Noise that technically qualifies as music booms from the open doorway of the mid-sized Denton tavern and venue known as “Rockin' Rodeo." Heavy bombardments of dad-rock and Jazz-infused synth-pop all but drown out the respective conversations of the 40+ patrons waiting in line outside. Past the building's hideous diarrhea-brown brick exterior, through the double doors leading to the big dome-shaped room that's quickly filling up with audience members, a surprisingly successful benefit concert unfolds.
The man in charge is at the bar, chatting it up with the pretty blonde grad student working on the other side. A large tattooed pair of brass knuckles protrudes from his shirt collar. This, along with a rather menacing series of images and symbols lining his forearm, hand, and knuckles, seem to suggest a near total coating of his flesh, with the exception of the face, in tattoos. The only aspect of their conversation that the blaring guitars and wailing saxophones of the band on stage has not yet rendered inaudible is the grad student's laughter, which, surprisingly, sounds not in the least bit disingenuous.
Submitted for your consideration is the case of one Robert Ashford. Robert is a 26-year-old undergrad at the University of North Texas, a recently initiated brother of Pi Kappa Phi, and is currently in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder, with over two years of recovery time. The benefit concert at which you are first meeting him, billed as “Roses for Recovery," is the product of a partnership which he forged between the North Texas chapter of Pi Kappa Phi and a university-backed department called “the College Recovery Program," or “CRP" for short. Robert founded the CRP in the summer of 2013 as a student-led initiative to provide counseling and support to students struggling with substance use disorders. Today, the CRP boasts a roster of just over 800 members and has officially been incorporated as a department of the University of North Texas.
By the time he was first approached the idea of rushing, the name “Robert Ashford" was already well-established on campus. That spring, Pi Kappa Phi extended him a bid and he accepted. Robert said he joined a fraternity because he knew it would give him a “360 degree of being a damn human being again."
“Up until that point," he added, “strong friendship outside of the necessity of an overarching cause was not a possibility….[When I joined Greek Life], I finally found a group of people who wanted to be friends with me simply because they liked me as a person. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It rounded me out and helped me to self-actualize."
You wouldn't guess just from looking at him, but make no mistake, this heavily tattooed man you see standing at the bar, radiating charisma and competence to the young lady on the other side, stands at the bleeding edge of a new era in Greek Life.
Know the Past, Find the Future
625 miles east of Denton, in the land of the Crimson Tide, there lies a street from which a term familiar to all Greeks is derived: “Old Row." Although originally used as a campus-specific geographical reference, Old Row was later adopted by a particular set of older, more established fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama. Today, “Old Row" is used more conceptually, and typically refers to any Greek Organization characterized by its wealth, preppy fashion sense, social exclusivity, and a zealous love for all things Southern.
For nearly a century, these posh, well-financed Old Row fraternities dominated the social and political landscape of nearly every university in America. Their deep-pocketed alumni donated vast sums to their chapters and university. In exchange, universities around the country gave the fraternities free reign to throw lavish parties, monopolize campus leadership positions and exclude women and minorities. However, after a Great depression drained them of their financial backing, and two world wars robbed them of an entire generation of recruits, the grip of the old fraternities finally loosened and gave rise to a group known today as “the New Row."
The fraternities and sororities included in this group, some of which were founded in direct opposition to the older greek-letter societies, are generally perceived as being more inclusive and diverse, placing a greater emphasis on the social and athletic aspects of Greek Life than they do the professional or philanthropic ones. To them, finding the right prospective new member less about his or her socioeconomic status and more about his or her personal contributions to the brother/sister-hood. Make no mistake, the Old Row tradition still greatly influences Greek culture, but the influx of new values and characteristics brought on by the mid-twentieth century emergence of the New Row Generation made Greek Life what it is today.
I Do Have a Point
Naturally, not all the changes it brought were positive. The Greek System of today is by no means perfect. The most disconcerting of its flaws, i.e., its apparent penchant for racist and sexually aggressive behavior, stems from the decidedly old row trait of social exclusivity. Once a fraternity or sorority applies this mindset to recruitment, thus only recruiting a certain “type" of person, that chapter's intellectual environment becomes insulated. On a long enough time span, a few misjudgments of character are bound to be made. Once the wrong kind of minds make their way into these insular environments, before you know it, the entire chapter has become a hotbed of outdated mindsets and sexually aggressive behavior. If the problem is groupthink, then the only solution is diversity.
A less toxic, but infinitely more pervasive problem holding back many Greek-Letter organizations lies in a self-imposed sense of false dichotomy; that is, chapters often believe that they can only be good at one thing. It's the idea that a fraternity cannot be passionate about its philanthropy, and improve their social game at the same time. It's the idea that a sorority so skilled at raising money for breast cancer couldn't possibly be expected to be the best in academics. At its root, it's the New Row belief in the existence of a fraternity for every type of man and a sorority for every type of woman. The problem in this being that people are not “types." Going Greek shouldn't be about finding a bunch of friends who are exactly like you, nor should it be about boosting your resume, or attaining some special social status. Going Greek, as Robert Ashford pointed out, should be viewed as a means of self-betterment. It should round you off as a person, not narrow you down.
But before I risk repeating what has already been said in the thousands of pro/anti-Greek columns written in response to the plethora of scandals that have occurred in the last few months, please understand that I am not attempting to change the way non-Greeks see Greek Life or vice-versa. It is not my intention to point fingers or list statistics. If anything, I have only attempted to illustrate the currents of a rising tide. How we as Greeks will meet its crashing waves is not up to me, but I argue that with the arrival of new challenges, also comes new opportunities. The opportunity was taken 60 years ago and it ought to be taken up again.
Contrary to what the newspaper columns might say, Greek Life does not need a PR makeover. Greek Life does not need some kind of mass reform or administrative witch hunt. What Greek Life needs is a changing of the guard, a new generation of fraternity men and sorority women, inspired by the optimistic vigor of the New Row and informed by the steady dedication and mistakes of the Old, each of them ready to usher in a newer, brighter era of Greek Life. Who knows? If we're lucky, what we see today could just be the darkness before dawn.
Then again, sometimes we aren't so lucky.