Preserve the Greek System

When describing the agenda of his domestic political opponents, Winston Churchill once famously admonished voters to “not let spacious plans for a new world divert your energies from saving what is left of the old.” As the Dartmouth community continues to debate the imperative of social reform and the administration awaits the recommendations of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” steering committee, it would seem that many on campus would do well to keep this advice in mind while exploring opportunities for new policies.

Last Friday, The Dartmouth ran a special edition focusing on the College’s Greek system. Although it was presented as an effort to “capture as many voices and experiences [as possible],” it quickly became clear that the paper’s paeans to “informing conversation” were but a public pretense. Within its 36-page double feature, The Dartmouth devoted a mere two pages of content to defending an institution that counts 172 years, thousands of alumni, and nearly 70% of eligible students as its strongest endorsements. If one was to find those columns on the 24th and 25th pages (and amidst the broken links on the website), he had to be more perseverant than Sisyphus himself; most readers didn’t make it past the headline on the front cover. There, The Dartmouth’s editorial board excoriated the Greek System under a title – “Abolish the Greek System” – that was as large as the masthead itself.

Preserve the Greek System and let it be part of the solution, rather the scapegoat of Dartmouth's problems.

Preserve the Greek System and let it be part of the solution, rather the scapegoat of Dartmouth’s problems.

Almost immediately, this cabal presented a number of problems, not the least of which involved the details of the article’s timing and presentation. As if it weren’t enough to run the op-ed in the annual Homecoming issue, the editors made it the sole piece of content on the front page, thereby cheapening the alternative opinions they had solicited and then published toward the back of the paper. In justifying this decision, editor Lindsey Ellis noted that although she “cares deeply about objectivity in journalism,” she decided it was the right move because “[it] aims to show [the paper’s] readership how much is at stake.” This strikes us as a bit odd. If the significance of a story is all that is needed to trump objectivity, then what is to say opinions can’t take precedence over news whenever the editorial board feels strongly about an issue? Call us old-fashioned, but we were under the impression that goal of a newspaper was to report the headlines, not manufacture them. One has to wonder what would come to pass if The New York Times applied the same litmus test to the content on its front page.

Setting such details aside, there is the far more serious matter of the editorial’s substance. As many campus commentators have already noted, the article presents a breathtaking array of logical non-sequiturs, cherry-picked facts, and discredited clichés that are designed only to caricaturize the undergraduate Greek experience. But most problematic by far are the flaws inherent in the arc of its authors’ logic. This first becomes apparent in the second paragraph, where the editors introduce their concerns by remarking that “students and administrators perpetually worry about our institutional reputation” and point to the Greek system’s role in perpetuating the College’s “Animal House” perception. They then go on to conclude that even though “Greek life is not the root of all the College’s problems or of broader societal issues,” it must be abolished anyhow because it “enables and institutionalizes harmful behaviors.” This rationale is puzzling for two reasons.

First, it views the issue of Greek life from an external lens and presents the issue as one relating primarily to the College’s national reputation. Such a framing detracts from genuine concerns about the state of its internal social dynamics and makes their suggestions more about neutralizing “the national media’s penchant for an Ivy-League-gone-wild cover story” than about pursuing the best-possible policies for the Dartmouth community. Second, the editors themselves acknowledge that the Greek system is not the source of the social ills they decry, but rather the venue where they most frequently emerge. Within this rendering of Dartmouth’s social life, any one of their proposed solutions – campus bars, dorm room parties, or the ludicrously vague request to “expand social spaces” – may provide the newest asylum for the very behavior that they hope to eradicate.

Perhaps it is for this reason that The Dartmouth’s editors freely admit that “it’s hard to imagine our campus without these networks of people we have come to love” or to visualize “what the College will look like without a Greek system:” they simply have no idea what their proposed changes might actually set in motion. But rather than treating their ignorance as a cause for caution, they plunge headlong into the pursuit of “bold” and “brave” action, adopting the peculiar assertion that the existing institutions must be destroyed and untested alternatives pursued well before any of them have undergone the strenuous metamorphosis of implementation.

Such naiveté would be amusing if it didn’t sacrifice so much at the altar of change. By The Dartmouth’s own admission, the College’s Greek system offers something uniquely powerful within the undergraduate experience, something that will make its absence almost impossible to fill on campus. In the middle of the third column, its editors write:

Each year hundreds of student leaders pour their energy and time into what boils down to social life. Imagine what we could accomplish as a student body if these student leaders cared so deeply about something else. This ownership, love, and pride can and should extend beyond Webster Avenue and Wheelock Street.

What makes this statement so remarkable is that it cuts to the core of what gives the fraternities and sororities such a powerful presence within the Dartmouth community: the sense of pride, aspiration, and identity they promote among their members. As any change agent can tell you, the key to effecting a culture shift is giving those involved stake in its outcome. This is precisely what the Greek system does so well. By constructively linking over half of the student body with the larger campus community, it localizes the Dartmouth experience in a way that gives individuals a sense of belonging and a place of ownership within it. As a result, Greek houses are uniquely positioned to connect with undergraduates and mobilize them in support of initiatives larger than themselves.

This idea is not new one, but it is a practical one. For generations, the Dartmouth Greek system has thrived amidst profound changes in campus life while providing an important avenue for social reform. There is no denying that it has its problems – binge drinking and sexual assault most notably – but these can best be solved through cooperative reform rather through the blind idealism of annihilation. It is largely for this reason that so many student leaders have worked with Greek houses in the name of progress. Through recent initiatives like an expansion of financial aid, the addition of more sober monitors, an end to pledging activities, and the creation of alternative freshmen programming, the Greek community has demonstrated itself to be more than willing to join others in pursuit of social solutions. To ignore this potential and call for the system’s destruction is not just to do a disservice to these efforts; it is to rob the community of its best avenue for change and create a vacuum of viable alternatives. In so doing, it would deliver Dartmouth into the vicissitudes of the unknown and, as Winston Churchill has warned, would allow the allure of something new to divert our energies from the practical matters at hand.

The College deserves better. The College already has better. Preserve the Greek system and let it be part of the solution, rather than the scapegoat for its problems.