Student experience on campus depends on Greek affiliation – or lack thereof

Greek life is both scrutinized and celebrated on Washington and Lee’s campus.

Washington and Lee has one of the biggest Greek life scenes in the whole country. This can sometimes be problematic and other times a great get away in the small town of Lexington. 


Dating back over a hundred years, the Greek system began primarily to give college students a chance to socialize with peers with similar interests and further professional interests of members in each organization. 


Today however some consider it “a totally arbitrary social order that only perpetuates racism, classism, and homophobia,” said Pamela Steimel, a senior at the University. 


Steimel decided to not go Greek throughout her four years in college because she felt that she wasn’t someone who wanted to be judged by others for trivial matters or have people decide for her where she belonged in the social scene. 


“I have learned to be myself and to stand on my own without the need of an organization or outside validation,” Steimel said. 


But Andrew Claybrook, a senior who is also an independent, believes there is a larger issue surrounding the Greek system. 


“People refer to one another by Greek affiliation, or lack thereof as a primary way of identifying people: ‘Oh he’s a KA [Kappa Alpha]! She’s an indie [independent]!’” Claybrook said. “As if that can be an adequate shorthand for an entire person.” 


Claybrook decided to stay independent because he disagreed with the premise of an exclusive social order on the privilege of access. 


So, what does privilege of access really mean? 


Being a part of a Greek organization bears a monetary cost – anywhere from $1000 – $5000 a year. But the university does provide financial assistance to those in need, making sure that the cost of the program is not an obstacle for those who want to be a part of it. 


“[The university] wants all of [its] students to have what [it] literally calls the full Washington and Lee experience. If that happens to include Greek life but there is a financial barrier for you to do that, the university is working hard to try and make that possible for you,” said the Associate Director of Alumni relations Beau Dudley. “We don’t want to have the Greek system either unaffordable or being exclusive or discriminatory in membership practices.” 


In fact, the university’s board of trustees have recently appointed a committee which is working on making sure that everybody who comes to Washington and Lee can do what they like to do and have a satisfying academic and social experience. 


But financial access remains a factor, among a long list of perceived characteristics of a typical Greek member.  


“If you are in a Greek organization, you probably fit the white, middle or upper class stereotype,” said Bradford Singer, a sophomore who is affiliated with a Greek organization. 


The role of race is hard to quantify, but some say it partly determines which Greek organization students end up in, and also whether they affiliate at all. 


“Sororities are divided by race. Some take people of color and some never do,” said Kenza Benabdallah, a senior who is an independent. 


“We were told upfront that if you want to apply to sororities, only apply to one or two of [them] which do take people of color because others do not,” said Kushali Kumar, also a senior who is an independent. 


The university does, however, have an institutional commitment to make sure Greek life is not exclusive or discriminatory. Therefore, Dudley said, “we need to figure out how that’s going to work in conjunction with the national organizations of our fraternities and sororities. And most importantly with the current students.” 


Dudley strongly believes that there will be change only when leaders of Greek organizations work together with the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and the Panhellenic Council. 


“It’s not something you can impose from the top down,” said Dudley. “The students have to completely buy into this and make it work.” 


However, not seeing enough change from the Greek side, some independents have pursued an alternative approach to exclusively Greek organized parties, through the introduction of events like Friday Night Underground (FUDG). Students organize performances or have an open mic evening every Friday at the former Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house for people to socialize in spaces that are not Greek run. 


“It’s important that we develop social scenes people are comfortable with,” said the Associate Provost for Academic Development and Operations Paul Youngman. “FUDG is amazing.” 


Despite the progress, “the popular conception of the social scene at W&L is the party system,” said Claybrook. 


To many, the only solution to all the problems that come with the existence of the Greek system on campus is disaffiliation by individual students. In fact, the university has seen a decreasing number of students participating in Greek organizations. However, a majority of the student body is still affiliated with the system. 


“If [Greek participation] is going to drop, it’s going to be because students are opting out of it,” said Dudley. “Well, that’s okay! Think of it as Greek organizations selling something. If the public is not buying what they are selling, their numbers are going to diminish.” 


Sophomore Singer, a member of Lambda Chi Alpha, believes that if this transition is to continue, the school needs be “careful with what policies it pursues” because reducing Greek life on campus can have a negative unintended consequence. 


“If [Greek participation] goes down to 35%, that means half the fraternities will probably be kicked off campus and ones that stay on will probably be the most elite,” said Singer. “Fraternities [will] become more homogeneous and exclusive.” 


If on the other hand, numbers were to stay the same, Singer suggested that fraternities would have to change their structure to accommodate for the diversifying student body. 


This is a path the administration might embrace. “I hope that the Greek system will evolve in the same spirit Washington and Lee is evolving,” said Dudley. “They should fit within the institutional philosophy and goals…but as I said, I am fine if students either want to have a conversation about the pros and cons [or] argue for change or defend the status quo.”