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.

  • 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.