Flying in a plane is more dangerous than riding in a car. Getting robbed walking the streets of New York City is commonplace. Myth or reality?
Both are myths.
So, why do many people ascribed to these notions? The answer is pretty straightforward. This is what we often hear and thus believe. In the field of cognitive psychology, it is referred to as an “availability heuristic” – it is what is most available in our consciousness. However, it is an error in judgment. We tend to be influenced by what is most talked about and reported in the media. If there is an airplane accident, it makes national news. We tend to see reports of muggings and violent crime. The media does not report every car crash or the millions of people walking in New York City without incident. While an error in judgment, it is often the perception. Perception is not always congruent with reality. However, perception is real for the person.
So, how does this begin to relate to Greek Life in higher education?
The perception of Fraternity and Sorority Life by the general population (that it, those not intimately familiar with it) is influenced by many sources – and sources that may not accurately reflect the realities of this cultural institution. Mainstream media, movies and television, social media and socialized views all contribute to a perception that is more often negative than positive. Movies like the classic, “Animal House”, and more recent “Neighbors” starring Zac Efron, paint a sensationalized and negative view of the debauchery of fraternity life. The television show, “Blue Mountain State”, reinforced the negativity associated with fraternities on college campuses. While admittedly these represent exaggerated versions for the purpose of entertainment, the negative themes often depicted are instilled in our psyche on some level. Greek Life has historically been a subject of mainstream media throughout the years. However, the spotlight has most often focused on the problems – hazing, binge drinking, and sexual assault. Sexual assault on college campuses has been a mainstay on social media in the past few years and is increasingly problematic. More often than not, the target is Greek Life and fraternities in particular.
Consequently, these ideas and views perpetuated and reinforced on many levels have collectively shaped the public’s view of Fraternity and Sorority Life and with a dramatic shift to negative perceptions. Does this perception reflect the reality? Maybe at some level, but it certainly does not depict all the realities nor paint a complete and accurate picture of Greek Life as a whole. We are regularly exposed to what is wrong and not what is right.
Whose fault is this? Playing the blame game is easy; however it doesn’t begin to address the problem. The Greek community cannot control the media but can influence opinion. To begin to shape public opinion, efforts to educate and promote the many positives of Greek Life need to be deliberate, effortful and persistent. The challenge is real and is the responsibility of national organizations, Fraternity and Sorority Life offices and individual chapters. No one else will champion the cause.
My eldest daughter will be a freshman in college next year. If my daughter asked for permission to join a sorority, my answer today would be very different from years ago. Five years ago, my response would have been a vehement “no”. Today, I would fully support the idea and have even encouraged her to explore it as an option.
So, what has changed? Greek Life has not dramatically changed in five years, but my perception has evolved. My view of fraternities and sororities has changed significantly because today I am informed. During this time period, I have had firsthand experience with college men and women involved in Greek Life at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh. My nephew joined Tau Kappa Epsilon, and I had the pleasure of attending their chapter’s induction. My former student and now close friend joined Sigma Tau Gamma, and I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with and friends with many of the brothers as well as several women in sororities on campus. More importantly, I have seen the many positive aspects of brotherhood and sisterhood through their experiences. I am continually impressed with the commitment to community service and philanthropy that is embedded in Greek Life; and arguably unmatched by any other campus organization. This is often unnoticed by most of the population.
There are so many positive aspects associated with Fraternity and Sorority Life. Many, many people do not see this and solely focus on the negative. My perception is now more congruent with reality. However, that wasn’t always the case. Fortunately, experience and exposure has informed me rather than the influence of mainstream perceptions and media reports.
I like to think that I am a well-educated and informed man. I am a college professor with a Ph.D. in Psychology and have been part of higher education for many years. I keep abreast of trends, news and research to maintain a connection with my students. However, my prior exposure to Greek Life was minimal seeing that fraternities and sororities currently do not exist on my campus and didn’t exist at the colleges I attended. I never had the opportunity to be part of a fraternity. Thus, my opinions were shaped by outside influences. This lack of exposure is typical of most of the population. Thus, the task of informing opinion and changing perceptions is daunting. It is naïve to think that this common perception is indicative of those who lack formal higher education. It is reflected in a population not intimately exposed to Greek Life – and that is a lot of people. It is not about people being undereducated, rather a population ill-informed and influenced by socialized ideology. The problem lies with the message rather than the recipients.
Thus, the challenge is in the message. Constituents in Greek Life need to take an active role in influencing the message – promoting and publicizing all the positives. This should occur at both a macro and micro level. Organizing broad campaigns to convey the message is a necessary first step. In addition, there is real power in influencing one person at a time who in turn becomes an agent of change for others. Large scale initiatives to promote the positive elements in concert with individual members being proactive in shaping opinion one person at a time seems like a good place to start. That alone is not enough. Of course, there are issues and problems that do exist in individual chapters and organizations as a whole, such as binge drinking, sexual assault, and hazing. When this exists, this is what the public hears about. Address whatever issues that are evident, fix the problem, and promote the positive.
When this begins to happen, public perception may start to match all the realities of Greek Life. It happened for this veteran of the higher education system. It certainly can happen for others. If I could go back in time and the opportunity presented itself, I would without hesitation pledge a fraternity knowing what I now know.
From what I understand, there is a long lineage of pride and steadfast dedication to the Greek system. Share your pride, fix the problems, influence the message, and promote the positive.
Who knows, the once ill-informed parent of a potential pledge may become a staunch advocate and supporter and begin to influence the opinion of others.