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Shivering in sub-freezing temperatures and holding their high-heels in hand, women in short dresses and long black coats stand outside the door to the Owl.
These women are not waiting to get into a raging party. They are at the male final club to schmooze and socialize with the sisters inside that can grant access to a culture that offers camaraderie and national connections for years to come.
Of the more than 200 women wandering the streets of Cambridge on that blistery February night, only about 150 would become active members of Harvard’s burgeoning sorority scene—an aspect of Harvard social life, that, along with fraternities, has in recent years expanded at a record-setting pace.
The Harvard administration has refused to recognize sororities, fraternities, and final clubs for decades, creating a Greek life that at first glance seems less prominent than at similar schools where fraternities and sororities are not only recognized, but an integral part of college social life.
Despite Harvard’s unusual situation—in which the administration refuses to recognize what it terms a “discriminatory” culture—Harvard is part of a national trend of expanding Greek life on college campuses.
“I always knew I wanted to be in a sorority,” said Kathleen “Katie” H. Weintraub ’14, a new member of Kappa Alpha Theta.
Weintraub—whose high school friends joined sororities in college—represents a growing population of people for whom Greek life is seen as a traditional part of college life.
But the vast majority of students interviewed said that although they did not expect to rush at Harvard, they were pulled in by the promise of new friendships and the prospect of meeting a different group of people.
“With fraternities, it’s specifically about the camaraderie,” said Stephen P. Murphy ’13, who rushed and became a member of Sigma Chi this past spring. “Fraternities are more focused on the people whereas the extracurriculars are more about the interest.”
The 268 women that rushed Harvard’s three sororities this year represent the largest rush class in Harvard history, according to sorority leaders. As recently as 2008 The Crimson reported that the sorority rush class averaged about 150 people.
Fraternities also reported an increase in numbers——over 100 men attended Sigma Chi’s first rush event and about 72 signed into Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s first events, according to each fraternity’s leader. Harvard fraternity leaders declined to provide rush numbers from past years.
“We’ve really established ourselves as organizations that are worthwhile to be in,” said Tony Huang ’12, a member of Sigma Chi’s executive committee.
“[Greek life] is here to stay.”
FINAL CLUB CULTURE
Although Harvard’s Greek leaders say that increased awareness of the recruitment process may have contributed to the recent spike in rush numbers, they are unable to pin down a single reason why Greek life has increased so dramatically.
“Naturally it’s the way these things go,” said President of Harvard’s Kappa Alpha Theta chapter Ellis A. Bowen ’12. “As more people join, more people hear about it.”
For some, Greek life fills a void in a social scene described by students as catering to and dominated by male final clubs.
“There aren’t that many organizations specifically for females to get together and be a group,” said Harleen K. Gambhir ’14.
There are currently eight male final clubs on Harvard’s campus, all of which own spaces to socialize and are often the hub of the party scene on a given weekend night.
Sorority members say that amid a culture dominated by male social clubs, sororities offer a welcome escape to the bonds of sisterhood.
“There are a lot more social options for males than there are for females,” Phillip J. Morris ’12, president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said earlier this year. “With a lot fewer female final clubs on campus, it makes more people willing to branch out to Greek organizations.”
Morris said that the fraternities face a different situation because they “compete” with male final clubs.
“Our rush process is 100 percent open and inviting to everyone,” Huang says. “That’s one of the biggest differences between us and final clubs.”
Harvard has not formally recognized sororities, fraternities, and final clubs since 1984 when the College revoked official status due to the gender-discriminatory recruitment policies of the social organizations.
Suzy M. Nelson, dean of student life, said that the gender discrimination issue—as well as sorority and fraternity ties to national organizations—make it unlikely that Greek life will be recognized in the near future.
“Students are free to affiliate as they choose,” Nelson said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that Harvard is going to recognize every type of club or social organization that exists.”
Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds said that if Greek organizations want to gain official recognition, they will have to approach the administration.
“We would not initiate the contact,” she said.
Assistant Dean of Student Life Susan B. Marine said in an interview in February that sororities had approached her to discuss the possibility of recognition in the past.
At Yale—where the University officially recognizes some sororities and fraternities—Greek leaders say that their organizations benefit from the support of the administration.
President of Yale’s Panhellenic Council Stephanie Cuevas said that Yale college masters allow Greek organizations to reserve space, which makes it easier to organize events like those during the rush process.
Bowen, Theta’s president, said that she believes her sorority could benefit from “having the backing of the school” in the form of access to on-campus spaces to hold chapter meetings and host speakers.
Although Theta is looking for a space of its own—and other Greek organizations already own their own spaces—all three sororities currently hold events in the buildings of male final clubs.
But Bowen said that she does not expect the University to recognize sororities in the near future and she thinks the sorority does not need Harvard’s recognition to survive.
The president of a male final club—an organization that the administration handles in a similar manner to the Greek groups—said that he does not think recognition is necessary.
“Being officially recognized by the University just makes more of a hassle for groups,” he said.
A NATIONAL TREND
The record number of students rushing Harvard’s sororities and fraternities are not unique to the College.
Nationwide, the number of women in sororities has increased 8.4 percent from 248,120 women in 2008 to 268,983 in 2010, according to statistics compiled by the National Panhellenic Conference.
North-American Interfraternity Conference CEO Pete D. Smithhisler said that there has been an increase in fraternity membership every year since 1998.
Growing interest in Greek life has been especially pronounced among many Ivy League schools—Cornell’s Panhellenic Society announced its 12th sorority this year and, according to the Yale Daily News, the number of women rushing Yale’s sororities has doubled over the past five years.
To manage this increased interest, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Cornell’s panhellenic councils have all voted within the last two years to add another sorority to their campuses. Harvard and Yale are both trying to add a fourth sorority, according to Greek leaders on both campuses.
At Princeton—which, like Harvard, has three sororities—the number of women rushing sororities increased by 28 percent during the fall rush season, according to the Daily Princetonian.
Princeton, like Harvard, does not recognize sororities and fraternities, but the relationship between Greek life and Princeton’s administration could be characterized as more hostile.
According to Princeton undergraduates, the administration sends a letter home to incoming freshmen actively discouraging them from joining sororities and fraternities.
Kelsey A. Platt, the president of Princeton’s Panhellenic Council, wrote in an email that she hopes to see the relationships between Princeton and Greeks improve in the future and that if the number of women rushing the school’s sororities continues to increase, the Council will likely look into adding another sorority in the near future.
A FOURTH SORORITY?
In 2003 Harvard’s Panhellenic Council added a third sorority—Kappa Kappa Gamma—when it decided that there were not enough sororities to accommodate the rising interest in Greek life on campus. That year, about 120 women had rushed sororities; Delta Gamma and Theta accepted only about 20 people each.
This past school year, with 268 women rushing, Kappa extended 57 bids, Theta 55, and DG about 60, according to each sorority’s leaders.
Although the number of women accepted by each sorority has grown steadily, sorority leaders have said that especially with the recent increase in numbers, the creation of a fourth sorority may be on the horizon.
But despite the growing interest in Greek life, House Masters said that students should focus their energies on improving House communities, rather than creating another sorority.
“I’m always suspicious of a club that builds itself on gendered exclusivity,” Cabot House Master Rakesh Khurana said. “It’s so much easier to hang out with people who remind you of your favorite person—yourself—than it is to figure out how to create an organic real community that has strength in its diversity.”
When asked if she thought Harvard should add a fourth sorority, Cabot House Master Stephanie Khurana—who was president of Cornell’s Panhellenic Council as an undergraduate and a member of Cornell’s Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Council as an alumnae—had a simple answer.
Organic relationships can be formed within one’s House, the Khuranas argue, thus making Greek organizations unnecessary.
National Panhellenic Council Northeast Advisor Patricia Gesell wrote in an email that the process for adding a sorority is complicated and centers on demonstrating that another sorority would improve the quality of Greek life on that campus.
Recently sorority presidents at Harvard declined to comment on the status of plans for a fourth sorority.
University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Cornell have all voted recently to add another sorority to their campuses.
“The record number of girls demonstrates that there’s definitely a demand for sorority life on campus,” Kappa President Anna S. He ’12 said in February. “We want a fourth sorority on campus and we’re going to push for it.”
—Staff writer Monika L. S. Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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