Incidents in the winter of 2015 may have tarnished the reputation of Greek life at U-M, but they also led to a period of reflection, transformation, and student empowerment.
On Sept. 10, 2015, a historic event took place at Hill Auditorium. For the first time in the 171-year history of Greek life at U-M, members of the self-governing fraternities and sororities met with top administrators at the University. Seated on the stage were U-M President Mark Schlissel, along with the vice president for student life, a number of deans, the director of Wolverine Wellness (a student health initiative), and the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. Also on stage were the presidents of the four different student councils that make up Greek life at U-M. Flashing over their heads was a computer-generated graphic highlighting the many values on which Greek life was built—“philanthropy,” “leadership,” “scholarship,” “character.” Interspersed were newspaper headlines reporting problematic Greek life behavior across the country, the aim being to show the students the disparity between their community’s code and their conduct.
Once assembled, as chronicled in The Michigan Daily, Schlissel delivered a stern message to the Greek life participants, who represent 22 percent of the student population on campus—nearly 6,000 undergraduates. Concerned for the University’s reputation, he said, “It’s not going to be the kids who receive the Rhodes Scholarships and the Fulbright Scholarships … reflected. It’s going to be the ‘Shmacked’ videos.”
Schlissel’s reference to the YouTube channel that glorifies campus party scenes was hardly lost on the students. U-M’s Greek life has been featured on the channel several times. As Laura Blake Jones, U-M dean of students, diplomatically put it, “I fear some of you have embraced a work hard, play hard mentality … to the extreme.”
Nothing more aptly embodied her characterization than two highly publicized incidents in Northern Michigan in January 2015. “Treetops was a crystallizing moment,” Blake Jones says on reflection. She is referring to one of the two ski resorts that suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage when six U-M sororities and fraternities stayed in the area for a long weekend. “But as we look back, I think we will also see it as a turning point in the history of Greek life at Michigan.”
Greek alumni from colleges and universities across the country have been embarrassed, saddened, and outraged at the high-risk behaviors now plaguing many of their former chapters: The cause nearly always is blamed on excessive drinking. To that end, this past August, Stanford University administrators banned all hard liquor from undergraduate campus parties.
“Together, we are setting forth precedents that could change college campuses and Greek life across the country.” – Lexi Wung, Current President Of The Panhellenic Association
Without a doubt, the nature and notoriety of the ski resort incidents reinvigorated efforts that were already underway at U-M to reshape and restore the traditional values of Greek culture on campus. “It made me realize we needed to build infrastructure and find students who actively wanted to change this problem before we could begin to tackle it,” says Blake Jones. “I also knew we needed a strategic plan for Greek life and emerging leaders, so whatever we accomplished would last longer than a year or two. I did not want a flash-in-the- pan solution.”
One year after the meeting at Hill, Blake Jones is proud of a number of milestones that have been realized—a reduction in alcohol- related emergency visits, the successful piloting of a new Sober Sisters program, and the creation last winter of a 30-person Greek Life Task Force.
“Together, we are setting forth precedents that could change college campuses and Greek life across the country,” says senior Lexi Wung, who served on the task force in her capacity as executive board president of the Panhellenic Association (Panhel), which represents 16 sororities. “We are front-runners in what we are trying to do here,” she says of their successes to date and of the recommendations the task force plans to announce this fall.
Blake Jones points to the Spring of 2015, five months after Treetops, as the moment she truly hit the reset button. She hired four students to work through the summer with administrators in the Office of Greek Life. To find her new employees, she looked no further than the four self-governing branches of Greek Life: Panhel; the Interfraternity Council (IFC), representing 29 fraternities; the National Pan-Hellenic Council, representing eight African-American sororities and fraternities; and the Multicultural Greek Council, representing 13 ethnically diverse chapters.
One of her student hires was Alex Krupiak, then the president of IFC, who accepted the job because he wanted to make Greek life “safer and stronger” on campus. Along with the three other council leaders, he began researching best practices at other colleges and speaking at summer orientation meetings about the values, not the social life, of the Greek community. The student team also helped plan two summer conferences—one a gathering of 50 alumni advisers to fraternities and sororities, the other a meeting of 31 national Greek organizations—which they then attended as student representatives.
Greek leaders also requested that fraternities hold their parties behind the houses, rather than in their front yards, to reduce visibility as they attempt to reset the culture.
But the students also wanted to find new ways to curb drinking in the upcoming fall term, particularly during Welcome Week— the period between move-in day and the first day of classes—when the first fraternity parties take place on campus. A 2014 U-M survey showed that 46 percent of freshmen had their first drink at a fraternity party. (Sororities are not allowed to serve alcohol in their houses.)
For assistance, they turned to Mary Jo Desprez, the director of Wolverine Wellness, a branch of the University Health Service that runs a number of alcohol and drug prevention programs. “We always first tell students that it is illegal to drink under the age of 21, but 98 percent of our students know that and still drink,” says Desprez. “So as public health workers, we then have to meet people where they are.”
A decade earlier, Wolverine Wellness health educator Marsha Benz had attacked the issue through a multifaceted campaign, Stay in the Blue. Her goal was to educate students through posters, workshops, and, more recently, tweets on how students’ blood alcohol content (BAC) affects their behavior. With Desprez’s support, U-M students developed a free Stay in the Blue mobile app, which allows users to estimate their BAC by plugging in their weight, gender, and intake. It even lists the alcohol content of specific craft beers and locally served drinks (like a SharkBowl and a Mind Probe). More importantly, it connects students to Uber and other taxi companies for a safe ride home. To date, the app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.
In 2010, Wolverine Wellness co-created, with the Office of Greek Life, a 90-minute Sober Monitor Training (SMT) course now required of all new IFC members. Offered to no more than 30 fraternity brothers at a time, the course teaches bystander intervention, safe party management, and alcohol risk reduction strategies they can employ at events. During the 2015-16 academic year, 97 percent of the pledges completed SMT and reported afterward that they were far more likely to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning than before. During the winter semester, the course was offered for the first time to U-M sorority members. Known as the Sober Liaison Training (SLT) program, nearly 700 women signed up for the first four classes, enabling them now to act as educated sober sisters at events alongside their male counterparts. This fall, the SLT program will offer even more classes.
In the summer of 2015, Desprez had three specific suggestions for Blake Jones’ four student hires: Get rid of vodka, provide food and water, and create safe spaces. “No one should be served a drink that disguises what you are drinking,” she told them, citing “jungle juice,” a mix of Hi-C and vodka popular at parties. Add to that the fact that many houses provide little else to eat or drink, besides white bread and tap water, and the problems that occur—from accidents to sexual misconduct—are less surprising.
“At every party, there are people who can’t drink—students who are on probation, in recovery, taking medication, or refusing alcohol for religious reasons. Make your parties inclusive by having safe spaces so people can be social without drinking,” Desprez told them.
They heeded her words. Though the IFC technically banned hard liquor in February 2014 at the largest, open-house fraternity parties, the ban’s implementation was sketchy at best, and it did not apply to football game days and other high-risk periods. In fall 2015, however, the IFC decided to pilot a beer-and-wine-only program during Welcome Week, a period when parties are widely attended by underclassman. (Signs posted in the houses read, “18 to party, 21 to drink.”) The IFC also offered fraternities a $100 refund for any food served and asked them to provide cases of bottled water. Greek leaders also requested that fraternities hold their parties behind the houses, rather than in their front yards, to reduce visibility as they attempt to reset the culture.
The results were impressive. During the first six weeks of the 2015 fall term, a total of 50 students were transported to the hospital for alcohol-related issues, half the number during the same time period in fall 2014. Says Krupiak, “It was really noticeable how the changes slowed down the drinking at these larger events.”
Blake Jones was pleasantly surprised. “They took our suggestions further than we ever imagined,” she says, describing how fraternities secured sponsorships from food businesses and invited food trucks to their events. “They even increased the number of sober monitors and SRC (Social Responsibility Committee) Greek members checking the alcohol content of drinks at the parties,” says Blake Jones.
It was shortly after last year’s successful welcome week that the all-chapter community meeting took place at Hill Auditorium. Some students mistakenly believed Schlissel, rather than their Greek life peers, organized it and resented the attendance requirements. (Chapters were told they faced a $1,000 fine if less than 70 percent of their members made the meeting.)
Yet the ensuing bad behavior of a small group of students, who coughed disrespectfully during the gathering, ironically ended up solidifying the Greek community. “The students watched this aberrant behavior of their peers and thought, ‘This is embarrassing. This is not what we stand for,’” recalls Blake Jones. “If 20 percent of the audience was already actively engaged and 10 percent were there just hissing, what the meeting ended up doing was galvanizing the entire bandwidth of the middle to want change.”
Last January, Blake Jones and her team took her efforts a step further by creating the Greek Life Task Force. Made up of students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, it consisted of nine subcommittees and met every other week during the winter and spring terms of 2016 with the goal of putting together a comprehensive list of recommendations for improving Greek life.
During that time, the piloted beer-and-wine-only program was expanded to include St. Patrick’s Day. This fall—thanks to an amendment to the Social Environment Management Policy, which outlines regulations for IFC and Panhel events—all football day parties and Welcome Week gatherings are required to follow the beer-and-wine-only rule.
“The work the students did to voluntarily restrict hard alcohol at their events is extremely significant,” says Blake Jones. “And they did it without the University requiring them to do so. What that shows is we now have strong, strong student leadership.”
“It has been very difficult, very real work,” adds Lexi Wung, the president of Panhel, referring to the many hours she spent on the task force. “Greek Life on college campuses is such a tradition, and people hesitate to change it. But we are in a time when we really need to reform, and I think we are now starting to truly understand why.”
Jennifer Conlin, ’83, is deputy editor of Michigan Alumnus and an alumna of Kappa Kappa Gamma.