Greek Life at Princeton: The Problems with the New Policy

By Margaret Fortney ’13

On Sunday, March 25th, the University’s Committee on Freshman Rush Policy announced that beginning with the incoming Class of 2016, freshmen are prohibited from participating in any sorority or fraternity activity.   The report recommended that freshmen who seek or obtain membership in a Greek organization should be suspended, as should members of Greek organizations who recruit them.  Freshmen who attend Greek events may be subject to a lesser penalty.
When University president Shirley Tilghman instituted the committee last fall, she cited her desire “to reaffirm the centrality of the residential colleges and eating clubs as the principal elements around which residential and social life at Princeton revolve; to encourage freshmen to take full advantage of the opportunities Princeton offers to explore a variety of interests and develop a diverse set of friendships.” These motivations are unobjectionable – even praiseworthy – but they do not justify the serious threat to student autonomy that the recent ban poses.

Even if we accept the University’s policy of disapproval, it is a large step from disapproval to active prohibition.  It is outside the University’s power to regulate these groups, especially since by refusing to recognize them, they technically do not exist.  By regulating fraternities and sororities, however, the University is of course implicitly acknowledging their existence.  Their lack of formal recognition deprives them of University resources, facilities, and funding that other student groups enjoy.  Because Greek organizations accept nothing from Nassau Hall, they should likewise owe nothing to Nassau Hall.

Before we consider the particular implementation of the ban, we should understand that the University’s position on Greek life is intended to discourage participation at any point during a student’s Princeton career.  According to Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, Princeton does not recognize Greek organizations because “in general they do not add in positive ways to the overall residential experience on campus.” Furthermore, “they can contribute to a sense of social exclusiveness and often place an excessive emphasis on alcohol”. It is not the aim of this article to address the controversy surrounding these claims, but rather to explain why, given this stance, banning freshmen rush is not desirable.

The policy proposed by the committee is not only outside of the University’s power, but will negatively impact Princeton students in three notable ways.  Firstly, personal autonomy will be lost. Self-governance cannot exist where freedom of association does not.  Secondly, a wedge will develop between freshmen and older students involved in Greek life since certain structured interactions between these groups will be banned.  Thirdly, the policy is essentially the University’s attempt to manage the social structure of campus, and many of the justifications found here could be used to dictate future social interactions.

The policy is designed to protect freshmen and encourage them to explore all facets of student life. However, the ensuing loss of personal autonomy is graver than these potential benefits.   Given the University’s policy of disapproval, it is curious that the ban targets only freshmen, since the administration equally disapproves of sophomore, junior, or senior participation in Greek life.  The report cited the “unique social vulnerability” of freshmen to justify the distinction.  Freshmen are certainly the most socially vulnerable of all students at Princeton.  Banning their participation in Greek life may prevent them from making hasty social decisions and lead them to pursue other social and extracurricular outlets which they otherwise would not have time for.  However, social exploration is a fundamental part of the college experience.  Princeton students benefit from academic and extracurricular exploration, and they should likewise be able to benefit from social freedom.  This is not to suggest that when students explore they make the right choices, but rather that making these choices – both the good and the bad – allows them to mature and gives them the wisdom to make better choices in the future.

The University’s role is not to make decisions for us, but rather to provide us with information and resources to make the right decisions for ourselves.  The University provides freshmen with special resources like the RCA program, freshmen seminars, and free tutoring to help acclimate them to social and academic life at Princeton.  Granted, not every freshman takes advantages of these resources.  If the administration is not pleased with the social scene on campus, the solution is not to demonize and ban frats.  Rather, the administration ought to improve its existing resources, and perhaps add new ones, to create an accepting environment with many opportunities for freshman to receive help. For example, the University could implement sustainable programs to encourage constructive and sustained interaction between upper and under classmen.  While the University cannot ensure a perfectly smooth period of acclimation for freshmen, it can create an environment with the resources and opportunities that might contribute to a healthy acclimation.

Furthermore, I do not believe that students who participate in Greek life are less inclined to also participate in other extracurricular activities that the University believes to be more beneficial.  Many students in sororities and fraternities are also committed members of performing arts groups, community service initiatives, and religious groups, to name a few. Not to mention, many of them are stellar students.  Before claiming that joining a sorority or fraternity precludes a student from other activities, the administration should investigate whether this is truly the case.

Depriving freshmen of their personal autonomy while granting it to the other classes will create a social rift on campus.  When the administration makes certain social circles of older students off-limits – or at the very least tricky to navigate – meaningful friendships which might otherwise have developed will be unlikely to form.  This rift will be especially prominent between older Greek affiliated students and those freshmen who otherwise would have joined and plan on joining sophomore year.

The rift will be exacerbated by the ambiguity in the report’s description of which types of events are off-limits for freshmen.  Upperclassmen who are unsure about which interactions are banned under the policy and which are allowed may, to be safe, err in favor of avoiding these borderline interactions.  The taskforce recommended that “membership, pledging, and rush” are prohibited for freshmen, while “casual conversations” about Greek life are not.  The potential confusion lies in dealing with activities falling between these extremes. Any attempt to separate rush and pledge events from others would create confusion and perhaps unseen loopholes to avoid the ban.  So, the ban applies to “any events or activities sponsored by Greek organizations”.  The problem now extends to defining “sponsorship”. While the task force noted the importance of clearly defining the term, it failed to do so.

The vague definition of sponsorship it provided includes invitations on behalf of a fraternity or sorority, events where fraternity or sorority funds were used, or explicit sponsorship by a Greek organization. The report claims, “The presence of individuals who are members of the fraternity or sorority is not, alone, evidence of sponsorship”.   Interactions that are clearly banned include inviting freshmen to fraternity or sorority formals, including freshmen in Greek community service initiatives, and inviting freshmen to parties where sponsorship is explicit.   Yet, surely Greek organizations could circumvent this by issuing invitations on behalf of individuals, rather than the fraternity or sorority as a whole.  There is no real distinction – apart from explicit mention of the sorority or fraternity – between a group of friends and a group of sorority sisters or fraternity brothers.  Given this ambiguity, if upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities take the ban seriously, they may be reluctant to socialize with freshmen and invite them to parties (especially parties where fraternity brothers and sorority sisters are present). As the University continues to implement programs that are supposedly designed to increase interaction across classes, the fact that they want to chill cross-class socializing here is troubling and somewhat hypocritical.

Perhaps the most alarming consequence of the ban on freshman involvement in Greek life is the dangerous precedent set for social engineering. The University is developing a penchant for banning participation in social groups it deems disadvantageous. I mentioned earlier that the reasons for targeting specifically freshmen are not obvious, and the report itself acknowledges the possibility of extending such a ban to other classes.  It writes, “Violations of the prohibition on freshman affiliation can be expected to further reduce the University’s tolerance of sophomore, junior, and senior affiliation.”  Here we find that the University hopes to use fear to shape social interactions on campus.  Freshmen in fraternities and sororities are the first target, but it is a dangerous precedent to set.  This ban begins to establish a framework in which the administration might ban any social organization of which it does not approve.
Of course, the looming infringement on personal autonomy and consequent rift between the classes will only be realized if freshman participation is actually curtailed by an effective implementation of the ban. It is for this reason that the committee proposed suspension as the central enforcement mechanism. They believe that only this punishment is “severe enough to encourage widespread compliance”.  A lesser punishment – say, disciplinary probation – might discourage some freshmen from attending Greek events, but others might be undeterred, according to the report.

If the taskforce is correct in presuming that disciplinary probation would not result in “full compliance”, then their reasoning in support of a suspension is solid.  However, they offer no evidence that students would take disciplinary probation less seriously.  They merely surmise, “Students may vary in their reactions to disciplinary probation”.  It is not self-evident why students might not also vary in their reactions to suspension.  The taskforce provides an example – the Nude Olympics – of an activity that was successfully curtailed under threat of suspension.  Yet, they noticeably do not provide any examples of bans that failed to be effective under the threat of disciplinary probation.  So, it is not clear whether or not suspension is the appropriate punishment.  Regardless, I maintain that the punishment associated with the ban is of lesser concern than the act of the ban itself. The fact that this social interaction is subject to any disciplinary action is in and of itself troubling.

Students who oppose the ban generally do so because they are not convinced that the administration can make better decisions regarding their social life than they can make themselves.  Decisions like whether or not to join a fraternity or sorority are admittedly hard ones, but it is not productive to shelter us from such choices.  Our personal autonomy ought to allow us to explore all sorts of social scenes on campus and decide for ourselves whether or not they might contribute to our Princeton experience.  A flourishing social scene at Princeton would be one in which students have the freedom and opportunity to find social value in any or all of the social outlets our community offers.  In this sense, the ban affects all students – those involved in Greek life as well as those with no interest in Greek life – since it threatens this fundamental personal autonomy.   We ought to take this seriously.

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