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Membership down 42 percent, WU Greek life looks for answers

Noah Dantes

Contributing Writer

Total Willamette Fraternity & Sorority Life (FSL) membership is down 42 percent from last year, data provided by Panhellenic Council and Interfraternity Council adviser Lisa Holliday shows. While undergraduate enrollment dropped 25 percent from 2017 to 2021, that alone does not explain the drop in FSL membership. From 2017 to 2021, the percentage of the student body involved in FSL more than halved. Recruitment has also fallen drastically: in spring 2021, only 24 new members were recruited across all of FSL, down from 53 new members in 2020 and far below the 101 new FSL members in 2017. Although the largest drop in membership occurred during the pandemic, there was a steady decline in the years leading up to 2020 as well.

Credit: Noah Dantes using data courtesy of Lisa Holliday

Between 2018 and 2021, two fraternities and two sororities closed their doors: Phi Delta Theta and Beta Theta Phi, and Pi Beta Phi and Delta Gamma. According to Holliday, the Delta Gamma chapter was closed in 2018 without explanation by the national organization, while Phi Delta Theta and Pi Beta Phi both voted to close last year. Beta Theta Phi was forced to close at the end of spring 2021 due to its last two members graduating and unsuccessful recruitment efforts. As of fall 2021, two sororities and three fraternities remain at Willamette: Alpha Chi Omega, Alpha Phi, Sigma Chi, Kappa Sigma and Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

A series of photos taken inside the former Delta Gamma house on Mill Street, across from Goudy.
Photo by Rebecca May.

When asked why FSL had observed such a drastic decline in membership, several FSL leaders cited COVID-19. “The pandemic made it nearly impossible to recruit as well as it caused a lot of peoples attention to fade from extracurricular activities to the safety of themselves and family members,” Sigma Alpha Epsilon President Carson Pies (‘22) said in an email comment.

Sigma Chi President Carson Herrick (‘22) agreed: “With the restrictions in the past couple years, there haven’t been many opportunities to provide fun events for Greek life or the campus as a whole. That was a big selling point of Greek life and not having that has surely decreased interest.”

Holliday said one reason for declining FSL numbers is an increase in membership cost: “When you join a sorority for example, you can expect somewhere between 500 and 700 dollars.” Both Alpha Chi Omega and Alpha Phi have a scholarship fund for new members.

Several current and past FSL members cited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and institutional problems embedded within national Greek Life as the reason for declining membership. Jack Hanscom (‘22) was a member of Beta Theta Phi for one semester in his first year. “As I learned more about the history of the Greek system and even of other chapters of Beta around the United States, and where my money would go if I was paying dues, I found a strong conflict between really enjoying the guys I was with in the fraternity and really disliking the system,” Hanscom said. He added that when he chose to leave the fraternity, none of his brothers were surprised and that they all stayed friends afterward.

Jadelin Tung (‘22) was the president of Pi Beta Phi for a semester, but left the sorority before it closed last year. She said that the national organization was not responsive to BLM. Willamette’s Pi Beta Phi chapter had been selected to advise the national organization on equity, diversity and inclusion, but Tung said that there was a “complete lack of listening.” The chapter’s members voted to close, but the national organization didn’t let them. Half of Pi Beta Phi’s members left in summer 2020. Numbers decreased to just eight before its eventual closure this past spring.

Tung, Herrick, Holliday and a graduated FSL member all met with the Board of Trustees last year to give their perspectives on FSL at Willamette. Holliday and Lisa Landreman, the vice president of Student Affairs, also met over Zoom with several FSL members that dropped in the summer of 2020 to listen to their concerns. “The overwhelming feeling was that they loved their Willamette experience… but the national organization didn’t align with their values so they couldn’t do it any more,” Holliday said.

When asked what problems she saw at the national level, Tung cited hazing, institutional elitism and privilege. Holliday, Tung and Hanscom all said the [Willamette 2019 STEAM collective] and the BLM movement were drivers of awareness on these issues.

Both Tung and Hanscom said that their time in FSL at Willamette was positive. “A lot of Willamette individuals in Greek life are well-intentioned folks,” Hanscom said. “A lot of people join it because they know it isn’t the ‘traditional’ Greek life. I also do commend a lot of the philanthropic work that a lot of these organizations do in our community. I don’t want to take away from that, but in my personal belief, I don’t think that offsets belonging to institutions have historically been problematic.”

Herrick said he didn’t see the progressive goals of many Willamette students and FSL as a source of collision, but rather “something we can be side by side in.” He said that FSL at Willamette differs from Greek life elsewhere: “The national image of Greek life is hazing, drinking, whitewashing, and at Sigma Chi we’ve really focused on building people up. A big drilling point for us is having a set of values we talk about, and then using that for philanthropic and community service purposes… there seems to be a lot of misconception about where we’re trying to head as a community.”

Quinna Sypher (‘23), president of Alpha Chi Omega and business manager for the Collegian, said that chapters are able to make more progressive decisions on their own because they’re smaller than their national organization and have less people they’re accountable to. She said that FSL organizations were some of the first organizations at Willamette to get their [anti-racism action plans to ASWU last year] because they had already been working on anti-racist policies. “The national organization can move a little slowly for some people, but you can help drive change within the organization— Alpha Chi nationally just abolished its legacy policy,” Sypher said. Many fraternities and sororities still have legacy policies, which favor applicants that are related to past members of the organization.

Pies said that the national organization had given his chapter “learning and workshop resources based upon the fraternity culture and EDI expectations.”

The future of FSL at Willamette remains uncertain. Holliday said the biggest challenge facing FSL now is restarting post COVID-19. “There’s also not a lot of people left who remember how the fraternities and sororities normally run, so there’s the question of how do they even operate,” Holliday said.

Sypher said that many adjustments for COVID-19 safety had to be made to programming this year. She added that the new recruitment process and life without a university house would take some adjusting to. Alpha Chi Omega was the last FSL organization to have a university house, which it vacated this past summer. [Pi Beta Phi vacated its house in Fall 2020], and the other fraternities and sororities have not had a university house for years, instead opting for unofficial residences in the dorms or in off-campus houses.

Willamette FSL recently got rid of recruitment week in favor of a new system called continuous open bidding, in which recruitment events are spread out year-round and are less time intensive. “It takes a lot of the pressure off of prospective members and current members and makes it so people don’t have to take time off other things any more,” Sypher said. This new system also allows FSL organizations to recruit first-semester first-years, which is a change that has been both [criticized] and [defended]. Continuous open bidding is hoped to improve recruitment numbers.

Both Hanscom and Tung said they hope FSL has no future at Willamette.

Herrick and Pies cited leadership and development opportunities as one of the largest benefits of being involved in FSL. “Each executive position as well as informal positions within the fraternity offers many networking opportunities and administrative skills such as scheduling, managing individuals and problem solving within an organization,” Pies said.

Sypher also spoke on the benefits she’s gotten out of FSL: “I [found] a group that encourage[s] me to be my best self. That’s really what we’re actively striving for for all of our members, is that we’re producing a community that is challenging each other, uplifting each other, and supporting each other, because I all think we could use a little support right now.”

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