It's Greek to Me
IT’S A FRIGID, SNOWY SATURDAY MORNING IN Granville–one of those days when it’s better to stay home unless you really, really have to get somewhere. John Macko ’08, like 114 other men this morning, has to get to Slayter to find out if he received a membership bid from a fraternity. He does, from Lambda Chi Alpha, the one chapter he wanted to join.
Macko didn’t foresee doing this back in August. He arrived at Denison not at all interested in the Greek life, even though his mom, Jane Sheble Macko ’79 is a Delta Delta Delta, and his dad, Tom Macko ’79, is a Phi Delta Theta. “Dad still stays in touch with several of his brothers, so I knew joining a fraternity is a lifelong decision and something really special, but I just didn’t think I was a fraternity guy. I guess I had a bad image of the party life that I associated with it.”
Instead, Macko initially pursued rugby, one of his father’s other Denison pastimes. That’s how he met several Lambda Chis, who encouraged him to come visit their lodge during the fraternity formal recruitment period. “I was surprised,” he says. “I really liked what I saw. All the guys were really friendly and respectful, and they told me what Lambda Chi was all about. They took me and other guys out to dinner, and they told me if there’s anything I need, just call.”
Macko also realized that many of his other first-year friends were joining fraternities, or at least trying to, so that made the decision easier. As he accepts the bid, he’s instructed to meet the other associate members (Lambda Chi, like many other sororities and fraternities, dropped the term “pledge” years ago) behind Olin Hall later that evening, where he’ll take the first steps in what could very well be his own lifelong decision.
Over the following week, 168 women will face their own decisions, elation, and disappointments as they participate in sorority formal recruitment. In a process vastly different from the fraternity method, the recruits and the chapters go through several rounds of getting to know each other, confidentially ranking their preferences, which are then processed with the aid of computers. With each round, the candidates’ choices will narrow according to which chapters ask them back. On Sunday, the familiar bid day scene will ensue in front of Swasey, as chapters greet their new pledges amid excited screams and cheers and lead them to private rituals in the sorority houses downhill.
The recruitment process is doubtlessly one of the most crucial exercises for any social Greek organization. For the new members, it marks the beginning of their commitment–whether that’s for the next three to four years or for life–to a group. For the chapters, thoughtful recruitment is how they preserve their existence and traditions, and maintain their course into the future.
“It’s a good part of growing up–getting beyond yourself to take this oath that binds you to the values and needs of your chapter… If we have to grow up, why not now?”
-Caroline Grant ’05, Pi Beta Phi
Setbacks and Advances
Ten years ago, many in the Denison community might have doubted that such events would occur in 2005. When the board of trustees decided in April 1995 to make fraternities non-residential, students and alumni alike predicted imminent doom for Greek life at Denison. Ironically, the trustees felt their action was the only way to secure a healthy Greek system and advance the academic and social interests of the college.
Events leading up to the decision are a matter of historical record, but still a source of debate. The move upset many alumni who saw fraternity houses as an essential component of not just the Greek experience, but the Denison experience. Some are still disappointed or wistful at best, yet they have since come to accept the change. Others, unfortunately, remain disengaged from the life of their chapters and the college.
Denison did witness a decline in Greek membership following the decision, though it was not as drastic as some might have expected. In 1995-96, 51 percent of the student body was Greek. That figure dropped to 40 percent by 1998-99, where it hovered for several years. It is currently 36 percent. In closer detail, 33 percent of Denison’s men are spread among nine fraternities, and 39 percent of the women belong to eight sororities.
As is the case on many campuses, sororities and fraternities at Denison today compete for students’ attention amid a large field of activities and organizations. The number of college-recognized groups, all launched by students’ own initiative, has grown to 144 over the last ten years. Compared to 1994, that is nearly three times as many ways for students to build friendships, develop leadership skills, compete athletically, explore their faith, practice an art form, serve the community or advance a political cause. And in today’s multi-tasking society, it is not uncommon for someone to spread their involvement over a half-dozen or more activities. In addition, a robust program of special events sponsored by the various groups and the student life department, along with the ease of transportation to nearby Columbus, offer a broader a range of recreational opportunities than may have been available in previous decades.
It is significant to note that in this evolved climate, more than one-third of the student body commit themselves to Greek organizations, which number among the 144 campus groups. Through their affiliation, they also form lifelong friendships and valuable leadership skills. They preserve the time-honored rituals and values. They hang out together in their houses (most fraternities still have exclusive lodge spaces in theirs). They engage in friendly competition with other chapters. They contribute to the community through philanthropic efforts (last year, Greek students contributed more than 16,000 combined hours of service and raised more than $70,000 for various causes). They push each other to succeed academically via intrachapter GPA competitions and mandatory study tables (fraternity and sorority grade point averages closely approximate the overall men and women averages). And, of course, Greek life continues to serve as a pillar of the Denison social scene, as mixers and fraternity parties commonly take place in student apartments and suites, various off campus locations, and occasionally at campus sites like Lamson Lodge and the Roost.
“It’s been a long road from where we were to where we are now,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Samuel Thios. “I’m optimistic about Greek life on our campus.” Thios was appointed vice president in the summer of 1995, leaving his position as psychology professor to help establish relationships and assert the college’s goal of a strong, positive, value-based Greek system. “I like the fact that Denison continues to have Greek organizations. When they operate in a manner consistent with their national charters, they have the ability to promote a strong set of core values among their members,” said Thios.
“We knew we had a problem when too many people started focusing on a building, and not the people. The fraternity experience is still one of the strongest forces that binds people to each other and to the institution.”
-Sandy Thomson ’59, Sigma Chi
Under Thios’s guidance, Associate Dean John Beckman and Assistant Director of Student Activities for Leadership Ryan Hilperts steered the development of a strategic plan for Greek organizations. They worked with students, alumni and national offices to identify eight areas critical to a chapter’s operation: academics, chapter programming and leadership, new member programming, campus and community service, chapter goal-setting and assessment, social and risk management, self-governance, and alumni involvement and advisement.
In 2003, these categories became the primary elements of a program titled Strategies for Success, which represents the mutual commitments between each chapter and the college. A roadmap of sorts, it helps each chapter set goals for the coming year. At the end of the year, the chapter leaders review their performance in consultation with alumni and faculty advisors, college staff, and their inter/national organizations.
Hilperts now splits her time between advising chapter leaders and Greek councils–the Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Council, and National Pan Hellenic Council– and developing leadership programming for all Denison students. Reflecting on the progress she has witnessed, she says “the greatest feeling is watching the students become empowered. They are reclaiming their own community identity. We are providing them lots of education and leadership programming crafted to challenge their thinking and things are happening because we’re putting the right people in the right room together.”
Being Greek in 2005
The perspectives of college staff and investigative committees offer some insight to Denison’s Greek life. However, the ultimate views are those of today’s Greek students. What rewards do they find through involvement with a fraternity or sorority? How do they perceive the treatment Greeks receive from the college and alumni? What are the keys, and obstacles, to their organizations’ success? What future do they see for Greek life at Denison?
Ask any affiliated student on campus today what they enjoy about being Greek and the response will likely involve friendships, social outlets, and leadership opportunities. They might even add alumni networking opportunities or a connection to the values of an organization. Some arrive at Denison knowing that the Greek life is what they want. Others discover its benefits in more indirect fashion.
Like John Macko, LeeAnn Dickson ’05 didn’t think Greek life was for her. But then she met Lindsay McKeever ’04, a Kappa Alpha Theta. McKeever didn’t try to convince Dickson to become a Theta. Instead, she suggested to her to give the sororities a shot, to just meet people and maybe she would find the right place. “When I did, I had real conversations with fun, authentic people I liked outside the sorority context. It totally dispelled my perceptions.” Dickson said some of her best friends are Thetas, naturally, but she has formed equally close friendships with other sorority women through Panhellenic Council, which she served as president for the past year.
Casey Martin ’05 did not consider joining a fraternity until February of his first year, when he received a letter in from Sigma Chi alumni who were leading their chapter’s recolonization at Denison. They invited men who did not participate in formal recruitment to come listen to an evening presentation. Because the invitation was coming from alumni, Martin’s curiosity was piqued.
“Perception is reality. You can have two or three guys who wear letters and act like idiots, then it sticks to everyone else in that chapter.”
-Kevin Hospodar ’05, Kappa Sigma
John Tegtemeyer ’56 was a central figure in the return of Sigma Chi, and his passionate efforts were among the last of a long history of service to his fraternity and Denison before he passed away last October. When Casey Martin describes his earliest experiences with Sigma Chi, it is Tegtemeyer who he mentions first. “John stood up there with a list of goals written on a white board, and started talking to us about principles and values,” Martin recalled. “But he also said it wasn’t about the alumni, it was about us. He made it clear that this was a chance for us to figure out what we wanted to be seen as, and what we wanted to do.” Through continued discussions with alumni, the men heard stories about their experiences, the importance of grades, citizenship and accountability, and what it meant to be a Sigma Chi.
Martin was one of 18 seniors, and 33 men overall, who worked through the rigorous recolonization effort to receive the Mu Chapter charter last April. As chapter pro-consul, Martin values the leadership opportunity being a Sigma Chi provided him. He values the friendships between men of diverse backgrounds and interests that never would have been without Sigma Chi. He values the standards of accountability that they had to hold each other to in order to get to this point. “If I’m going to put my personal integrity on the line, and claim this is what the Sigma Chis will be, then I expect the others to do the same. That will be the key to our success.”
Pi Beta Phi member Caroline Grant ’05 had an immediate interest in joining a sorority. She quickly learned that being Greek has just as much to do with social responsibilities as it does with social rewards. “I feel like it’s a good part of growing up–getting beyond yourself to take this oath that binds you to the values and needs of your chapter,” Grant says. To her, Greek life is analogous to post-graduate life. “If you have a family, you can’t just skip work because you’re tired. If you go to work for a large company, and you do something terribly wrong on a trip, then the rest of the company will judge your department or office by your actions. If we have to grow up at some point, why not now?”
Grant’s comments get to the heart of a longlived problem for social Greek organizations: that the actions of a few can easily affect an entire group. And, when more than one-third of the student body is Greek, the image of one chapter may spread to its counterparts. It may seem like an unfair standard, but it is human nature all the same, and largely explains the “Animal House” stereotypes that haunted so many otherwise honorable organizations throughout the last three decades. Some students even hide their affiliation from unaffiliated students, faculty and prospective employers, for fear of being judged unfavorably.
“The fact is, perception is reality,” said Kevin Hospodar ’05, noting a lesson he learned as a former IFC president and a member of Kappa Sigma. “You can have two or three guys who wear letters and act like idiots, then it sticks to everyone else in that chapter. That perception becomes the truth. That’s what matters and that’s how policies get made.”
Under allegations of hazing, Kappa Sigma became the fourth fraternity at Denison to be suspended by its international organization since 1994. (While Denison has occasionally placed fraternity and sorority chapters on probation, it has only suspended Kappa Kappa Gamma in the last decade). Of the other three, Sigma Chi rechartered last April, Beta Theta Pi began recolonization last November, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon is slated to begin recolonizing in the 2005-06 year, although its headquarters have not announced any specific plans.
For Hospodar, perception of what happened to his fraternity is his reality. “Without admitting guilt, we didn’t fit into what the school or our international thought we should be. I feel we were made examples of. Being on IFC, I saw other things happen that didn’t come back on other chapters, primarily because they didn’t get caught.”
“What’s true for Greeks is true for Denison across the board. You can get so much more out of it if you put yourself into it.”
-LeeAnnDickson ’05, Kappa Alpha Theta
Greek students, particularly fraternity members, have long suspected that they are closely monitored by the college, that their organizations are more prone to college sanctions than non-Greek groups, and that their members come under judicial review more easily than non-affiliated students.
Dean of Students Sarah Westfall says that this is just not the case. “A fundamental value of the college is that we cannot favor one group over another,” she says. Instead, she thinks Greek chapters are simply more visible given the social nature and the multiplicity of their organizations. “The same rules apply to Greek organizations as any other student group at Denison, but they also have the rules of their nationals to follow. They also have rules for recruiting and membership unlike other groups. So I’m sure they feel like they’re regulated and monitored to death.”
Reasons to Believe
Strategies for Success details 17 ways the college will commit support to each fraternity and sorority chapter. As Sam Thios states, “by introducing Strategies for Success, Denison has put its commitment in writing, and given chapters the tools to flourish on this campus.” Denison’s commitment to a strong Greek system is underscored by the college’s work with recognized chapters that were previously suspended by their inter/national organizations.
The roles of the IFC and Panhellenic Council provide the Greek system another layer of support and self-governance. The councils’ influence particularly maintains fairness during recruitment; Panhellenic even appoints Rho Gammas who disassociate from their sororities to counsel recruits and monitor the process. The councils also set standards for various social activities. LeeAnn Dickson recalls when Greek serenades had become a source of concern for the bad behavior they seemed to elicit. Thios’s office, Panhellenic, and IFC worked together over a two-year period to change the way Greeks viewed and treated the serenade, to return the ritual to its earlier forms. “Now they’ve become a wonderful experience, and people are showing respect for chapter traditions and each other,” Dickson said.
Such changes may also result from chapters’ continued emphasis of their founding values and ideals. As president of Panhellenic Council, Dickson saw many examples of sororities acting out their values, which seemed to have contagious effects on other chapters. She said the long-held tradition of sorority skits used to be characterized by frequent references to partying and activities not inherently connected to a sorority’s mission, but that has changed in recent years. “This year, the Tri-Delts sang a three-part harmony that reflected their values and sisterhood. And then Kappa Kappa Gamma got up and did their first skit in three years and they got a standing ovation from everyone else.”
During a presentation about Greek life today at the Class of 1954’s 50th Reunion, Dickson commented that she and other sorority members have learned a lot about living out values from Denison’s five National Pan- Hellenic Council organizations, which are traditionally joined by African American students. NPHC organizations strongly emphasize ideals of service, professionalism and fraternal commitment, and members expressly separate themselves from many of the social issues that IFC and Panhellenic organizations confront. As Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. member Trinidy Jeter ’04 states, “In our organization, the college experience is preparation for post graduation. The focus is on our graduate members who continue to remain active because of our lifelong commitment. We are a business, not a social group.”
For fraternities, values continue to be important elements as well, although not always public. As Lambda Chi Alpha Christian Wright ’06 said, “The values are definitely important, and we spend a lot of time teaching them through our education programs. But it’s not like we go out and try to create an image. We just do what we do.”
Beta Theta Pi is emphasizing values by placing its “Men of Principle” initiative at the fore of its Denison recolonization. The initiative is a nine-part, flexible strategy that strives to ensure a positive Beta experience for all members and the expanded involvement of alumni, while promoting a lifelong devotion to intellectual excellence, high standards of moral conduct and responsible citizenship. Denison’s own Senator Richard G. Lugar ’54 (R-Ind.) serves as the official spokesman for Men of Principle.
Among the most tell-tale findings made by the Greek Life Committee was the impact alumni have on their chapters. Students the committee interviewed spoke of the morale-defeating impact of alumni who return to campus and tell current members how much better Greek life was when fraternities were residential, or when they didn’t have to worry about the involvement of the college or nationals. Conversely, those alumni who give even mildly positive attention to current operations seemed to strengthen members’ morale. In general, the committee found that sororities have maintained positive and active relationships with their alumnae, while fraternities have had minimal contact with their alumni, especially those who graduated after 1970.
Kevin Hospodar speaks highly of the experiences his Kappa Sigma chapter had with the alumni on its house corporation board. “When we took the initiative to fix up the lodge space in our house and make it a place where we could spend more of out time, they were more than happy to buy computers for us to use there and cover the cost of other updates.” Hospodar said he and his brothers have already begun discussing with their alumni a plan for re-establishing the chapter at Denison.
The most visible recent example of alumni involvement was the Sigma Chi recolonization, which was spearheaded by roughly two-dozen alumni, ranging in class years from 1935 to 2000, who wanted to preserve their legacy at Denison. They recruited a core group of pledges, sought consultation from strategic planning experts, served as liaisons to the Sigma Chi headquarters, and advised the new members on chapter operations.
Sandy Thomson ’56, a Sigma Chi alumnus and Denison trustee, was part of that group. “We knew we had a problem when too many people started focusing on a building, and not the people,” he said. “The fraternity experience is still one of the strongest forces that binds people to each other and to the institution. It’s a wonderful opportunity for guys to learn important lessons outside the classroom. And it doesn’t have to be residential to do all of that.”
Thomson said the rewards for him and his alumni brothers were as fulfilling for them as it they must have been for the new members. “It was one of the most startling, wonderful team efforts I’ve ever been involved in,” he said.
Tony Brice ’82, is a Sigma Alpha Epsilon alumnus, the current chair of the Alumni Interfraternity Council (AIFC), and a member of Denison’s Alumni Society Council. He recognizes the value alumni could bring to today’s Greek organizations, and is searching for ways to increase their involvement within their own chapters as well as across the Greek system. “One of the things I love about Denison today is its successful efforts to look to alumni as a source for career development and as resources to help students become better leaders on campus. Why not plug into them as a resource for Greek life?”
Brice hopes to expand the membership of the AIFC and perhaps guide its evolution into a group that involves Panhellenic, IFC and NPHC alumni. “At the very grass roots, I’d like to get together men and women, particular younger ones who understand today’s model, and get them talking about how we can strengthen and support today’s chapters.”
Into the Future
So how do students see the future of Denison Greek life? Many echo the Greek Life Committee’s observation that this is a critical time for Denison’s Greeks; the system could either mesh with the academic and social aspirations of the campus, or slip into irrelevance. All of the students quoted in this article, and many more who were interviewed, believe that each chapter’s fate is in its own hands. They accept and understand the climate that now exists at Denison and on other campuses. Although there are a few skeptics, they generally believe that the college wants them to succeed. They have seen what it takes for national organizations to suspend charters. They speak of self-governance, of holding each other accountable, and doing what is in the best interest of their chapter.
As LeeAnn Dickson said, “What’s true for Greeks is true for Denison across the board. People can’t come here and expect the university to give a lot, while they just take and take. You can get so much more out of it if you put yourself into it.”
Paul Pegher is the editor of Denison Magazine. Rob Griffiths ’01, a Lambda Chi Alpha and a doctoral student in mass communications at Ohio State University, contributed to this article.