There is no doubt that the fast-paced and incredibly driven campus culture at Columbia we’ve all come to know plays a major role in how we perceive activities and commitments. Our tendency to question the point or purpose of an activity inevitably influences our impressions of our peers’ involvements. This is particularly relevant to our judgment of Greek life. In recent times, Greek leaders and the Columbia administration have strived to defend the value of fraternities and sororities through rhetoric and requirements of philanthropy, academics, and leadership, for which the organizations are often held to a higher standard than other clubs and organizations.
Quite frankly, I think most of us are missing the point.
When we eliminate the expendable but high-flung qualifiers associated with several of their mission statements, the core ethos of Greek organizations is quite simply to provide a platform for college students to congregate and form meaningful friendships. Before philanthropy and service became buzzwords thrown around to justify Greek organizations on campuses, “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” were adequate reasons for membership. More importantly, we would be terribly remiss to devalue their importance.
Fraternities and sororities provide a unique and often empowering sense of identity and community that is crucial not only to personal development, but also to the development of campus culture. Members of the Greek community display infectious amounts of Columbia pride and also occupy important leadership roles in a range of organizations. While this is by no means exclusive to members of the Greek community, the confidence and spirit that many Greek members demonstrate are telling of the values their organizations strive to develop.
Columbia has grown increasingly cognizant of the importance of mental health in recent times, and rightfully so. It is perhaps surprising then that we find it hard to value organizations that promote fierce bonds of friendship and family away from home. Many of us have found our closest friends through our involvement in clubs and organizations that cater to our passions and interests. It may seem difficult to justify a structured organization replete with ritual, creeds, a house, and University support to do seemingly little more than hang out and party with friends. But that comes from undervaluing the strength of those simple friendships themselves, and maybe that’s the bigger problem. The relationships we build through our involvements will always be more valuable to us than the means of finding them. Fraternities and sororities simply make those relationships their uncompromising central focus.
The longevity and depth of alumni networks are also a testament to how significant and enduring the bonds of fraternity can be. Several national fraternities and sororities are older than the college campuses they inhabit, sustaining themselves for centuries through the participation and aid of incredibly engaged alumni. For many Greek alumni, their fraternities and sororities played a central role in shaping their college experiences.
My personal experience as the founder and co-president of the erstwhile Sigma Alpha Epsilon colony at Columbia was instrumental for me in gauging what makes a fraternity valuable. During our two semesters at Columbia, our work enabled us to be nominated for best colony in the country by nationals as a testament to our progress made in leadership, culture-building events, academics, and philanthropy. Nearly a year since our loss of recognition, however, those statistics seem quite irrelevant. SAE had grown to a brotherhood of 33, spanning 14 nationalities and even more languages spoken, arguably becoming the first Columbia fraternity truly international in spirit and culture. A fraternity is the reason I can consider individuals from Saudi Arabia, France, Brazil, and Peru some of my closest friends in equal measure. To those who may ask: Creating those friendships was the purpose. That was the point.
As valuable as Greek organizations may be to the campus community, I would warn against the complacency bordering on arrogance that is sometimes evident. Several fraternities have become insular with a lack of interest in growth, retreating into the comfort zone their well-established friendships and houses provide. Members of the Greek community make up the lion’s share of Greek events’ attendees, which is a real pity given the role these events are meant to play. Lastly, as inspiringly confident, social, and outgoing members of the Greek community may be, there are many who choose to interact primarily or exclusively with their sisters and brothers, negating the empowering social nature of Greek organizations. Conscious efforts to increase outreach and inclusivity are crucial and should be accompanied by increasing the number of Greek organizations on campus.
Continued expansion can combat this complacency by opening up Greek life and its benefits to a greater portion of the student body. This would enable students to have a greater variety of organizations to choose from when finding the right social fit and also help shrug off stereotypes with more heterogeneous memberships. Alpha Omicron Pi’s rapid growth in one year is a strong testament to this, and I am confident that Gamma Phi Beta’s arrival next year will be very positive.
Conversations around the role and value of Greek life will inevitably continue to arise, but I hope that in trying so hard to search for a greater purpose, we don’t forget to value the importance of something as fundamentally simple yet profound as friendship.
Anirban Poddar is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. He is the founder and former co-president of Columbia’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon colony. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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