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Letter to the Editor: Fraternity and Sorority recruitment issues are not universal

Submitted by Amy Nelson

Disclosure: Amy Nelson is the Vice President of Membership and Recruitment for Alpha Phi.

Photo of a pre-COVID Alpha Phi event, courtesy of Willamette Alpha Phi's Instagram

In the first sentence of “Letter to the Editor: New Fraternity and Sorority Practices Harm the University”, author Aidan Lawrence-Devine accepts a common-place narrative that collegiate fraternity and sorority organizations are inherently predatory. While it would be naive to assume that this statement is not true on some college campuses which house dozens of chapters and see thousands of students participate in the formal recruitment process each year, the culture and structure of Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) on Willamette’s campus is utterly incomparable. I, similar to Mr. Lawrence-Devine, serve as the Vice President of Membership and Recruitment for Alpha Phi, one of the two sororities here at Willamette; my own opinions regarding the impacts of the new recruitment process, however, starkly contrast the opinions written in his letter to the editor. The description of the recruitment process provided by Lawrence-Devine affixes an inaccurate and problematic culture to each and every chapter and mischaracterizes the intent, purpose, and role of both sororities and fraternities on campus.

The collective decision by the Panhellenic Council (PHC) and the Interfraternity Council (IFC) to modify the recruitment process, which previously did not allow membership of first year students until their spring semester, was not made in haste. Changes in interests and desires of potential members have naturally underscored the need to restructure the recruitment processes for FSL organizations at Willamette. While much work has been done on a chapter-by-chapter basis to provide an adequate and welcoming community for its membership, the implementation of a less restrictive recruitment structure and recruitment timeline allows fraternities and sororities to build communities similar to that of other organizations on campus.

Although Lawrence-Devine argues that fall semester recruitment of first year students exemplifies predatory behavior and serves to isolate students, in no way are members discouraged or held back from opportunities to participate in or hold leadership positions in other on-campus clubs or organizations. Sororities and fraternities do serve as communities with shared values and goals like Lawrence-Devine suggests, but not as “cult-like” entities binding members by ball and chain and only permitting interaction within its own membership. Many, if not all members of each chapter participate and hold leadership positions in a multitude of other organizations at Willamette, and allowing students to join all of these organizations within their first semester in no way harbors that. While I agree that the cohesive relationships between FSL and other organizations on campus are crucial to supporting and serving the interests of students, rationalizing that fraternities and sororities actively inhibit involvement or excessively obligate members to frivolous time commitments that disadvantage them from participating in other organizations is not a characteristic inherent to the FSL community. If anything, fraternities or sororities with current upperclassmen members who have or currently do hold positions of leadership in other campus organizations provide new members with connections; this allows for the potential to network, promote other organizations, and create the opportunity for students to be integrated into many other clubs, organizations, and jobs on campus. Clearly, neither I nor Mr. Lawrence-Devine can speak on behalf of all the chapters because we are not members of each and every one; yet many of the problems highlighted, while they might be issues within his own organization, are not systemic problems within all of FSL.

In parallel, the scenario put forth by Lawrence-Devine involves a “typical sequence of events” for an individual joining any FSL organization. The hypothetical situation takes for granted that building a relationship with a current member of a fraternity or sorority through outside interactions is done purely out of manipulation and an attempt to squeeze membership out of an unsuspecting first-year student. While the only accurate analogy to the true recruitment practices of FSL is most likely the “free food, good conversation, and people who create a welcoming environment”, this scenario jumps to the conclusion that meeting with members of an FSL chapter at an event suddenly means you are forced to or brainwashed into accepting a bid (a formal offer to become a member) and initiated into the organization with little to no room for changing your mind or taking your time to decide on membership. Not only that, but also that any interaction with other organizations--whether that be going to a table at the Activities Expo or attending events hosted by other organizations--is only permitted when members of the respective fraternity or sorority also are interested or willing to participate. Overall, this timeline put forth in “New Fraternity and Sorority Practices Harm the University” is underscored by notions of ill-intent, manipulation, and excessive control employed by members of fraternities and sororities that in reality does not exist within the chapters at Willamette.

Lastly, and in further detail to a point raised earlier, issues within one organization does not mean systemic issues for all of FSL. Lawrence-Devine consistently highlights lengthy new member education, a process that my own organization has been able to modify from 6-8 weeks into a much shorter and more flexible experience. His argument seems to suggest that the problems are not with when a student would join, but instead are problems anytime a student would join. Much of these issues, while I agree need to be changed, are not problems associated with when recruitment occurs but rather a problem with the practice itself. Additionally, the article suggests that it is the fault of fraternities and sororities that students in their spring semester do not wish to join because they had time to realize their negative sentiments towards the FSL chapters. It is my belief that this viewpoint is mistaken; much of the issues in recruiting first year students was related to the structure in which it was done. In a structured formal recruitment week, some students were intimidated by the process and found that it was too extensive to fit into their schedule. In the current recruiting process, this system has been done away with and individuals interested in joining fraternities and sororities have the ability to meet one-on-one with chapter members or attend casual events hosted by the chapters throughout each semester. This creates more personable, less structured, and more flexible opportunities for individuals interested in FSL to engage with chapters on campus and establish relationships without the pressure of joining right away. Additionally, the inability to commit their time to another organization beyond the many they have joined in the previous semester is another deterrent for students. Many students must choose between quitting an organization they are already involved in to be able to join a fraternity or sorority or not joining one at all, making it a hard decision for a student to step away from prior commitments and obligations to join an FSL organization. In transitioning the recruitment process, the FSL community is trying to become more accessible and provide the opportunity for first-year students to explore the community at the same time they are exploring other extracurricular activities on campus.

I agree with Mr. Lawrence-Devine that there is much work to be done by the FSL community to have further and more prominent impacts on Willamette’s campus; but by excluding the participation of an entire incoming academic class by more than 5 months in waiting until spring semester to allow first-years to join an FSL organization, it is much harder for this change to be implemented quickly and in ways that reflect the wants and the needs of the current student body. There are already many changes being implemented within individual chapters to create more accessible, inclusive, and community-oriented environments. Specifically, Panhellenic Council as well as Alpha Chi Omega has supported Alpha Phi’s push towards extending membership to any non-male identifying students as opposed to only female-identifying. My own chapter has abolished its legacy policy, a provision which previously gave advantages to potential members who had close family members who were in sororities, a privilege historically awarded to white, upper-class women. Our Vice President of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Isabel Martinez, has integrated extensive activities and workshops that account for more that 25% of all chapter activities to discuss, combat, and learn from the historical discriminatory and divisive nature of sororities; this allows the chapter to implement changes which support individuals who historically have not been welcome with open arms into FSL organizations and grow our own community to reflect the voices, interests, and backgrounds of any and all non-male identifying students. Alpha Phi has reduced the cost of membership, an obstacle that limits who has the ability to join the organization and combats the exclusivity of sororities as a whole. Alpha Chi Omega or any of the fraternities on campus more than likely have other initiatives occurring within their own respective chapters which promote the values and growth inherent to the FSL community, similar to the ones that I have given above.

So while there is still much to do to develop and transition FSL to adapt to the needs of Willamette and its students, misinterpreting and mischaracterizing the changes into selfish, manipulative, and predatory tactics is not the way forward. Instead, it is important that conversations are had regarding the concerns with current and past practices of FSL chapters. Additionally, FSL chapters should remain receptive and adaptive to the wants and needs of the student community and all student organizations should continue to work collaboratively to allow any student to participate in communities that support and promote growth for them, no matter if they are an FSL chapter or not. Therefore, I urge any students reading “Letter to the Editor: New Fraternity and Sorority Practices Harm the University” to reach out to individual chapters, speak with members of the FSL community, and use all the information available to them to understand the purpose of the transition of the FSL recruitment process from more than just the one perspective.

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