Park the Keg in Harvard Yard

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

“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. ;)


    • 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.