To the Editor:
I want to begin by saying that I’m not angry about what David Hodson ’14 wrote in the last issue of The Poly, and, speaking as someone who spent three years at this university not as a member of a fraternity, I can see where you’re coming from. I’ve been an active member in The Delta Phi Fraternity since the fall of 2009, and I wanted to take some time and perhaps explain a bit about why greek life is the way it is.
To start, one tremendously important detail is that—while it is convenient to refer to all fraternities as “the greek community”—every house is completely different; not only between houses here at RPI, but even different chapters of the same fraternity. As such, I’m not going to pretend to know about the experiences of fraternity members in other houses. But by the same token, there are some aspects that we all share, one being heritage. Some readers may not know this, but the fraternity system was founded not 20 miles from Rensselaer, at Union College in Schenectady. From 1825–1827, the first three college fraternities were founded as a combination of literary and secret societies, both of which were quite prevalent at the time.
It’s from this foundation that the closed or “secret” aspect is derived. I want to emphasize that it isn’t intended as a mechanism to exclude outsiders or hide anything; the concept is actually more of a method to bring the house together and unify it. It’s similar to when a company takes its employees on a leadership retreat. Everyone is together and has to surmount challenges to accomplish a common goal. While the tasks themselves may seem silly or childish to the outside world—or even perhaps to the people doing them—at the end of the day, everyone shares the same set of memories, memories that are unique to just those people. And it could be as simple as an in-joke from that day that gets repeated, or reminiscing about one particularly spectacular failure or success. Being able to share and revisit that memory brings those people together.
In fraternities, those shared memories are passed down from the generations through these traditions. And through that, the brotherhood is connected between the years and pledge classes.
Now I feel I must be clear, I’m not talking about hazing or other similarly foolhardy activities. It doesn’t take dangerous, humiliating, or criminal activities to accomplish this effect; it just takes something that has meaning within the house, be it historically significant to the fraternity or just a tradition that’s been passed down from brother to brother.
As for sharing these aspects of the house, the best way to put it is that they’re simply personal. Think about how everyone has parts of their life that they consider personal and won’t just share with anyone, but only people that they have built a trusting relationship with. In greek life the pledging process is the building up of that trust. And it isn’t until mutual trust is established slowly and with time that those personal aspects of the house are shared.
In regards to your experiences trying to report on a fraternity under investigation, it is important to understand that greek life is under intense scrutiny at all times—and not just that of Public Safety or the administration. The president of a fraternity is responsible for the actions of his brothers at all time. If the police become involved, the president will find himself under arrest, regardless of his personal involvement in whatever has transpired. It is an often-overlooked detail, but the burden of accountability weighs heavily on the brothers of a fraternity. Imagine being arrested for something that your friends did, possibly when you weren’t even in the same state, simply because they elected you their president. (Yes, this has actually happened.) Depending on your friends, that might keep you up at night.
Now this sort of policy is in place because of many incidents in the past within greek houses, but it’s important to remember no matter what happens at a house, everyone who was present is gone and graduated within four years, and usually only three. That means that despite the fact that the house may forever be associated with some negative event, everyone who was there and responsible when it happened is gone, and it’s the current brothers who must accept that reputation and the attention that it draws.
If you think about it, that’s a lot of responsibility for each brother to bear. One slip up, and not only the current membership, but all brothers after you, perhaps for 30 years, will pay for it in some way. We all have something to lose, and we all owe it to the brothers that will come after us to be careful and conscious of that responsibility.
That’s probably why those brothers wouldn’t talk to you. That’s probably why they didn’t want it in the papers. Because one shortsighted comment printed 6,000 times could haunt that house for as long as they exist, hampering everything they try to accomplish. So I urge you to not take it personally. As I hope any member of greek life will agree, there is a lot to gain from being a member of a fraternity, but there is also a lot to lose if mistakes are made.
Max Cane ’10