Park the Keg in Harvard Yard

Fraternities and sororities have descended on Harvard. Is the school ready?

Frat party

(Illustration by Jesse Lenz)

It’s Thursday afternoon on a sunny spring day, and a group of female Harvard students have reserved a field on Cambridge Common for a kickball game. Some are spread out on the grass, booting a ball back and forth. Others are busy setting up a buffet of hot dogs and soda under a small pavilion. Meanwhile, more and more students arrive. Many wear custom jerseys that the young women have designed, featuring a neon high-top sneaker on the front with the cheery slogan “Kickin’ it for CASA” (which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a nonprofit that helps abused and neglected children). The community service isn’t surprising — Harvard students do all kinds of events for charity. It’s the letters on the back of the shirts that are much more unexpected: KAPPA ALPHA THETA.

For years Greek life existed only on the margins of the Harvard social scene, if at all. But now, interest is surging. In the past two years, 268 and 250 women, respectively, have rushed Harvard’s three sororities — up from 150 in 2008, according to the Crimson student newspaper. The Cambridge-Area Panhellenic Council reports that there are currently about 480 sorority members at Harvard (15 percent of the college’s female population), and so many women now want to pledge that there are plans to bring a fourth sorority to campus next spring. And fraternities are growing, too. Sigma Chi has 77 members, up from about 60 two years ago, according to the chapter head, and Alpha Epsilon Pi’s chapter president says he has 63 members, up from about 40 three years ago. Roughly 100 students attended Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s spring rush event in February, and the chapter recently welcomed 15 new members, its largest-ever class.

But back to the kickball game, a charity event I learned about through Kappa Alpha Theta’s Facebook page. The game’s taking place on a public field, but I’ve barely taken out my notebook when the chapter president, an athletic, ponytailed young woman in running leggings and a windbreaker, arrives to inform me that I have to leave. Two other chapter officers surround me. “National,” they say, has told them not to speak to the press. They keep using phrases like “There are so many liability issues” and “My hands are tied.”

“This is a private event,” one of the officers explains impatiently.

Casting a veil of secrecy around kickball seems pretty extreme, but Greek organizations have long been cagey with the media — all the more so after the recent run of bad press. This spring, a former Dartmouth frat brother generated outrage and disgust when he claimed that pledges are forced to bathe in kiddie pools filled with human waste. There have been pledging-related problems at other Ivy League schools, too, like Penn (a scavenger hunt gone wrong), Cornell (a drinking-related death), and Yale (sexist chants). Then there was the incident in April involving Boston University students. Police entered the basement of an Alpha Epsilon Pi house to find five young men who’d been tied up and covered in condiments and alcohol. They also had welts on their back.

While no Harvard Greeks have been implicated in hazing, these kinds of incidents ratchet up everyone’s anxiety.

Then again, all of those concerns pale in comparison to this one: It’s Harvard. Until now, Greek groups have been a nonfactor on campus, with the college’s vaunted residential “House” system and certain well-established student organizations serving as the traditional centers of social life. But at least as far back as when I attended the school in the ’90s, Harvard students have complained about not just heavy workloads and a competitive culture, but also a lame social scene. As a result, fraternities and sororities, even as they remain officially unrecognized by the school, are seizing the opening.

In just the past two years, five of the six Greek organizations have acquired spaces within striking distance of the John Harvard statue, allowing them a much greater campus presence. (Two of the houses are actually leased by brothers, not the organizations, though they have hosted fraternity events.) That’s a big development. Most of Harvard’s Greek organizations were either formed or revived in the past 20 years, but until now they’ve pretty much been homeless. When putting on events, they had been forced to beg, borrow, or rent spots from others. But now that they’ve come to the edge of the square and tricked out their spaces with cable TV (which Harvard dorm rooms are woefully devoid of), full kitchens (ditto), and black-light-equipped basements (double ditto), the Greeks are essentially planting a flag in the heart of Harvard’s campus.

Privately, faculty and administrators are concerned. “[It’s] one of my least favorite developments,” says former dean of the college Harry Lewis, a computer science professor. Another professor, who oversees one of the dorms, says, “We have to work harder to give [these students] fun things to do.” But in public, the university has chosen not to address the issue directly. (Harvard officials declined to comment for this article.)

So even though the groups are thriving, they must also remain underground. It’s an uneasy balance. And these kickball-playing Thetas don’t want to be the ones to upset the apple cart. As I slink back toward Harvard Square, the sorority sisters stand together on the bright green grass and watch to make sure I leave.

 

According to the school’s official literature, Harvard life revolves around the House system of 12 residential complexes, where 97 percent of undergrads eat and live. The houses are “designed to create a full collegiate experience” in which students foster “close and long-lasting ties.” That’s what the website says, anyway. The idea is Hogwarts, but without the sorting hat.

Yet this idyllic notion has long been, at best, a willful simplification. While students do live in campus housing, they often define themselves by the organizations they belong to — sports teams, musical groups, political societies, and so on. Acting as social hubs, these groups like to throw parties. But only a few of them, like the Crimson and the Lampoon humor magazine, have their own buildings where they can pump music and bring in alcohol. And dorm parties are widely reviled. Harvard’s houses may be historical buildings with great views, but many of the rooms are small. One rising sophomore says that during parties they can get “really hot and pretty gross sometimes. It’s just so many people, you can feel the sweat in the air.” Rather than deal with that, he’s started venturing off campus to MIT parties. Another problem with Harvard dorm bashes, students say, is that even registered events can be shut down before 1 a.m. because of noise complaints. Plus, concerns about liability have led administrators to craft a more-stringent alcohol policy, banning popular competitive-drinking games.

The infamous final clubs are the other social outlet on campus. There are eight of them, and they’re all-male and elite (à la the Winklevoss twins). Members of the clubs, some of which began as fraternities in the 19th century, have access to private mansions in the middle of campus, where they can drink and host parties without oversight from the university. The clubs were once an established part of Harvard (both Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt were members, and J. P. Morgan founded one), but the school withdrew recognition from them in 1984, after they refused to go coed.

Pushed underground, most of them have now been transformed from private societies into party meccas. On any given weekend night, female students from Harvard (and other schools) put on dresses, knock on the door, and hope to be let in. Guys, on the other hand, are out of luck unless they know a club member.

Female students have responded by starting their own exclusive social organizations. Harvard now has five all-female societies, though only one of them has a house of its own. And like their male counterparts, the female final clubs have a reputation for secrecy.

The result is a tiered social system: those who have access to final clubs and those who don’t. Most, of course, do not.

 

Into this divided system come the Greeks to fill the void. Fraternities and sororities are considered less exclusive than the invitation-only final clubs. They hold open rushes, and though they do eventually winnow applicants, students say they are less concerned with family wealth and prestige. (It’s worth noting that one famous former frat boy, Mark Zuckerberg, met his wife, Priscilla Chan, not at a fancy final club soiree but in line for the bathroom at a Greek party.) Harvard’s three fraternities host regular parties, whether at their house or in rented spaces around campus, according to interviews with the heads of the organizations. A handful of brothers in each fraternity live together off campus rather than in a dorm, but given Cambridge real estate prices, it’s hard to imagine the groups ever being able to afford a proper Animal House. Sororities organize formal parties as well as charity events, keep their houses alcohol-free, and prohibit overnight stays. That’s the official line, anyway. All of the organizations have weekly chapter meetings, community service projects, secret rituals, and websites.

Phillip Morris, the implausibly named outgoing head of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (there’s no relation to the tobacco giant), knew little of fraternity life when he arrived at Harvard four years ago from a middle-class town in northern New Jersey. “I had a horrible impression of fraternities,” says Morris, a politics junkie who has a job lined up at a Washington, DC–based government-relations firm. But the people he met quickly changed his mind. He feels the group’s members are more diverse than those he would find through his extracurriculars, which, he says, can “pigeonhole” students. He adds, “I don’t think anyone in their right mind could be satisfied with the social life purely in any Harvard house.”

“The mentality here is that we work so fucking hard during the week,” says one Alpha Epsilon Pi member, “we might as well have fun during the weekends.”

This past September, the Crimson published a staff editorial titled, “The Cost of Exclusivity.” The piece blasted the growth of Greek life on campus, calling it a “troubling trend.” Pegged to the news that two sororities and one fraternity had recently acquired real estate on Harvard’s borders, the editorial criticized Greek groups for relying on “gender division” and “arbitrary exclusivity.” The editorial went on to blame Harvard’s “paternalistic” alcohol policies for pushing students to frats and sororities, and warned that the nature of the ­Harvard community was at stake.

“One of our greatest assets as a college,” the paper railed, “is our strong campus culture, and the regular fractionation of Harvard students to off-campus venues will negatively impact campus unity.”

“Fractionation,” indeed.

The Greeks fired back with a wellspring of outrage at the Crimson, posting a stream of critical comments on the paper’s website. Two Greeks who worked for the newspaper published direct rebuttals that highlighted the relative diversity of their groups and their charity work, and that defended the value of single-sex brother- and sisterhoods.

The issue heated up again a month later, when representatives from the fraternities and sororities pleaded their case for official recognition to Harvard’s dean of student life, Suzy Nelson. But it turned out that Nelson, who is leaving Harvard to become dean of Colgate, didn’t have the power to recognize the groups, even if she’d wanted to. Since they’re gender-specific, Harvard views the Greek organizations as discriminatory and, per school policy, cannot recognize them. They’re also linked to national organizations, which is against the rules.

Among the non-Greek student body, there is little consensus about the increasing prominence of frats and sororities, in part because they are so new. Some undergrads I talked to simply shrugged. Others said Harvard was too stressful to not have a social outlet of some kind, so it might as well be the Greeks. One rising senior who has friends in both frats and final clubs said the fraternities are more open to letting other male students into their parties.

Among Greeks, of course, the sentiment is much clearer: “Sorority is, by far, my favorite part of Harvard,” a sophomore told me. “Where else could I meet such a group of strong, smart women?” she said, then paused a moment, and added, “I guess there’s my house, but I don’t feel that connected to my house.”

 

Harvard’s official stance may be to ignore the Greeks, but in private, Nelson, the outgoing dean of student life, has begun regular once-a-semester meetings with the heads of all the unrecognized student social groups — final clubs, fraternities, and sororities — to discuss issues mainly related to alcohol and sexual assault, according to a student who has attended the meetings.

Harvard has also tried to give students more social spaces. This year the freshman dining hall extended its hours to midnight; the school has built a bar below it, too. In 2006 Harvard converted the former Hilles Library into a 40,000-square-foot student center with a recording studio and a 135-seat auditorium.

But these initiatives seem to miss the point. After all, students aren’t clamoring for more shared areas or longer dining room hours. They want more private space, where they can control who is allowed in. They want bigger rooms for parties, cable TV so they can watch shows with their friends, and kitchens to cook in. In other words, they want to feel like adults.

Of course, they also want to drink. For the past two years, the school has devoted extra attention to hazing and changed its alcohol policy in a stated attempt to curb binge drinking. Harvard has banned hard liquor at almost all student events, restricted alcohol during the Harvard-Yale tailgate, and, most recently, required students to meet in person with their residential tutor before having an on-campus party. Not surprisingly, none of these actions has gone over well with students. In fact, the policies are very likely helping to promote the popularity of the fraternities and sororities.

Case in point: Despite the university’s efforts, the number of alcohol-related medical calls received by the campus police department has soared in recent years, from 106 in the 2008–2009 academic year to 183 in 2010–2011, according to numbers Harvard police provided to the Crimson.

Whether the increase in incidents correlates with the growth of Greek life is hard to say, but it does coincide with the push to crack down on binge drinking. In its efforts to quash student alcohol use, Harvard appears to have not so much eliminated it as pushed it from the center of campus to Harvard Square’s borders, where the fraternities and sororities just happen to have opened their doors.

  • Molly Bales

    I’ve got some bones to pick with your article, but first, in the interest of fairness, let me reveal my bias: I’m a 2010 Harvard grad, and I’m proud of my school. Having gone to public school in rural North Carolina, I am particularly sensitive to articles that connect the words “Harvard” to “elite.” (I know this is not part of your argument, but it’s such a preconditioned neural pathway that I feel compelled to dispel any kernel of that bias that may have snuck into this article.)

    My main critique of this article is the rejection of the house system as a source of community, and I generally disagree with the idea that the social life is so lacking at Harvard that social clubs are going to take over. I was in Mather House (the best house, obviously :)), and Mather was a huge part of my social life; I felt no need to join a social club. My best friends were all in my house with me, and my experience is not unique. My guess is that the appeal of exposing the ‘seedy underbelly’ of a prestigious institution prevented you from drawing a more accurate, albeit less tantalizing, conclusion: yes, there is a lack of social spaces on campus, yes, Harvard’s social scene is not the best (duh! we’re a bunch of nerds! ;)), and, yes, that has contributed to the growth of social clubs. However, the house system is, and will continue to be, a source of community for the majority of Harvard students. Here are my more specific comments:

    1. The vast majority of Harvard students are NOT in social clubs. The article mentions that 15% of the Harvard female population is in sororities; in other words, 85% are not! Compare this to more Greek-centered schools, like Wake Forest, with almost half of its undergraduate females in sororities.

    2. The degree to which a student identifies with his/her house varies significantly depending on the House. Mather House and the Quad Houses (a neighborhood of three houses), for instance, have incredibly strong house pride. I’m guessing you only interviewed students from the houses located nearest to the Harvard T stop (Adams, Quincy, Winthrop, Eliot; sorry, guys, but you know it’s true). Each house has its own social events, including formals, happy hours, and other parties, and some houses have better events than others.

    3. Parties “can get ‘really hot and pretty gross sometimes.’” That’s your basis for saying that house parties aren’t fun?! It’s not a party until I’m really hot and pretty gross. :)

    4. Final clubs are “elite (à la the Winklevoss twins).” I see no evidence for that sweeping statement, unless you count renting The Social Network as part of your due diligence… Yes, there’s the occasional student whose last name happens to match one of the campus buildings, but they are few and far between.

    5. “The result is a tiered social system: those who have access to final clubs and those who don’t.” As mentioned above, there are tons of events outside of the final clubs. Most non-final-club students aren’t in final clubs because they don’t want to be.

    Hope that clarifies things. So be careful the next time you decide to rag on Harvard… Hell hath no fury like a Harvard woman scorned. ;)

    PS Mather House: SINGLES FO’ LIIIIIIFFFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!

    • the nas

      Mather Haus!!!

  • upop

    If the city bureaucracy finds out about these unpermitted private events in city parks, the consequences won’t be good.