Greek life, like much of the college experience, will look a little different this year due to the novel coronavirus.
Fraternities and sororities, which boast millions of active members and alumni, are at the core of the undergraduate experience for some students. These organizations provide an avenue to social events, networking opportunities and philanthropy.
But like other groups on campus, fraternities and sororities have been forced to rethink how to forge ahead this fall.
Greek Life and COVID-19
For many, the frat party is as traditional a part of college life as move-in day or attending sporting events on campus. But this year it’s also potentially hazardous given the possibility for the coronavirus to spread easily in large gatherings.
The concern is more than hypothetical; outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have already been linked to Greek life at some colleges.
At the University of Mississippi, for example, more than 160 students tested positive for COVID-19 in June, with outbreaks reportedly linked to rush parties — Greek social events held for the recruitment of new members — despite a ban on in-person recruiting. Following the outbreak, the University of Mississippi Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life threatened disciplinary action for chapters that are out of compliance and continue to hold social events, whether on or off campus.
And at the University of Washington, more than 120 students living in off-campus fraternity housing tested positive for the coronavirus in July. The university’s Interfraternity Council responded by prohibiting social events through the end of the calendar year.
“The University does have sanctions that could be imposed upon fraternities and sororities in the event of ongoing lack of compliance on physical distancing and mask wearing, however we are approaching this in a more positive and collaborative way,” Victor Balta, senior director of media relations at UW, wrote in an email.
“Our Greek community’s leadership is looking to engage with the University and Public Health — Seattle & King County on guidelines and procedures within houses. Public health experts have recommended a more positive and collaborative approach over restrictions and disciplinary action, unless those are needed as a last resort,” he says.
Given the potential danger that looms over large events, it’s clear that Greek life will look different this fall.
Modifying the Greek Life Experience Amid COVID-19
Fall is likely to be a semester fraught with uncertainty, with many colleges offering online instruction only. Greek life leaders say that the sense of community that they offer is vital as students try to find their place in this moment.
That sense of community, they say, will continue online in many cases.
“We feel like in the pandemic and this virtual atmosphere, our organizations are more important than ever before, to assist students in building relationships and to get to know other students,” says Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, which oversees 26 national and international sororities with nearly 400,000 undergraduate members.
In fact, Weatherford says some sororities are seeing surging numbers while recruiting virtually, a trend she attributes to students seeking a sense of community in a time of isolation. But some colleges are resuming on-campus operations, including Greek housing, albeit with restrictions for occupants.
“Each school has a mitigation strategy, each chapter has a mitigation strategy,” says Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, a trade association representing 59 national and international fraternities.
It starts, he says, with the simple things: Wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands, follow local guidance.
Some colleges have announced reductions in the number of students who can live in Greek housing, and Horras has heard of chapters keeping rooms open for those who need to quarantine — or renting off-campus apartments to do so.
The Virtual Greek Life Experience
With the fall semester quickly approaching, some colleges are still firming up plans. But many others have announced plans to go remote, with less than 25% of U.S. colleges — among those announcing decisions — planning to resume classes fully or primarily in person, according to the College Crisis Initiative, a database developed by Davidson College in North Carolina.
If a college has committed to fully online instruction, it’s clear the format for Greek life will be virtual. As such, Horras says many fraternities have pivoted to virtual business and chapter meetings, fundraising, house tours and recruiting.
“It’s not normal, it’s not ideal,” he says. “It won’t always be like this, but it has worked out far better than I thought.”
Returning members may have experience with virtual Greek life from the spring, when campuses first shut down due to the spread of the coronavirus, Weatherford says. “Building interpersonal relationships is such a crucial part of the undergraduate experience, and those opportunities had been taken away from them in an in-person environment, but they were continuing to build relationships in that virtual environment.”
Greek Life and Racial Tensions
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, fraternities and sororities also face a reckoning related to racial strife.
The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of forcing colleges to make amends for past racial wrongs, and to remove monuments to Confederacy leaders and others who held racist views or expressed hostility toward minority groups.
Fraternities and sororities have been caught up in this moment, with members alleging incidents of racism and exclusion. Some national fraternities even tout the values of white supremacist leaders, such as Kappa Alpha Order, which cites Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as an inspirational figure in a glowing profile on the KA website.
After KA members at Southwestern University in Texas denounced Lee and the Confederacy on social media, the chapter was suspended by national leadership. The issue, leadership claimed, was that the post was not appropriately vetted by the national office.
At the same time, criticism on other campuses led to the birth of the Abolish Greek Life movement. Students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, Northwestern University in Illinois, the University of Pennsylvania and various other colleges have claimed that Greek life perpetuates exclusivity, oppression and sexual violence, among other charges.
Despite having spread across multiple campuses, the Abolish Greek Life movement is small, Horras says. While he concedes that some criticisms are legitimate, he disagrees with the notion of disbanding Greek life, preferring that members be involved in making changes.
“The concerns around racism, hate and intolerance, sexual misconduct, they’re real,” Horras says. “Our members want to be engaged in the conversation but the tactics of division and divisiveness and pitting students against each other, that’s not a way you’re going to solve these problems.”
Weatherford notes that changes are being made as the claims of the Abolish Greek Life movement gain traction. She points to the National Panhellenic Council’s recent creation of an Access and Equity Advisory Committee to help identify reforms.
“For the students, many of them feel that our organizations have not, in the past, been as open to a diverse set of women,” she says, “and so our organizations have heard that and have started making significant changes to some of their policies.”
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