Greek life at Brandeis: Unaffiliated or unregulated?
The Justice spoke to students within and outside of Brandeis’ Greek life in order to get a sense of how Greek Life impacts Brandeis student life.
Content warning: this article discusses instances of sexual assault.
If pop culture and social media are to be believed, Greek life “makes” the social scene at big universities. “Bama Rush” videos on Tiktok show the ceremonial rituals and levels of prestige associated with rushing and securing a spot at one of the University of Alabama’s top sororities. Women spend hours planning their outfits and prepping their hair, and weeks putting together their sorority resumes to impress sorority sisters who did the same thing in previous years. Fraternities, on the other hand, are typically portrayed as the “promise of parties, living college life to the fullest … and alcohol-soaked adventures.” Also trending on Tiktok are videos about “Frat Guy Stereotypes,” which entail users mimicking frat boys by insulting women, chugging beers, and calling every person in their presence “bro.”
Our small, beloved Brandeis University supposedly succumbs to no such culture. Brandeis does not officially have Greek life; frats and sororities are not affiliated with the University. In 1988, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution to ban “exclusive or secret societies” which stated, “social fraternities and sororities, in particular, are neither recognized nor permitted to hold activities on campus or use University facilities.” But this did not end Greek life’s presence at Brandeis.
Have you seen the congregation of boys walking to class in suits and dress shoes on any given Wednesday? Known as pledges, these are the young men engaging in the initiation process of Brandeis’ Zeta Beta Tau, also known as ZBT. How about the gaggles of first-years seen walking down South Street toward the residential area of Waltham every Friday and Saturday night, on their way to a frat party where they will receive a red solo cup half filled with jungle juice and a sweaty basement dance floor in exchange for a $5 entry fee? Or, early in each semester, you can find a table outside of Upper Usdan, with a sign asking students to donate money to philanthropy projects in exchange for the chance to “pie” a Sigma Alpha Mu, or “Sammy,” brother.
There is no way to know how much of the campus is involved in Greek life based on official Brandeis data — the Student Life page in the Facts and Figures section of the University’s website has recorded its student involvement in fraternities and sororities as 0% for the past five school years — but the impact of Greek life on the Brandeis student life is hard to miss.
Today, there are ten active Greek life organizations at Brandeis — five fraternities and five sororities. Each of these organizations has dozens of students involved, with potential new members rushing every semester. Members of Delta Phi Epsilon, also known as DPHIE, and Sigma Delta Tau, commonly known as SDT, confirmed their sororities each have at least 60 people involved this semester.
Sororities and fraternities do not receive funding from Brandeis, are not recognized by the University, and are not able to consult the University on situations within their student organizations. Brandeis fraternities normally have one or more houses in residential areas of Waltham where multiple members, or “brothers,” live. Along with Greek life-specific events, fraternities host large parties at these houses, open to anyone willing to pay the small entry fee. Many Brandeis students attend these parties, including those not involved with Greek life. Brandeis has no oversight or affiliation with these events because they are held off-campus, and organized by groups not recognized by the University.
Student tour guides, who lead campus tours and information sessions about Brandeis to prospective students, are not specifically instructed to mention Greek life, as they are with other popular activities like club sports. Associate Director of Admissions Stephanie Squire explained that guides are “welcome” to talk about Greek life during tours, but said, “It’s not a required talking point.” She said many years ago her office was told that “around 10%” of the Brandeis student population is affiliated with Greek life, but she has not been given an updated statistic. This number conflicts with the 0% statistic found on the University’s website.
Regardless of their reasoning for joining Greek life at Brandeis, most of the students who spoke to the Justice claimed that before college, they never imagined that they would enroll in these organizations. When they arrived at Brandeis, however, many found that joining a fraternity or sorority could be a way to meet people and be part of an active social scene.
“I think a lot of the people who join sororities here kinda just want to find a group, because it can be hard sometimes to do that at Brandeis,” Molly Zimmerman ’25, a current member of Kappa Beta Gamma, commonly known as KBG, said.
Michael Jiang ’23 is a member of Sammy. He rushed as a first-year, before the start of the pandemic. “It was like two weeks in and I was still eagerly looking to expand my social circle … I just picked up one of [the] cards by chance and it ended up being Sammy’s. I went there, and I had a really good conversation with this guy … We found we had a lot in common, he had strict parents, and he was Asian and so am I. And we were talking about his past … and then I was like ‘Okay I’ll go to the next [event] too.’”
Izzy Andrus ’24, former member of SDT, who recently disaffiliated from the sorority because of time commitment issues, said the sorority gave her the chance to meet and get close with a group of girls who she never would have had an opportunity to connect with otherwise.
The 2019 Brandeis Campus Climate Survey found that 73% of the respondents who were members of fraternities or sororities agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I belong in this campus community,” compared to 65% of students who had no affiliation with Greek life or Greek life parties.
Cameron Peirce ’25, who rushed ZBT as a first-year, said he was interested in joining because of how many people in the fraternity are student-athletes like himself, and because of this, he “kind of connected with them.”
Jiang said, “philanthropy opportunities like feeding the homeless” also attracted him to Sammy. Additionally, he appreciates the camaraderie and support that his fraternity brings: “There’s a feeling of accountability and trying to actively bring out the best in people … you just have each other's backs.”
The number of students affiliating with Greek organizations only seemed to increase during COVID-19 according to Andrus, who rushed in 2020 and claimed her pledge class was unusually large due to the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic.
Three-person room limits. Online classes. Masked gatherings. Two week quarantines. An ungodly number of emails updating COVID-19 restrictions. This is what the 2020-2021 school year consisted of on the Brandeis campus. What could students do to make some friends around here? There were very few in-person classes, events, and clubs. The dining halls were frequently take-out only; most students ate meals in their rooms. First-years did not have roommates. Campus was desolate, with only around a third of the normal number of students present. Many students found a loophole: Greek life. Greek life, completely outside of University jurisdiction, was still active and was perceived by some as an opportunity for normalcy in this abnormal and isolating year of college.
Jolie Newman ’24, rushed Delta Phi Epsilon as a first-year: “My freshman year, I was feeling really isolated because of COVID, and for me, what sort of drew me to Greek life was the idea of being around other people and being a part of a community.”
Others who joined Greek life said they wouldn’t have if not for the pandemic, but saw rushing as their only chance to meet people during this time of restriction and isolation. “Everybody was willing to put themselves out there a little more because they realized they were coming to college in a completely remote setting,” Andrus said.
Greek life systems have provoked controversy among American college students. At the start of the 2020 school year, a movement took place across the Vanderbilt University campus to ban Greek life. More “Abolish Greek life” campaigns followed at other major universities. This motion was provoked by racist incidents within Vanderbilt’s Greek life, including a video broadcasting a Greek life member using racist slurs. Many students who had previously participated in Greek organizations disaffiliated, claiming that “Greek life is exclusionary, racist and misogynist[ic], as well as resistant to reform because of the hierarchical nature,” the New York Times reported in 2020.
The Brandeis Campus Climate Survey conducted in 2019 reported that for respondents who were members of a Greek organization, 62% had heard Brandeis community members make racist jokes or remarks in a social setting and 49% had witnessed this off-campus. These results were significantly lower — 37% and 15%, respectively — for respondents with no affiliation with Greek life. This survey, however, does not address where community members heard these racist comments specifically, so there is no definitive answer to whether these comments occurred at frat parties.
Despite this, some of those involved with Greek life at Brandeis feel it is inclusive, racially and otherwise: “We don't look at each other through any sort of barriers because those are so superficial and it’s really about the person under there. I think it’s reflected because [in Sammy] there’s a good mix of people who are LGBTQ and people who are minorities, including myself,” Jiang said.
Zimmerman, who was anti-Greek life prior to attending Brandeis, appreciated the diversity in her sorority: “At a predominantly white school, I was surprised to find that, at least when I joined, KBG was more diverse than most other Brandeis spaces I found myself in.” She also mentions that KBG makes a big effort to promote diversity with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion elected position in the sorority.
Not everyone spoke so positively about inclusivity within the Brandeis Greek life system. A Brandeis student in the class of 2024 who has engaged in both ends of the sorority rush process — including bids, when current members decide who will be given the chance to join their organization after completing the “pledge” process — said, “I think we’re brutal during bids … Subconsciously we are also looking for pretty girls, and I think appearance has a lot to do with it whether we're aware of it or not.”
“It’s such a popularity contest,” a student in the class of 2023 who was formerly involved with Brandeis Greek life told the Justice. The student asked to remain anonymous. He pledged a fraternity as a first-year but chose not to join. “Frats are so socially isolated from everyone else,” he said. “[Greek life] is so toxic,” he continued, “there’s some really creepy shit that goes on behind closed doors, especially with the fraternities.”
“The pledge process is really fucked up, and the shit that you have to go through to become a brother,” he said. He recalled how when he was pledging, the fraternity brothers forced him and his fellow pledges to lie and say they weren’t being hazed. The brothers said any pledges who told the truth would be kicked out of the frat. The Fraternal Information and Programming Group defines hazing as “any action taken or situation created, intentionally, whether on or off fraternity premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule.”
A “breeding ground” for assault
Students also commented on the misogyny present within the Greek system, which has been repeatedly criticized on a national scale. Leora Karoll ’24 is not affiliated with Greek life but has attended frat parties during her time at Brandeis. She said that she feels a constant discomfort with the Brandeis fraternities because of the tendency of feeling trapped under a critical male gaze: “It feels like at a frat party you go and you’re instantly being judged by every man on how much they would wanna fuck you,” Karoll exclaimed.
She continued by saying that “the Brandeis vibe is just being good people, but frat parties seem like this space where that all goes out the window and people can be just trash to you.” Karoll believes that this toxicity is enabled by the male-dominated environment and is normalized because the fraternities host and oversee most Greek life parties.
Despite all of the nuances that the Greek life culture brings to college campuses, one deeply concerning and damaging aspect of Greek life is the prevalence of sexual assault among members and students who attend Greek life events, namely frat parties.
Nationally, women involved in Greek life are at a higher risk of sexual assault. A 2021 study found that “women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women.” Additionally, the same study determined that men in fraternities are three times more likely to rape someone in comparison to men that are not affiliated with fraternities.
The Greek life culture at Brandeis University is not an exception when it comes to sexual assault incidents. The 2019 Campus Climate Survey found “participants who reported they were a member of a fraternity or a sorority indicated higher levels of sexual assault at 24% and rape at 9%. Another category of respondent were students not in Greek organizations but who had a “best friend affiliated with Greek life” — 37% of respondents in this category reported being sexually assaulted and 11% reported being raped during their time at Brandeis. Among students whose main connection with Greek life was attending parties hosted by Greek organizations, 22% had been sexually assaulted and 6% had been raped.
“Students who had no contact with Greek life reported fewer instances of assault and rape: 18% and 5% respectively,” the survey stated. “While one cannot assume causation, there is a strong correlation between contact with different aspects of Greek life and increased sexual harassment, assault and violence,” it continued.
A female student, who has asked to remain anonymous and is not affiliated with Greek life, discussed her experience of feeling sexually pressured and uncomfortable at a frat party: she was kissing and dancing with a male student who was also not a member of a Greek organization. Both of them were “super drunk,” she said. The man then asked her to go upstairs, to which she hesitantly agreed. They entered a frat brother’s room, whom the man insisted he was close friends with. The man began to ask her to have sex and continued to insist after she repeatedly denied his request. She recalled how during this interaction, he took a condom out of his pocket, even though she’d made it clear she did not want to have sex: “I saw him holding the condom as if he was about to take it out of the wrapper and use it. I ended up being able to end it, and we left the room … looking back, it was really scary that even though I said that I did not want to have sex clearly multiple times, he still thought he would be able to persuade me by taking out a condom, and it made me think that he was planning to no matter what.”
The senior who pledged a fraternity as a first-year, but is no longer involved in Greek life, called fraternities a “gross culture” and said he knows someone who was sexually assaulted at a frat party when he was a first-year. “The brothers didn’t really do anything to stop it,” he said. He added that when he was pledging, “a lot of stuff came out about all the frats about how creepy they were being towards … women at their parties.” He went on to say that this culture was not something he wanted to be a part of or associated with.
Karoll told the Justice that she has friends who have experienced assault and harassment at frat parties. But, she rejected the idea that drunkenness is an excuse for consistent assault incidents and referred back to her idea that frat parties serve as a “breeding ground” for toxic masculinity where the frat brothers are free to do as they please with themselves and the women surrounding them. She went on to say that “the culture that’s acceptable at these parties is not acceptable anywhere else on campus.” If sexual assault is such a common problem at events hosted by fraternities at Brandeis, what can the University do to address these ongoing violations of its students’ sexual autonomy?
Andrus believes that the University “needs to affiliate with Greek life because it’s very hard to deal with big, traumatizing events without an adult.” Similarly, Zimmerman states that “the little oversight … leaves room for a lot of fucked up stuff to happen.” Moreover, she feels that the secrecy of Brandeis’ Greek life system in combination with the University’s non-affiliation “breeds an environment that lets [sexual assault] happen.”
Newman explained that without university involvement, the highest form of punishment for an accused fraternity or sorority assaulter is being kicked out of their Greek organization and blacklisted from all Greek life events on campus — but they won’t necessarily be suspended or expelled by the University. She believes that University affiliation with Greek life would mean that accused assaulters would “face consequences not just through Greek life nationals, but also through the University.”
Thus, there is the convenience of the blacklist that every Greek organization on campus has. Zimmerman explained that every event in her sorority follows the blacklist, which consists of individuals who have made some members or students feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Because of this, these individuals are barred from entering any sorority event. However, while this blacklist may provide a security measure for people in Greek life, Zimmerman believes that this precautionary procedure may be too much of a responsibility for just Greek organizations to oversee: “[This is a list] being regulated and enforced by college students … maybe [this] isn’t [something] that only we should be regulating.” So, while the blacklist certainly does its part to weed out some dangers, Zimmerman insinuated that more needs to be done.
Proponents of universities affiliating with Greek organizations list other community benefits of Greek affiliation, including “the contribution to the diversity of the student body,” and the advantages of local philanthropy projects.
The consequences of the lack of University oversight call into question Brandeis' policy of non-affiliation. In its official policy, Brandeis states that they do not recognize Greek life because it is “inconsistent with the principles of openness to which the University is committed.”
Though it would mean a change in Brandeis’s official policy, Andrus believes that University affiliation will help make Greek life safer. Without any institutional regulation, “a lot of [situations] are not properly tended to in the way that they should be.”
Zimmerman asserted, “[Brandeis] not acknowledging Greek life means they’re not willing to acknowledge any of the potential issues that come with it.”