The sun set over Langdon as an energetic group of young men gathered in the front yard of Tau Kappa Epsilon. From afar, the dimming daylight reflecting on their matching blue shirts resembled a themed party.
It was indeed a party, but not the kind with vibrating speakers or sugar-loaded alcoholic punch.
“Do you guys want to come pet puppies? We take Venmo, too,” a member of the fraternity urged passing pedestrians, as another caressed a small golden dog.
Members of Tau Kappa Epsilon gathered for Paws for a Cause, a puppy-petting event in its third year running. It is the first of a series of philanthropy events the fraternity hosts to raise donations for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Last year, they raised about $14,000.
Tau Kappa Epsilon is not alone in its philanthropic endeavors. Ten fraternities and eight sororities affiliated with the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Association raised a total of more than $300,000 for their designated charities last year.
Despite high donation numbers, the campus community also sees a high prevalence of policy violations from Greek life. Of the 36 incidents reported to the Committee of Students Organizations last year, 22 involved a fraternity or sorority, said Eric Knueve, assistant dean and director of the Center for Leadership and Involvement. Headlines also tell of incidents in which Greek-letter organizations are involved with sexual assault, hazing and racial bias.
Considering the various negative incidents involving the Greek community — and that there are more than 250 non-Greek, service-oriented student organizations on campus, according to the WIN Involvement Network — some students question others’ decision to participate in Greek life based on philanthropy.
UW junior Emily Dynis, who will volunteer at Meriter Hospital as a pre-nursing major, said if a student wanted to volunteer or fundraise, they could choose another student organization.
“A lot of times people try to justify joining Greek life for philanthropy,” Dynis said. “In reality, they can just join other student organizations for that. At the end of the day, they pick sororities or fraternities based on status and money.”
Greek community structure enables opportunities, challenges for service efforts
More than 14 percent of UW students are affiliated with Greek Life, Knueve said. Mandatory service requirements imposed by many fraternities and sororities push about 4,000 undergraduate students to volunteer each year.
“I think a lot of times things are cornered as Greek problems. But in a lot of ways, especially with heavy binge drinking, it’s just a college problem.”Recent graduate Jake Bujnowski
Its sheer size creates a productive environment in which members exchange ideas enhancing philanthropic outcomes, Michael Baer, vice president of philanthropy at IFC, said. Most leaders in IFC facilitate workshops for that purpose.
“You’re going to have a mix of people, often from different backgrounds — academic, cultural, geographic backgrounds — bringing their different skill sets together to brainstorm ideas on how to raise money,” Baer said.
But negative stigmas against Greek life can sometimes pose challenges.
“I feel like sometimes we can be looked at in a bad light from the campus, or as an exclusive group,” Emily Rosati, philanthropy chair at the organization, said.
Greek, non-Greek organizations partner to serve community
While Greek life is often met with criticism from the larger campus community, the two often work together.
One example of this is Humorology, an annual musical comedy show with a Greek-majority cast which raises money for a specific charity. Humorology is the largest student-run philanthropic organization in the state of Wisconsin and is making efforts to involve more non-Greek students, Rosati.
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There are four non-Greek affiliated members on its executive board this year. Together, they raised more than $195,000 for The Rainbow Project last year, Rosati said. This year, they are looking to donate $215,000 to the Neighborhood House Community Center.
“When you take a step back and realize you’re part of something bigger than yourself, it’s so motivating it can drive you through the year,” Rosati said.
Fraternity members are also strongly represented in the student organization Men Against Sexual Assault. The group focuses on educating men about sexual violence and rape culture.
Two sorority members, Maddie Zimmerman and Lauren Silber, took it upon themselves to leave Langdon and connect with campus as a whole. Janie Felton, chair at the non-Greek affiliated Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment (PAVE), said Zimmerman and Silber approached her to form a partnership.
This past summer, PAVE helped train select members of the Greek community to facilitate Relationship FLAGS, a workshop centered on sexual assault, dating violence and healthy relationships, Felton said. The project was one of seven to receive the 2017-18 Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant.
Even when not working in tandem, registered student organizations and the Greek community are often supporting the same efforts.
Last year, PAVE advocated for consent, bystander intervention and victim support to more than 900 students via volunteering and workshops around campus, Felton said. But due to registered student organization regulations, PAVE is prohibited from fundraising.
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Similarly, last year, UW’s Alpha Chi Omega chapter worked to support assault survivors by donating more than $23,000 to local crisis service agency Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, Heather Barnwell, philanthropy chair at Alpha Chi Omega, said.
Building identity, community through service
When a whole fraternity or sorority is focused on altruism, those values radiate through the community.
Jonathan Sogin, vice president at Theta Delta Chi, emphasized the importance of role models.
“Mentorship is one of the most important things that I think fraternities do for people,” Sogin said.
Sarah Piñón, Greek life specialist at the UW Center for Leadership and Involvement, said the Greek system provides students with opportunities to bond over service, which reinforces a “lifelong commitment” to philanthropy.
“Fundraising and uniting the local community are my deepest passions.” Nikki Novoselsky
Similarly, Jane Piliavin, UW sociology professor specializing in altruism, said when a volunteer setting involves friendships and role models, those involved can develop an identity and sense of self that is attached to altruism.
“Once you’ve been bitten by the bug, it just becomes a part of who you are,” Piliavin said. “That tends to carry you through.”
Nikki Novoselsky, former director at Humorology and Pi Beta Phi alumna, said in an email to The Badger Herald that her experience with the organization had been “instrumental” in her decision to continue pursuing nonprofit work.
Novoselsky is now program director at Neighborhood House Community Center.
“It became clear to me that fundraising and uniting the local community are my deepest passions,” Novoselsky said. “Everything has come full circle.”
Social pressure and desire to belong can also prompt members to accept and take in similar values as their peers, Piliavin said.
But these lingering effects of social solidarity and pressure affect not just altruistic behaviors, Piliavin added.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be charitable activity, though,” Piliavin said. “It could be going out and getting drunk, for that matter — which is unfortunately something that is also characteristic of the Greek system.”
Some Greek life stereotypes ring true
Among the 22 policy violation incidents involving IFC or PHA reported to CSO last year, 20 involved allegations of violating the Student Organization Alcohol Policy, Knueve said. Six of these reports were ultimately dismissed.
The reality of alcohol use is one of the administration’s major concerns about Greek life, Knueve said. He said the Greek community should promote responsible alcohol consumption so drinking “isn’t becoming a sole focus” of these organizations. But this is also a problem for the campus as a whole, he added.
While Jake Bujnowski, UW graduate and former Theta Delta Chi member, said heavy alcohol consumption and drinking games happen at frat parties, excessive drinking is not exclusive to Greek life.
“I think a lot of times things are cornered as Greek problems,” Bujnowski said. “But in a lot of ways, especially with heavy binge drinking, it’s just a college problem.”
Another concern about Greek life is the potential for hazing. From member experiences and incidents, it seems excessive drinking and hazing can sometimes be linked.
Two years ago, the university terminated Chi Phi’s campus chapter for an incident involving both hazing and alcohol consumption. During an initiation ceremony, members made a pledge enter a casket. An intoxicated member then stomped on the head area of the casket, breaking it and causing head injuries to the student inside. The pledge was hospitalized and suffered a concussion.
But Bujnowski said hazing did not occur in Theta Delta Chi. As recruitment chair, then president, Bujnowski made it clear to new members that they should never be forced to do anything against their will. If new members were ever put in a situation like that, or one that made them uncomfortable, Bujnowski told them to come to him.
During her time at UW, recent graduate and Kappa Kappa Gamma alumna Helen Matsumoto said she heard about incidents that could qualify as minor hazing. Matsumoto heard stories of frat members making pledges do chores or encouraging heavy drinking. But Matsumoto said she never heard of anyone being harmed by these things.
Matt Grande, an active member at Chi Psi, or “The Lodge,” acknowledged some of these concerns about the Greek community. He pointed to news reports regarding hazing and excessive drinking in Greek life and agreed those issues should be addressed. He said the Greek community should promote safety, especially when it comes to alcohol.
Excessive drinking, in turn, can also prime an environment for unwanted sexual behaviors — intentional or not. According to the 2015 AAU report, alcohol is present in the majority of sexual assaults.
Additionally, the report found disproportionately high rates of sexual assault in UW’s Greek housing.
During her sophomore year, UW senior Alyssa Scuric brought a girl home from a fraternity party because the girl felt uncomfortable with the sexual advances of a fraternity member. Scuric said the girl and the fraternity member were “both just very drunk,” something that makes consent for either party impossible.
Earlier this year, UW’s chapter of Sigma Chi was suspended for serving alcohol to minors. The fraternity’s members were also singing a song about “a presumably fictional” fellow member who sexually assaulted 100 women against a wall, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Scuric also said a stranger warned her of the “red room” at a fraternity house. It was where “guys take girls to hook up,” Scuric said.
Bujnowski said social pressures within fraternities may contribute to disproportionate rates of sexual assault. This is something Bujnowski finds frustrating, as he has close female friends who are survivors.
“There’s this pressure to fit in, and I think within Greek life there’s this idea that you have to be really manly and macho,” Bujnowski said. “And a big part of that is to be sexual and sexually active.”
Whatever the cause, Bujnowski said he is proud to see that Greek life is working to address sexual assault. Knueve said the Greek community has, among other policies, created a sexual assault task force and changed their bylaws to address the issue.
Erik Hansen, treasurer of Men Against Sexual Assault, said in an email to The Badger Herald that education and engagement on an individual level will be key to changing the culture.
“We recognize much more work still has to be done in Greek life,” Hansen said. “We will continue to spark conversation and action to support Greek members in taking ownership of their community and working to change the culture.”
Excessive drinking and sexual assault aside, members are also concerned about diversity within the Greek community.
Notably, UW’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon was suspended last year for enabling a “hostile, discriminatory” environment from 2014 to early 2016. A CSO report also showed slurs, jokes and derogatory language were repeatedly directed toward minority groups.
Grande said it’s important to make sure Greek life isn’t full of the same guys and girls from the same backgrounds.
“Diversity is not necessarily lacking, but at the same time it can be better with people coming from different background,” Grande said.
Striking a balance
Nonetheless, Knueve said the Greek community has been “very diligent” in trying to improve its culture, especially around sexual behaviors.
“People in Greek life know that there are a lot of good things, and people outside of Greek life definitely see the bad things — and that turns them off to it without really seeing that there is more to it.”Matt Grande
He added, however, that the administration has all of these concerns for other students and organizations on campus as well. The challenge for the Greek community in particular, he said, lies in whether or not general members buy into their leader’s desire to change the culture for the better.
“If you have a few people who are setting a good example and trying to be stand-up guys, it trickles down,” Sogin said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over long periods of time.”
Ultimately, Knueve said the benefits — or lack thereof — of Greek life are dependent on whether individual student’s personal values align with those of their prospective Greek organization.
Knueve said for students who are joining for the right reasons, Greek life can be a “tremendous opportunity” for students to establish networks and work toward common goals. But joining does come with a risk.
“There are also some trappings there that could lead you to join for the wrong reasons, and maybe lose a little bit of who you are in that process,” Knueve said.
For Matsumoto, membership in Kappa Kappa Gamma opened a lot of doors. While there are negatives, Matsumoto said overall, Greek life does “a lot of good for a lot of people.”
Though Grande acknowledged the negative incidents involving Greek life should be addressed, he also said that “there is more” to Greek life than these incidents.
“I think there is a balance in the end,” Grande said. “People in Greek life know that there are a lot of good things, and people outside of Greek life definitely see the bad things — and that turns them off to it without really seeing that there is more to it.”
In the same vein, Bujnowski said he hopes people outside of the Greek community will see the positives that come with it, and understand the negatives affect the whole campus, not just Langdon.
Ultimately, Landry Ndahayo, chief justice of IFC, said it will take time to see significant growth and change within the Greek community.
“I do not look at it as a balancing act of enough good things to counter the bad. I look at it as every year there will be a step in the right direction,” Ndahayo said. “There will be a few bumps along the way, but that is expected when you are going through significant change.”