When I first came to Washington and Lee two short years ago, the first thing that I learned was how woefully unprepared I was for the ubiquity of the Greek system. I came here for academics, but realized quickly that everyone’s priority lay in getting as fucked up as possible as often as possible, and that the Greek system was the way to do it. My roommate, and everyone else I talked to my first day, was brimming with knowledge of the frats and srats and quickly got me up to speed on things as best they could. So I joined in. I mean if everyone else is doing it then it must be the way to go, right? In fact, it seemed as if it was the only way to have a social life on campus - I mean who would ever want to be a God Damn Independent (GDI) as we are too often referred to by first years and those in the Greek system.
Fast forward to the present. I had made it through freshman year, established myself as an active member of the Greek system, and shortly thereafter disaffiliated after finding my niche on campus and realizing that I find the culture spread by Greek life to be incredibly toxic. So what made my opinion of the Greek system change so drastically, so quickly? Well, to be honest, I don’t feel I ever supported the culture fostered by Greek life. What I did feel was an obligation to be a part of the system in order to have a “normal” social life on campus. But then that raises the question of what is normal? And, perhaps more importantly, who makes the decision as to what is normal?
I would argue that binge drinking to the point of blacking out multiple times a week, engaging in unsafe sexual activity in this state, and excluding already marginalized groups are far from the kinds of behavior that should ideally be normalized in a community geared towards preparing young adults for a successful life. However, these activities are not only the status quo here at Washington and Lee, but those who are not a part of the system are ostracized and ridiculed by those who call the Greek system their home. So where does this divisiveness stem from?
I personally would place the blame on a combination of two major factors: the sizable income disparity within the student body and the willingness of the school to take advantage of this disparity to secure donations. Think about it: wouldn’t you be more willing to donate to an institution that elevated you above the masses to the point of feeling like royalty? The class system on campus does exactly this - those at the top of the social hierarchy, ie. those in the Greek system, consider themselves vastly superior to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Perhaps the worst part is that those who are outside of the system are typically those who are already marginalized throughout the rest of society.
Why is this the case? Well, participating in the Greek system incurs both a sizable financial cost and time commitment away from studies - two things that marginalized groups are really not able to spare. This is due to marginalized individuals typically originating from lower income households, which has the double-edged effect of both reducing their economic ability to join the Greek system, and reducing the quality of their primary education. As such the Greek system has the tendency to exclude already marginalized groups further perpetuating the overall culture of marginalization that is all too present in America. Next time you go to a fraternity event, take a look around you. Look at the people. Look at the backgrounds they come from. Look at their ethnicities. Their sexual orientations. Then go to a non-affiliated event, like FUDG, and do the same. I think you may be a little shocked by what you notice if you take the time to really look at the institutions around you.
On the other end of the spectrum we have ways in which the school provides members of the student body, particularly members of the Greek system, with an arena in which they are free from responsibility for their actions. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Traveller. Don’t get me wrong; Traveller has an overwhelmingly positive impact on campus life. Without it there would undoubtedly be many more students engaging in drunk driving and other self-destructive behavior. However, it gives students a safety net that allows them security to make a myriad of destructive choices. Another example that comes to mind is how certain organizations *cough* KA *cough* are given slaps on the wrist for offenses that, at other colleges, would result in instant expulsion. Additionally, there were numerous Title IX violations on our campus in the past year alone that didn’t really seem to bring about any real change in my eyes - and I see that as almost reckless neglect on the part of the administration.
Another example of the school fostering these kinds of attitudes comes in the form of the Cadaver Society. I’m sure by now you’ve seen some evidence of their work on campus: either their recently-removed plaque on the footbridge or the ever tasteful graffiti they plaster all over campus. For those not in the know, the Cadaver Society is a secret society on campus best known for running around at night in all black and vandalizing campus property and donating large sums of money to the University. Once again, if an institution elevates a group above the rest of the community then that group will likely have nostalgic memories of the institution, therefore making it much more likely that they will donate to the University. Think about it this way: do you think the administration would take kindly to any other group of students on campus scrawling their symbol on University property? I highly doubt it. This appears to me an obvious depiction of how the 1% are treated preferentially at Washington and Lee. And so my question to the school is this: how much money must someone donate to you before they are allowed to vandalize campus property?