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What is the future of Greek life at Willamette?

Monte Remer

Staff Writer

Outside of 880 Mill Street

Across from Goudy, there is a large, pillared building. Two of its floors are mostly dust. Footsteps cause little clouds on the basement carpet, and hands come away gray after gripping the banister going up the second floor. There are empty rooms full of empty beds, and stacks of old magazines covered in Greek lettering. From within dusty frames along the hallway, faces of past Willamette fraternity and sorority members stare through the darkness like ghosts. On the main floor, however, the lights are turning on again.

The lights in 880 Mill Street have remained off for years. While it was once housing for various Willamette Greek life organizations, students’ interest declined in communal living and the old-fashioned culture around fraternities and sororities. In the late 2010s, this marked the end of an era for Greek life.

Lisa Holliday, associate dean of students & director of student engagement and leadership, described how students were once attracted to the idea of living in one big space with other fraternity or sorority members, sleeping in rooms full of bunk beds and being constantly immersed in the Greek social environment. Overseeing Willamette Greek life through the years, though, she witnessed a change.

“There’s just no student who wants to live like that anymore,” Holliday said.

At first, the change could have been mistaken for an end. Even before COVID-19, 880 Mill and other Greek life housing along Mill Street closed down due to lack of residents and changing student culture. Then the new decade began with a disease that rendered impossible what little Greek life community remained at Willamette. For some, the nail in the coffin was an examination of what it meant to belong to chapters of the larger, national Greek life organizations. Did those organizations hold up in an era of social-justice? Many fraternity and sorority members answered ‘no’.

For Reese Hamilton (‘24), however, things never looked so grim. Now President of the Interfraternity Council, Hamilton was a first year student when COVID began—he was joining a new kind of fraternity in Sigma Chi. It was one with fewer members and less prominence in the Willamette community, and he hardly even recognized it as Greek life.

“Personally I had no interest in Greek life when I came to college,” he said, “but then [I] made a few friends . . . learned a little bit more about the organization [and thought] this is not at all what I had expected.”

There was less connection to the national Greek organizations after COVID-19 than before. In fact, there was a sort of new, activist spirit which Holliday describes as such: “If members of Willamette fraternities and sororities don’t like something, they’re not going to do it.”

The contrast between the past and present of Greek life was especially stark given that when Hamilton joined, Willamette’s Sigma Chi had one of the worst reputations of any fraternity in the country. In 2013—before the general cultural decline of Greek life—Facebook posts from the group were leaked, revealing sexist remarks from multiple members and suggestions of violence towards a female faculty member. Sigma Chi lost its on campus housing following a lack of interest among students in joining the fraternity, but this confirmation of everyone’s worst prejudices and fears about the university’s fraternities left a scar on their reputation that remains, not yet fully healed even today.

Hamilton, however, likes to think that much of that healing happened during COVID-19. He observed a cultural shift towards Greek life. “When I joined Greek life,” he said, “I was told like, yeah, you’re gonna have to deal with all these people not liking you and thinking you’re a bad person and all this stuff, but I actually haven’t encountered that at the individual level at all.” An older generation of fraternity members had warned him that “people are gonna be out to get you,” but Hamilton found that wasn’t the case. He noticed a change during the pandemic which had bettered both fraternities and sororities and improved people’s perception of them, despite lower membership.

Greek life had improved in a lot of ways, but other good aspects were lost. The community aspect in particular had never fully recovered, and it took a summer of bureaucratic misery and moving absurdly heavy furniture to revive it.

“These things are so freaking heavy,” Alpha Chi Omega President Quinna Sypher (‘23) said, pointing disdainfully at the couches in the living room of 880 Mill. Sypher led the effort to gain usage of the building that is now the hub of Greek life at Willamette. She communicated constantly with the administration, eventually getting the go-ahead and moving a lot more than just the couches into the empty building’s first floor.

“There was this longing for a communal space,” Holliday said. “Not like how it used to be [with communal housing], but just a general FSL [Fraternity and Sorority Life] community after COVID saw a lot of communities disappearing from people’s lives.”

After a summer of blood, sweat and tears, the dust has been cleared from the first floor of 880 Mill—both the fraternities and sororities utilize the first floor exclusively to provide better accessibility, another shift in Willamette Greek life since COVID. The building is now ground-zero for Greek operations including fundraising, meetings, and providing a space for organization members to rebuild the larger Greek community.

Part of that effort involves changing the perception of Greek life at Willamette to reflect what fraternities and sororities are like now. While there has been a cultural shift, many fraternity and sorority members remain frustrated with the way they are viewed. Sypher, for instance, says she wishes more people recognized the work that her sorority has done to fight domestic violence with the Salem Center for Hope and Safety—working crisis hotlines, volunteering in the Center’s office and fundraising.

“It’s not to grab a beer,” Sypher challenged a common view of the sorority. “I’m almost twenty-two years old—I can get a beer whenever I want.”

As to how Greek organizations can fight the misconception that they are but vessels for beer-grabbing, Hamilton said, “All we can really do is keep doing good things, and keep putting ourselves in a positive light, and showing the positive things we do, and hope that people will eventually see that. And if they don’t, well that’s really all you can do.”

Across from Goudy, there is a large, pillared building. It holds the hopes of the administration, Hamilton, Sypher and other Greek life upperclassmen as some organizations have begun to reach their highest memberships in years. The lights are back on, and they shine on the portraits of past fraternity and sorority members who belonged to organizations far removed from those at Willamette today. Amidst all the hope and excitement for the future, the past seems far away. For now, every surface in 880 Mill shines.

What is the future of Greek life at Willamette? The only clear answer is something different.

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