The national climate of fraternity and sorority life on college campuses is facing significant crisis management. From headline stories of hazing and unsafe practices that negatively impact the health and safety of students, including devastating deaths, it is easy to view the entire fraternal community in a negative light. If we are being honest, it is even easy for some of us student affairs practitioners to fall into the sentiment that fraternities and sororities do more harm than they do good. However, we have a responsibility as practitioners to recognize the possibility that fraternities and sororities can and are doing incredible things for their students, schools, and communities.
We fully recognize the complex nature of this conversation and hope to wade into the tension with you as we seek to promote a fraternal environment where all participants feel challenged, valued in their identities, and committed to making this world a better place. So how can we do just that? It has to start with collaboration. We want to highlight what we are doing at Lehigh University to promote a culture of accountability and support as we seek to work towards a campus community that is safer for all people. But what does it look like to truly be collaborative in our work? What does it look like to come together across functional areas in mutual support of our campus communities? This work can be deeply challenging yet highly rewarding as we seek to support campus climates that enable all of our community members to thrive.
At Lehigh University, a medium-sized R2 institution in Bethlehem, PA, collaboration is key. Specifically, we want to discuss the partnership that has been established between the Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity (Pride Center) and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs (OFSA). This partnership has become a critical one for both offices as we have sought to harness the cultural impact that fraternal organizations have at Lehigh. Currently, 35% of our student population is affiliated with a fraternity or sorority. Additionally, we know that over 25% of our LGBTQIA+ student population is affiliated with a fraternity or sorority. While less than the general population of students, our LGBTQIA+ students are participating in Greek life more than any other campus engagement opportunity. These statistics provide an imperative for us to work collaboratively as offices.
To understand the why behind this partnership, it’s important to recognize our limitations and knowledge gaps as professionals, especially in addressing social justice issues. While there are often expectations that fraternity and sorority life professionals are the “keepers” of all things related to the fraternal experience, it is unrealistic and, ultimately, detrimental to providing a holistic student development experience. Rather than being siloed, we can find content experts to lean on in order to create something better than we could otherwise alone. Admitting what you do not know and then identifying potential complementary partnerships is the first step. Institutionally, we have made a commitment to creating and fostering an equitable campus community with the development of The Principles of our Equitable Community, which outlines a commitment of personal responsibility for each community member at Lehigh University: students, faculty, staff, and more. The Pride Center and OFSA share in this commitment.
Out of this desire to practice thoughtful and intentional collaboration, Greek Allies emerged. Greek Allies is a student led group at Lehigh that works to promote and foster LGBTQIA+ allyship within the fraternity and sorority community. We accomplish this by hosting bi-weekly engagement opportunities promoting inclusive leadership, exploring identity development, and fostering a welcoming fraternal environment by way of education and increased awareness regarding the LGBTQ+ community.
During Greek Allies meetings, students are invited to bring both their knowledge of advocacy/allyship as well as their experience of membership within a fraternity or sorority. Students are then challenged to note the intersection of those two components through peer-to-peer interaction. Greek Allies aims to play a larger role in fostering students’ sense of belonging to the fraternal community as well as the University as a whole. We host these discussions at various chapter facilities on campus with the hope that having these conversations intentionally in this space will build greater community across organizations and foster a fraternal community that views diversity, inclusion, and equity as a priority. If an organization does not have a chapter facility and would still like to host, we accommodate this by meeting in an administrative building on campus. Overall, our desire for those who participate in Greek Allies programming is to build healthy relationships with other members of the Lehigh fraternity and sorority community, including faculty and staff; better understand the current state of attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community at Lehigh, specifically within Greek life; be able to identify how one’s social identities interact with the way that they view allyship; and identify different methods of advocacy/allyship to promote a safer and healthier Greek community for all involved.
Trans-Inclusion Task Force
In addition to our initiatives with Greek Allies, our partnership also aims to specifically promote the inclusion of transgender students in our fraternity and sorority community. Following a Board of Trustees meeting in which a student leader had commented on the exclusive nature of fraternities and sororities, especially with regard to transgender students, it became a priority of our Panhellenic Council to utilize their campus resources in order to create a more inclusive environment for trans-women to join sororities. This student driven initiative led to the creation of a Trans-Inclusion Task Force comprised of representatives from both the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs and the Pride Center, as well as student leaders from Panhellenic Council, Greek Allies, and Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Knowledge (SPEAK). This task force has explored and discussed what trans-inclusion can and should look like within the Lehigh University Panhellenic community, while utilizing resources from the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors (AFA) and the National Panhellenic Conference’s (NPC) Gender Identity Study Group Report, among others.
After exploring educational resources, the first priority of the task force was to begin initial education of the Panhellenic chapters. Trained peer facilitators, comprised of both Panhellenic officers and Pride Center student staff, facilitated brief conversations at each individual chapter meeting to educate members on what it means to identify as transgender; the importance of creating a trans-inclusive environment; their chapter-specific membership policies; sharing related resources the chapter can utilize; and to informally assess each organization’s knowledge level and posture towards conversations related to trans-inclusion. As this partnership evolves moving forward, we hope to expand our efforts to our Interfraternity Council and Cultural Greek Council, include more voices of the transgender community in our endeavours, create more training opportunities, and share additional resources with our chapters who have an interest in furthering their education on the topic.
Evolving Partnerships & Challenges
The partnership that we have established between both of our offices has been crucial to the success of our various initiatives. With the evolution of the partnership and the programming, we have also encountered many challenges along the way. One aspect that has been difficult to manage is the high turnover rate that is seen in student affairs, especially within entry level positions. Greek Allies started as a passion project by one person several years ago. Thankfully, the partnership was established formally via inclusion in job descriptions to help ease the transition when people leave and pass off the program. Additionally, we have encountered push back from alumni communities, both LGBT alumni and Greek alumni. Ultimately, we see the power of the partnership and the opportunities that exist in leveraging such an impactful student community at Lehigh. Another unique challenge has been our efforts to impact policy in the Greek community as national councils and local chapter organizations may not allow for certain policy changes to be implemented. The inconsistency that is seen within national Fraternal organizations presents barriers that we have had to creatively work around. Thankfully, by our programming and partnerships being rooted in relationships with constituents across the campus and community, we have been able to enter into dialogue with groups in unexpected and productive ways.
As we move forward, we are hopeful that both Greek Allies and the Trans-Inclusion Task Force will continually evolve to shape the needs of our various student communities. We also will continue to seek additional opportunities to work towards our shared goal of cultivating a community where people of all identities are able to thrive as their most authentic self. What are ways that you can promote similar partnerships on your campus? What are some barriers. We would love to hear from you!
About the authors:
Scott Burden (He/Him/His) is the Associate Director for the Pride Center at Lehigh and was born and raised in the great state of Michigan, where he began his journey into student affairs as an undergraduate student at Calvin College. Through various leadership opportunities and the embrace of his queer identity, Scott found his way to Grand Valley State University studying in their Master’s Program for College Student Affairs Leadership. During his time there, he served for two years as the graduate assistant in their LGBT Resource Center. Scott has a deep passion for student support and hopes to empower students to move toward authenticity in all aspects of their lives. He also has a passion for educating students, faculty, and staff about intersectional social justice and Queer politics. In his spare time, you will find him reading a book, riding his bike, or going out for a run!
Brigette Gardner (She/Her/Hers) is the former Assistant Director of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs at Lehigh University. Over her two years in the position, her job responsibilities included advising Panhellenic Council and several fraternities and sororities; alcohol education and risk management; and more. She also held a part-time collateral position with the Center for Gender Equity for one year. Now, Brigette is at York College of Pennsylvania as Assistant Director of Alumni Relations where she has the opportunity to work with both alumni and students. It is her goal to empower others to be inclusive leaders who positively impact their communities. Originally from Ohio, Brigette received a Bachelor of Science in Communication from Ohio University and a Master of Education from Wright State University. In her spare time, you will find her sewing, reading a book or binging Netflix, and spending time with friends and family.