Can College “Greek Life” Image Be Saved?

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College Greek organizations are once again coming under fire, in light of the current scandal surrounding the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter at the University of Oklahoma, which included video footage showing some members of the fraternity singing a racial chant that included use of the N-word and references to lynching blacks. This is just the latest in a long line of scandals for college sororities and fraternities which includes years of hazing stories, accusations of sexual assaults and misogyny against fraternities and accusations of racial and insensitive cultural appropriation behavior.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of issues including debates over the University of Alabama’s very open and public segregation of sororities and fraternities based on race, the reprimanding of an Arizona State University fraternity party dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. which featured costumes tastelessly parodying black culture and American University’s Epsilon Iota (EI) chapter’s date rape reputation being brought to light through a series of disturbing emails by members. And with this latest SAE scandal, many are once again questioning the benefits and even the need for the existence of Greek organizations on college campuses.

Naturally, numerous other Greek organizations and their multiple chapters nationwide are fighting back against the criticism, declaring it unfair to paint all the organizations with one broad stroke because of the bad behavior of a few. However, as noted, the proliferation and consistency of these incidents throughout the years have made it harder and harder for the public to view them as isolated incidents of one bad fraternity or sorority. Suffice to say, college Greek life is facing a major publicity crisis and one wonders if there is any way to come back from it.

One of the hardest crisis for any organization to combat is a negative public image. Because it largely means changing the public’s negative perception and that can be a very difficult thing to do as individuals often find it difficult to look past a negative impression and/or experience. And changing public perception is exactly what the college Greek organizations are facing. So how can they do this?

  1. Acknowledge the Problem – The only way to truly change public perception of Greek life is for the entire college Greek community to acknowledge that there is a problem. Because the reality is, fair or not, the actions of others are affecting the public’s view of all. So it does not help for other organizations and chapters to dismiss the issues on the basis of “well it’s not our fraternity/sorority, so it has nothing to do with us.” Until the organizations collectively as a whole come together and acknowledge the issues, scandals like these which negatively impact all, will keep happening.
  2. Address the Negative – It is not just enough for the college Greek community to acknowledge the problems surrounding the organizations, they need to also publicly address it. And this does not mean one statement by the national chapter of whichever sorority or fraternity is currently in trouble, but rather a public campaign talking about and addressing all of the negative elements of the community and the ways it needs to be changed and fixed.
  3. Remind Public of the Positive – As one community, the Greek organizations should consider investing in a national public campaign highlighting all the positive aspects of Greek life. So many often tout things like community service, scholarships, professional connections, lifelong friendships and more as benefits of being a part of a sorority and fraternity. Therefore, a campaign highlighting all of these factors which will remind the public of the good parts of the organizations, would be very beneficial in changing the currently dominant negative image and public perception.
  4. Actively Align With Social Groups – A consistent relationship/partnership with many advocacy and social groups would help in not only changing public perception but also the attitudes and mentality of the various organizations. A few leading organizations particularly relevant to the numerous scandals sororities and fraternities have faced include; Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR).

Ultimately, changing the negative perception of college Greek organizations would require a significant overhaul of the community culture. The truth is many of these organizations are more than a century old and many of the attitudes, beliefs, and mindset are carried over multiple generations. Many of the members come from legacies – that is, their great-grandparents, grand-parents and parents were members. And it is extremely difficult to change thoughts and attitudes that have been deeply embedded for years and years. But unless that’s done, the scandals will continue as will the public’s negative perception which will ultimately affect the organizations’ bottom line.

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