It's that time of year again. What time, you ask? We just had registration, fellowship applications are in and midterms aren't for several days now. That's right--most people don't know it, but it's rush time again.
Yes, our campus's underground fraternities and sororities (F&Ss) are holding their fall rushes and pledges this month. While we see few effects of the rush--outlandishly dressed pledges and associated marauders--on a daily basis, the effects of F&Ss' illegitimate presence on campus runs deep.
Even though they cannot exist officially on campus, F&Ss do manage to sneak into college life through several social channels. For example, last year several F&S dances took place on Harvard's grounds. How can this be, you ask, if it's illegal for them to hold meetings even in private dorm rooms? The F&Ss involved were fortunate enough to obtain "co-sponsorships" from official student organizations, many of which count F&S members among their ranks. And those people you see running around with odd-looking pins on their sweaters? They wear the marks of F&S membership openly, despite the fact that public displays of F&S life are banned on campus.
In their own defense, the F&Ss claim to be legitimate social and service organizations unlike Cambridge's many final clubs. But F&Ss could hardly pass muster in the Dean of Students' Office as official student organizations--their exclusive membership policy precludes that possibility. The rushes can't exactly be compared to comps in other organizations, though they approach the Lampoon's comp in ostentatiousness.
Moreover, the F&Ss handicap themselves as service organizations by not accepting all hands who want to help. Would Philips Brooks House (PBH) ever turn away someone who wanted to work in the Mission Hill projects? One does have to complete a comp to become part of the Small Claims Advisory Service, for example, but anyone can comp and completion is all that is required. And at least the PBH organizations spend almost all their time helping people, rather than feting the new rushes.
These official matters do not convey the most important point: By excluding an entire sex from their membership, F&Ss are about as exclusive as groups can be. If a male student wanted to join Women in Economics and Government, the College could hardly stand in his way. But if that same student wanted to join a sorority, he would have no possibility of gaining membership. Pleading that sororities serve Radcliffe only would not solve the problem, since the argument is just as true for women and fraternities.
The greater problem with F&Ss is that they create a parallel structure outside the College's existing social framework. Just as the final clubs hold members- and females-only parties in their buildings, F&Ss create an exclusive atmosphere through private functions and rush rituals. These happenings weaken the College's own social scene (arguably weak enough already) by sharply dividing the society of different groups.
Perhaps the F&Ss would deserve more sympathy if organizations did not already exist on campus to fit most of their needs. For service, PBH has all the bases covered and new programs emerging every year. For socializing the College does what it can. And the College might even be able to fill the one need that contributes most to F&S membership--the need to belong.
Yes, that's what the houses are here for. It's true that the houses' community environment could use some enhancement, but all the bases exist already. Through dances, outings, sports, music societies, workshops and innumerable other organs, the houses can provide for a variety of interests. If the F&S members are so concerned about service and society on campus, perhaps they should reapply their efforts in a direction that will help their fellow classmates as well--through the houses.
Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays.