Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For Campuses Who Can’t Go Greek, How Can They Do Greek?

Approximately a year ago, I posted a blog where I reflected on fall being the traditional time in the traditional American college for “homecoming,” I recognized that this cultural ritual of students returning to alma mater to have reunions with former faculty and fellow students, really is an anachronism in the new American colleges which serve large numbers of “swirling”, transfer, non-traditional students. I asked what would it take to bring today’s students back for such reunions and develop similar powerful affinities with their former colleges? So I am not going to ask that now, although I am reflecting on that again.

This is prompted by my participation recently in my 45th class reunion, for the Class of 1965 at Marietta College. And I was reminded again of what powerful loyalties such colleges and their rituals and ceremonies evoke. I certainly am influenced by this culture. This time I took special notice of the lasting influence on former students of their “Greek” experience.

I don’t think I have missed a five year reunion marker since I graduated in 1965. I am really hooked on these things. And I have known for decades both intellectually and personally about the power of the so-called “greek” social groups on American college campuses. Even though their student membership numbers have been in free fall for the past several decades, their remaining numbers continue to exercise an influence on campus culture far greater than their mere numbers would suggest. Why are their raw numbers declining? Primarily cost. But in addition, parents of traditional aged college students, and many students themselves, are concerned about the image of such groups and attendant liability risks. And many students conclude they don’t need such groups to have a good social life. And now there are many other opportunities on campus for students to socialize with fellow students with whom they would constitute a homogenous group in terms of special interests.

At my most recent reunion I was reminded again of these impacts/outcomes for fraternity/sorority membership:

1. Identity formation---once a “(fill in the blank with greek letters), always one.
2. Powerful lifelong friendships
3. Powerful business ties
4. Enduring impact of behaviors, skills, and values learned in the organizational culture
5. Higher levels of loyalty and continuing affinity with alma mater as alumni
6. Higher giving levels by alumni
7. They learned in such groups how to do what they do now for a living: running America’s for-profit businesses.

I realize I may be coming across as being very detached and analytical about this. So let me disclose that I did not join a greek group in college. But I did in my later career at the University of South Carolina where I served as faculty advisor to the chapter of Delta Upsilon for 16 years. During that time I allowed them to “initiate” me so I became a “brother”.

Even though I am concerned about the downsides of membership in such groups (e.g. increased probability of alcohol abuse) I am very interested in generating some of the outcomes for greek students for all students, such as increased retention/graduation rates, increased alumni giving etc. But, the reality is that the replication of such groups in many of America’s contemporary is just not realistic. Students in commuter colleges cannot afford such groups, either their membership fees or the time commitments—and these are only the two most compelling reasons. In other words, these colleges can’t possibly “go greek”.

But could they “do greek”? What could possibly be some group affiliation experiences that we could create in commuter colleges that serve many non-traditional students? Or should we not even try? Is this a futile exercise that reveals just one more way the rich get richer in America---by going to colleges which offer such opportunities for socialization into the American college and corporate culture?

We know that joining co-curricular groups has been a powerful predictor of retention and graduation in traditional colleges for both white and African American greek students. Students can join groups in non traditional colleges. We know of the power of just joining study groups; of participating in “learning communities”; and engaging in service learning/community service in commuter colleges. But the fact that we can’t realistically offer the greek group experience is one more way we perpetuate a culture of less advantage in non traditional colleges.

I wish I had any answer, let alone an easy answer to this question: how can commuter colleges offer powerful group experiences for their students? Generate high levels of friendship, bonding, affinity? I have visited many commuter colleges where I do see and interact with students in powerful group experiences. But there just hasn’t been the effort to intentionally create such group opportunities on a deliberate effort of this scale. This is regrettable. We must do better.

-John Gardner

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