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New Semester, Old Challenges for Fraternities, Sororities

A new semester brings new activities for thousands of fraternity and sorority members on college campuses across the nation – and opportunity for untold others to join their ranks.

Although camaraderie, leadership opportunities and service projects are a big part of Greek-letter life, nothing gets their names in the news faster than a scandal. And there have been more in the media lately, ranging from pranks gone awry and sexual assaults to hazing and death. Students from at least five schools – Pennsylvania State University, Louisiana State University, Florida State University, Texas State University and the University of Nevada – died in 2017 at or after fraternity-related events, and the tragedies usually involved pledges and alcohol.

Dr. Donald Mitchell, Jr.Dr. Donald Mitchell, Jr.

Schools have responded with actions ranging from restrictions on recruiting to suspension of social events to indefinite bans on all activities, as was the case at LSU and Florida State last year following the death of a fraternity pledge at each school. Ohio State and Texas State took the same action after incidents involving egregious behavior.

Some organizations have begun to proactively self-police. At Indiana University, for example, the Interfraternity Council voted unanimously in December to have a blanket suspension of all social and new-member activities for all fraternities at the Bloomington campus. The umbrella organization said the action was not in response to any problem on campus but in the interest of re-examining things in light of highly publicized, negative events making national news at other schools.

Meanwhile, in light of the rise in depression and suicide among college students, some fraternities and sororities at the corporate level are supporting health and wellness efforts of local chapters. For example, New York City-based company TalkSpace began partnering with Greek-letter organizations three years ago to offer virtual counseling for members nationwide, potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of students.

Alpha Tau Omega was the first to sign on in 2016, providing access to about 10,000 frat members – two years after the organization was rocked by the suicides of two members at different schools. It’s an attractive alternative to students who may feel more comfortable with a virtual encounter through a digital app than seeking help in person.

TalkSpace also has partnerships with Delta Tau Delta and Sigma Kappa, potentially reaching 40,000 undergraduates and on track to double that number by the end of the school year as discussions continue with more fraternities and sororities, said Lynn Hamilton, TalkSpace’s chief commercial officer.

“TalkSpace has been consistently impressed by the leadership of the Greek community … as stewards of on-campus mental health,” she said. “We’re thrilled to partner with them and with other members of the Greek community to make therapy accessible to students and to help make a positive impact on campus mental health.”

She added that the company offers additional support “to prepare strategic awareness campaigns that engage the undergraduate members with regular mental health messaging on relevant topics and on the availability of TalkSpace through their Greek organization. Additionally, we’ve crafted tools and talking points to help undergraduate chapter leadership better support their peers and direct them to appropriate resources when necessary. Similar tools were developed to assist graduate consultants and the national chapter on how to engage undergrad members regarding mental health issues and resources.”

That sort of use of technology to meet student mental health needs is helpful, said Dr. Donald Mitchell Jr., a professor of higher education leadership at Bellarmine University, whose scholarship explores Black Greek-letter organizations and who is also the associate editor of Oracle: The Professional Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.

“Being in a fraternity and sorority, or having networks on college campuses, does not prevent depression, suicide or other mental health issues,” said Mitchell, “so I applaud TalkSpace for partnering with fraternities and sororities, particularly because fraternities and sororities are often community- and service-centered. Given this, fraternities and sororities can help spread the word about depression, suicide and other mental health issues through campus and national programming. Many students don’t realize how common mental health issues are amongst college students, and awareness is the first step to addressing these issues in higher education contexts.”

Some wellness efforts are campus-based. At IU Bloomington, for instance, the Tau chapter of Sigma Kappa sorority has a mental health chair and offers convenient, confidential therapy services to students, who can’t always fit a visit to an official campus counselor into their schedule.

Greek-letter organizations may be facing tough days ahead if some government officials have their way about it.

In Tennessee, for example, state Rep. John DeBerry introduced legislation in the House of Representatives in January to ban fraternities and sororities – excluding the professional and honor ones – from every college and university in the state.

The bill, also sponsored by state Sen. Reggie Tate, provoked immediate condemnation. Within days, a joint statement critical of the proposal was issued by the National Panhellenic Conference, National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, National Multicultural Greek Council, National APIDA Panhellenic Association, North-American Interfraternity Conference and Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. They slammed the legislation as misguided and urged him to withdraw it.

The ban would do more harm than good, they said, and especially hurt enrollment and retention of minority students and underrepresented groups.

“Multicultural fraternities and sororities … are integral to the lives of the students who find safety and community in their organizations, particularly those who face the daily trauma of existing as students of color or other underrepresented communities,” wrote Victoria Valdez, president of the National Multicultural Greek Council, striking a common theme. “We stand firmly against hazing, but believe banning Greek-letter organizations and their activities will hurt those students who are committed to the promotion of multiculturalism, scholarship, leadership, diversity and advocating for justice on their campus and in their communities.”

Mitchell agreed, calling such proposed laws “short-sighted.”

“There are various positive outcomes associated with membership in Greek-lettered organizations, particularly within Black Greek-lettered organizations, Latinx Greek-lettered organizations, Native American Greek-lettered organizations and multicultural Greek-lettered organizations at predominantly White institutions. I know there are issues we need to eradicate, but I think we need to focus on eliminating the negative aspects of Greek life” rather than eliminating the organizations themselves, he said.

“So, do we need changes? Absolutely! But banning these organizations state-wide isn’t the right answer, it’s just an easy one. In this day and age, we need legislators who find innovative solutions, not easy ones,” he added.

Membership in a social fraternity or sorority is rewarding in ways not known by those on the outside, say members, including Mitchell. Membership in Kappa Alpha Psi, he said, “has allowed me to see the benefits of Greek life first-hand, even in the midst of negative incidents that often plague these organizations, for example hazing, sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse. So, as a member of Kappa, I often use my scholarship to promote the values and benefits of these organizations, also recognizing that we have work to do to improve Greek-lettered organizations.”

LaMont Jones can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones

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