with spaces for juniors and seniors.

At most campuses with fully developed Greek systems, fraternities and sororities play roles that are generally comparable to Princeton's eating clubs, but typically with a residential component. These campuses usually develop elaborate systems of oversight and governance (including self governance) for the Greek organizations, frequently in partnership with national offices that establish rules and procedures for chapters on individual campuses. Princeton, by contrast, has a "faux Greek" system that began to emerge in the mid-1980s with fraternities and sororities that are not officially recognized by the University, are not permitted to convene openly in campus space, and are not residential, but which nonetheless exist and by most measures, including senior surveys, seem to enroll about 15 percent of the undergraduate student body.

As best we can determine, there are three sororities at Princeton that enroll roughly 120 to 160 women each, for a total of about 450 women, and there is a small (fewer than 10 members) historically black sorority. One point made to us when we met with the leaders of the three large sororities is that among them they admit any freshman woman who is interested in joining a sorority and meets the requirements of rush. There are just under a dozen fraternities, with memberships ranging from about 25 to 40, for a total of around 330. The fraternities vary enormously in the nature of their programming, with some making commitments to the traditional fraternity standards of leadership and service, but with others seemingly revolving largely around the use, and frequently the excessive or abusive use, of alcohol. Gatherings of the Greek organizations take place in the dormitory rooms of members; in other campus spaces under the cover of another organization's sponsorship; in some of the eating clubs; and occasionally at off-campus locations.

Demographically, as shown in Figure 8 from the USG's 2007 Committee on Background and Opportunity (COMBO) survey, white and higher income students are much more likely than other students to be in fraternities and sororities. From the senior surveys of the classes of 2009 and 2010, we know that 77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members were white; 30 percent of sorority members and 19 percent of fraternity members were children of alumni (legacies); and 69 percent of sorority members and 65 percent of fraternity members came from private high schools. Some 82 percent of sorority members and 68 percent of fraternity members were in the selective clubs.

One of the lessons we have learned from polling data and comments on our website is that fraternities and sororities continue to be polarizing entities at Princeton. Some see fraternities and sororities as incongruous with Princeton's distinctive social paradigm that revolves around colleges and clubs, while others argue that Greek organizations fill gaps and meet student needs that are not otherwise being met. Some focus on what they see as the positive contributions these organizations make — or can make — to student life, while others focus on what one student described as their contributions to "social stratification, cliquishness, and high-risk drinking and hazing." Many students fall squarely in a middle ground where they either have little awareness of the fraternities and sororities on campus or express an agnostic view about whether and how they should exist at Princeton. We did an analysis of the comments submitted to our website about fraternities and sororities and of those who commented, we found that 29 percent were generally or strongly supportive; 35 percent were generally or strongly unsupportive; and 35 percent were neutral.

Why do these organizations exist at Princeton and why do students join them? The principal reasons that are offered by students who join these organizations are the following:

  • To get to know students across all four classes. In our focus group discussions and on our website students frequently cited the importance as freshmen of having access to more experienced students who can help them with course selections, choosing and gaining access to extracurricular organizations, understanding the social dynamics of Princeton, and gaining access to club parties. Students point out that while athletes have these relationships within their teams and while some freshmen join singing groups or other organizations that connect them with upperclass students, most freshmen do not readily connect with older students, especially early in freshman fall.
  • To increase the likelihood that they will get into a particular selective eating club. While we acknowledge that this is not a motivating factor for all students in fraternities and sororities, there is ample statistical evidence and extensive testimony (cited in last year's report of the Eating Club Task Force) to support the fact that for significant numbers of students in fraternities and sororities, membership is a means to an end, with the end being admission to the club to which their particular Greek organization serves as a pipeline.
  • To be with other students with similar interests who enjoy a similar social life, and to have access to alcohol and parties, especially in freshman and early sophomore year before becoming affiliated with an eating club.
  • Particularly in the sororities, but also in some of the fraternities, to take advantage of opportunities to assume positions of leadership and engage in community service.
  • For some students, and perhaps especially students whose parents or family members were in Greek organizations at other colleges or universities, there is an attraction to being affiliated with organizations that exist at other campuses and have traditions of continuing involvement following graduation. One student said: "These organizations allow students to connect to national communities, rather than relying solely on the 'orange bubble.' Connecting with other campuses is a huge benefit for Greek life." The opportunity to connect with students outside of Princeton is frequently cited as an important consideration by women who participate in historically black sororities.
  • There are a relatively small number of students who join sororities and fraternities in lieu of joining an eating club, saying they prefer the colleagueship of these organizations to the milieu of the clubs.

Many of the students and alumni who express serious concerns about these organizations cite the fact that Princeton long has defined itself as a campus that developed a distinctive social model and for most of its history did not have a Greek system. (Several students said one of the reasons they chose to attend Princeton was because it did not have such a system.) Beyond this fundamental incongruity, the major concerns expressed by students and alumni are the following:

  • Affiliation with fraternities and sororities at Princeton begins very early in the freshman year, and in some cases even sooner. (Efforts to obtain commitments from admitted students begin at Princeton Preview and members are solicited through Facebook and by other means over the summer). This means that students who join fraternities and sororities narrow their social circles long before they have an opportunity to meet a wide range of students and gain full exposure to all that Princeton has to offer. It also means that students who join these organizations are forced to make choices before they have adequate opportunity to get to know these organizations and assess alternatives that might serve the same purpose.
  • Members of fraternities and sororities disproportionately come from certain socio-economic demographics, which perpetuates an unhealthy divisiveness within the student body based on ethnicity and income and a perpetuation of patterns of exclusivity and privilege. Because of the pipeline relationship with some of the selective eating clubs, this in turn sustains the social and economic stratification of the clubs.
    • Students point out that the cost to students to be in fraternities and sororities can amount to several hundred dollars a semester and that a substantial portion of dues are sent to national offices. This can serve as a financial deterrent for students from lower- to middle-income families, partly because of the cost itself (some students similarly feel they can't afford the eating clubs) and partly because not all of the funds they pay in dues are used to support programming that benefits them. It was also pointed out that some of the fraternities and sororities handle significant amounts of money with little oversight.
    • Because of the demographic composition of the Greek organizations, students express some skepticism about the need for these students to join a fraternity or sorority to have access to upperclass students when many of them come from private schools or are children of alumni and thus arrive at Princeton already connected to upperclass students and already knowledgeable about Princeton's social structure.
    • Many of those who express concerns about fraternities and sororities simultaneously express support for the eating clubs, and point to the multifaceted activities at the clubs, their coeducational membership, the deferral of admission until spring of sophomore year, the absence of a "pledging" process, the presence of professional management, and the open sign-in process of half the clubs as significant differences between the clubs and Greek organizations. They object to the role fraternities and sororities have come to play in de facto determining which students will become members of some of the clubs.
  • The greatest concern about fraternities and sororities relates to the degree to which they are associated with irresponsible, excessive, dangerous, and in some cases coerced, consumption of alcohol, and, particularly for some of the fraternities, the extent to which they are associated with pledging, hazing and social activity that can be demeaning, humiliating and dangerous. On this last point, one student said: "I think the University needs to intervene in the rush process to make it somewhat more humane for the pledges and less dangerous. Some of the stories that come out of it are pretty horrific."

Our Recommendations

In focus groups and on our website, students and alumni put forward three possible answers to the question of what role fraternities and sororities should play at Princeton. Some argued forcefully that Princeton should reinstitute the ban that was in place from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century and suspend students who violate the ban. Others argued just as forcefully that the Greek organizations should be recognized and regulated by the University. Surprisingly, perhaps, the viewpoint most often presented argued — sometimes forcefully, sometimes reluctantly — for the status quo, a policy of not recognizing these organizations but also not prohibiting students from joining them. One student said: "They play a role for people who care about them, and they don't really play a role for people who don't care about them." Another said: "By not having houses and needing to keep a low profile, they do not have too strong a presence, and social pressure to join is not very large, which is good. A policy of 'we know you are here and won't bother you as long as things stay within acceptable limits' is the way to go in my eyes." An alumna said: "I think their current role, where they are unofficial and kept off campus, is the proper one. It encourages them to remain social clubs while preventing the sort of oppressive social hegemony they have achieved on other campuses."

In our deliberations we acknowledged the incompatibility of a fully developed Greek system with the social structure that has evolved at Princeton over more than 150 years and the awkwardness of the partial system that has grown up over the past 25 years. On aspects ranging from alcohol abuse and hazing to rush and community service, we acknowledged that there are significant differences between sororities and fraternities, as well as differences among fraternities, in their approaches to these issues. We appreciate the reasons students give for joining fraternities and sororities, and we share the concerns that students and alumni express. We especially share the concern that because of the nature of the selection process and the cost, fraternities and sororities exacerbate the divide on campus between students of means and students with limited resources, and the concern that behavior that occurs within at least some of the Greek organizations is demeaning, dangerous and incompatible with Princeton's values.

In the end, our deliberations focused on two major concerns — the negative impact of membership in these organizations in freshman year and the dangerous use of alcohol and hazing — which lead us to make the following recommendations:

Students should be prohibited from affiliating with a fraternity or sorority or engaging in any form of rush at any time during the freshman year, or from conducting or having responsibility for any form of rush in which freshmen participate. The penalty for violating these prohibitions should be severe enough to encourage widespread compliance, which probably means a minimum penalty of suspension.

We believe that Princeton's goals for undergraduate residential and social life are best achieved when students do not narrow their social circle before they gain a full sense of the opportunities Princeton has to offer them or experience the full diversity of backgrounds and interests among their fellow students. We understand the human desire to fit in and to surround oneself with others like oneself, but we believe that a certain amount of unsettlement and exploration in a student's first year is a good thing — it requires students to go beyond the familiar and comfortable; to challenge assumptions; to be open to new ideas and experiences; and to think hard about issues of identity and purpose. We want students in freshman year to explore a range of options and meet different people, and we believe that early engagement with fraternities and sororities makes it much less likely that this will occur.

We also believe that because of the relationships between many of the Greek organizations and some of the eating clubs, membership or affiliation with Greek organizations in freshman year tracks students too early in their Princeton careers. If fraternity and sorority membership is deferred until sophomore year, students can make a more considered and informed judgment about whether this is something they want to do. Several students wrote about how flattering it had been to have members of Greek organizations seek them out upon their admission or arrival on campus and invite them to pledge, but that in hindsight they realized they had prematurely closed other doors that they wish they had kept open. As one student said, deferring rush allows freshmen to "see what all aspects of Princeton social life are like before they get too obsessed with one group of friends."

When students in fraternities and sororities cite the positive experiences they have in those organizations, they frequently intimate that they would not have been able to have those kinds of experiences in other settings. We agree with the student who noted that "there are numerous other campus organizations where students can exercise leadership, build friendships, and organize meaningful and productive activities." We also agree with the student who described the recruiting practices of fraternities as "inappropriately aggressive and uncomfortable for freshmen."

We know that some students point to other student organizations, such as sports teams and a cappella groups, and suggest that they, too, narrow a student's range of friends and can serve as pipelines to the clubs. Why don't we have the same concerns about them that we have about fraternities and sororities? Part of the answer is that as a University we value the talents and skills that students bring to those activities and develop through them, which is why they have been an integral part of campus life for many generations of Princeton students. With respect to pipelines to the clubs, we believe that students join teams or singing groups because they want to engage in those activities, not because a particular team or group may have a relationship with a particular club. The pipeline relationship is incidental to being on the team or in the group, not the reason the student joined in the first place. With fraternities and sororities, frequently a major consideration in joining is to position oneself for eventual membership in a particular club. This observation is reinforced by the pattern at Princeton of student engagement in at least some fraternities and sororities diminishing significantly after sophomore year as student interest shifts to the clubs.

In recommending a prohibition on fraternity and sorority membership in freshman year, we also want to underscore our earlier recommendation that the University do a better job, through the residential colleges and in other ways, to make sure freshmen have meaningful opportunities to engage more with sophomores, juniors and seniors early in their Princeton careers. These connections are important as students begin to navigate their way through the University and its academic, residential, extracurricular and social choices.

We are not proposing a prohibition on membership in fraternities or sororities beyond freshman year. We recognize that to completely address concerns about pipeline relationships with the clubs we should extend the proposed prohibition until spring of sophomore year. We have chosen not to make that recommendation. Once students have a year's experience behind them, if they wish to join a Greek organization, along with or instead of joining an eating club in junior and senior years, we believe that is a judgment they should be permitted to make.

At the same time, we agree with the preponderance of visitors to our website who thought that the University should sustain its policy of not officially recognizing these organizations. If students affiliate with them, they do so as outside organizations with no formal or official connection to the University. Organizations would continue to be unable to use any University resources or facilities to engage in any type of Greek activity.

We recognize that this proposal raises challenging issues of enforcement, and that some students may wish to test whether they can affiliate in freshman year, or sponsor rush activities for students in freshman year, and escape detection. We would caution students to think long and hard about the risk they accept if evidence of their affiliation is discovered and the penalty is separation from the University.

The University should significantly increase its commitment to enforce policies that prohibit serious forms of hazing. This would affect not only students associated with fraternities and sororities, but with eating clubs, athletic teams and other student organizations.

We are very concerned about the dangerous drinking and other dangerous, demeaning and dehumanizing behaviors that can often be associated with fraternities and sororities. These can occur as part of "hazing," but also in other "requirements" that can be part of the pledge process or "bonding" activities. We heard from several students about the horrific nature of these behaviors, especially at some fraternities, and some have been discussed publicly in recent years at Princeton and on other campuses. These concerns are exacerbated if rush takes place in freshman year because newly arrived students may be more insecure and less capable of resisting peer pressure than will be the case once they gain their footing. They also are exacerbated by the pipeline connection between Greek organizations and some of the eating clubs because of the fact that students may agree to participate in certain behaviors if they believe this will get them into the club of their choice that they would not be willing to engage in if the only issue was whether they got into the fraternity or sorority. Finally, our concerns are exacerbated by the other idiosyncrasy of Greek life at Princeton: the lack of a significant junior and senior presence in fraternities and sororities, which means that most of the hazing is conducted by sophomores who have not yet gained the perspective that at other campuses is brought to the fraternal rituals by the juniors and seniors who typically occupy leadership positions on those campuses.

Hazing is illegal under New Jersey law and University policies already prescribe serious penalties for students who engage in hazing, no matter where or under whose auspices that hazing occurs. We believe the risks associated with this kind of behavior are significant, and that the University should become even more vigilant in imposing highly consequential disciplinary penalties on students found to have engaged in hazing that seriously threatened the health and well-being of any student. In making this recommendation we intend to encompass serious hazing wherever it occurs, not just in connection with fraternities and sororities, and we do not mean to suggest that the University has been inattentive to these issues. We are calling for a greater awareness among students that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated and that students who put other students at risk face serious penalties through the University's disciplinary process as well as potential criminal penalties under New Jersey law.

We want to conclude this section with one other recommendation that relates to the inappropriateness of national offices of fraternities and sororities claiming to have chapters at Princeton. There are no chartered Greek letter organizations recognized by the University, and yet a number of those organizations cite Princeton chapters on their websites. We recommend that the University be more vigilant in challenging national organizations of fraternities and sororities to remove Princeton's name from their websites and not to suggest they have recognized chapters sanctioned by the University when they do not.

In making these recommendations, we recognize that they may represent only a first step in determining how best to define the role of fraternities and sororities at Princeton. If the University accepts these recommendations, it will then need to see what impact they have, whether the behaviors of concern to us change, and whether further steps need to be taken in the future.