This column is in response to Mr. Normandin’s piece on September 11, 2009 on the need for reform of fraternity rush. I will begin by asserting exactly what our Greek community provides here, not only at MIT but across the country. I will also clear up some errors that were made in points Normandin raised related to fraternity expenditures and then provide a better context such that it can be understood why rush is how it is and what is done to control it. While Normandin is certainly entitled to his own opinion on fraternities, in addressing these points I will refute his strong indictment of fraternity life in general.
First, what is the role of a fraternity in college life today? It is to set up a structure that enables the development of college aged men into better leaders and people for tomorrow by providing a unique fraternal experience that truly completes a well-rounded education and will provide bonds that last a lifetime. We are not, as Mr. Normandin asserts, community service organizations. While virtually every IFC fraternity has a service component to their activities, at their core they are social and leadership organizations, many of whom provide housing, and none of whose primary purpose is service. Yes, tens of thousands of man-hours are volunteered each year by fraternity men, and tens of thousands of dollars raised for philanthropic efforts; but these are not the primary missions of the IFC fraternities. Rather, the mission is to develop responsible, mature leaders in society.
Evidence of the success of Greek life in producing leaders can be seen across time and across the country by looking at the alumni base — including all but six US presidents since 1877. The Greek community has long touted diversity and been willing to accept members of different backgrounds before the social norms of society had. Greek life provided leadership opportunities for women long before they had the right to vote; for Jewish brothers and sisters when anti-Semitism ran amok across this country and the world; for African Americans before the Civil Rights Act was even considered and for Roman Catholics when leaders of this religion were publicly eviscerated. This is a community that has persevered for nearly two centuries and is steeped in history. It shows the true meaning of fraternity life: to not only enrich the lives of its members, but to challenge unjust social norms for the broader community.
As Mr. Normandin says, we need a certain number of members each year to continue to exist. This is due to both the financial need of being able to keep chapters open and functioning, but also the social need — our membership-based organizations can’t function as well and provide the same diversity of experience with fewer men. We as a community recognize the importance of other activities in the opening days of freshmen arriving at MIT. In fact, that’s why we have voluntarily imposed tight regulations of fraternity activities during Orientation to ensure freshmen are experiencing all that MIT has to offer.
As a result of constraining recruitment activities, fraternities are left with little time to meet men we’ll be living with and calling our brothers for the future. Here we have to fight an uphill battle with a perception problem given the stereotypes surrounding fraternities across the country. A huge number of students who will eventually become brothers of fraternities will have never seriously considered joining a fraternity prior to arriving on campus. In order to recruit the necessary brothers to survive, we have to tap into that population to show them the real side of our fraternity that makes such a difference in our lives. Doing so in a tightly constrained timetable leads to the frantic pace of Rush.
Some brothers may get too excited or passionate about Rush, which is why the IFC has checks in place to guarantee the rights of rushees and do what we can to get that information out to freshmen. To make this information known, we distributed hundreds of copies of them in recruitment guides at the Greek Griller. In addition to a list of what rushees can be guaranteed there were multiple phone numbers and e-mails to report suspect behavior and ensure it would be dealt with promptly.
As to the amount of money spent on recruitment, the absolute number is high, though in relative terms the amount spent on recruitment is low. To provide context: for many chapters the total operating budgets for a year can reach well over $300,000 when one considers the costs of operating a physical chapter house and providing programming. In comparison to this total, $10,000–$20,000 on recruitment seems rather insignificant, especially given recruitment is the lifeblood of fraternities.
All fraternity men have an incentive to be frugal given that the amount spent on rush is correlated with the amount of money fraternity men will have to pay to the chapter from their own pockets. There is strong evidence of fiscal responsibility since the average cost of living in a fraternity is slightly less expensive than having a double room in Baker, and when one considers that fraternities provide some number of meals and other events and activities, the real cost is substantively lower.
To put this in perspective, consider how much money is spent by MIT each year on orientation events. By the time orientation starts all freshmen have already accepted admission — and indeed paid their first hefty tuition bill — so the need to “market” MIT should be diminished. Yet in the past several years tens of thousands of dollars have been paid out for a single event on the last night of Orientation. I make no claim that this is inherently wasteful, but if Mr. Normandin asserts that the amount of money spent for rush “to meet the brothers” is unreasonable he should consider the funds spent elsewhere during this same time period for no reason other than to have the freshmen class meet each other and enjoy themselves.
Fraternity life provides a unique experience through which college men can thrive and learn together. It is also a strong system, evidenced by the nearly 300 men who join each year and strive to be more and belong to something bigger than any one man. I make no claims that fraternity recruitment is perfect. I hope now, though, that outside observers can appreciate why we do what we do and how we endeavor to be respectful of the time of freshmen and certainly not wasteful. Whatever problems you may have with spending or practices, it is a method of survival for our organizations. And what we endeavor to have survive and flourish is a community that dates back over 100 years and has enriched the lives of countless students by assisting them in going from already great men to exceptional men. I cannot see how anyone could argue that intent is not worth supporting.
David J. Hutchings ’10 is the president of the Interfraternity Council and a member of Zeta Beta Tau. This column is co-signed and supported by Michael A. Bennie ’10, president of the Undergraduate Association, and the officers and brothers of 21 fraternity chapters.