Power in numbers: Greeks gain clout on campus

Media Credit: Nick Rice
Retention rate of students in Greek Life

Just a week after GW announced it would start collecting Greek life members’ off-campus addresses, more than 1,000 students signed a petition slamming the proposal.

The following day, Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski met with top Greek student leaders. And a month later, the University reversed course.

“It was the first time in which we constructively had our voice heard in a while,” said Casey Wood, president of the Interfraternity Council.

The win showed the growing clout of Greek life on campus – and underlines why Greek leaders have pushed to expand their ranks in recent years.

When Wood first arrived at GW, about 24 percent of students were in a fraternity or sorority. Today, about one in three students go Greek. Over the last decade, the number of students joining a fraternity or sorority nearly tripled – growth that leaders say has translated into more pull with administrators.

“I think that as we’ve grown in numbers that they haven’t put a deaf ear to us and that they have opened up,” Wood said of the University administration.

Matching size and resources

GW has tripled the number of full-time staff members devoted to Greek life to keep pace with the growing population.

It also now offers 18 Greek-exclusive housing options, with Strong Hall housing only sororities as of 2010. GW then awarded Building JJ to the the Kappa Sigma fraternity after its membership quadrupled in the last four years.

Dan Gil, a senior who served as IFC president last year, said he’s seen a shift in GW’s relationships with Greek chapters since he became a member. The University is also working with Greek chapters to help mold aspects of its alcohol policy and improve neighbor relations.

He attributed the shift to Greek life director Christina Witkowicki, who was brought on in 2010 during a string of hazing and underage drinking allegations against five Greek chapters.

“She has been a huge advocate of Greek life to the administration and it’s kind of helped the administration be more comfortable interacting with us,” Gil said.

Witkowicki said the four full-time staff members dedicated to Greek life – the most GW has ever had – allow for more effective communication between the University and members of Greek life.

She stressed that the University has good reason to support Greek membership.

About 95 percent of freshmen who joined Greek life stayed at GW through their junior year, compared with just 85 percent of the general student population, according to the most recent retention figures.

Greek students are also more likely to graduate: About 77 percent of Greeks who arrived at GW in 2008 finished their degree in four years, while GW counted a 72 percent four-year graduation rate among all students.

Administrators have an extra incentive to keeping students in Greek life happy: They are most likely to write checks once they graduate. With the University on a cusp of a fundraising campaign that will likely look to bring in $1 billion, that repayment is even more critical.

“We know that the more people feel affiliation today, the more they’re going to feel affiliation in the future,” Konwerski said.

But the growth of Greek life has also posed logistical challenges, said Tim Miller, director of the Center for Student Engagement.

Miller said he remembers thinking the percentage of Greek students wouldn’t exceed 15 or 20 percent. Now, he said chapters are considering off-campus venues such as the city’s convention center to hold recruitment.

“I don’t see us adding another fraternity or sorority anytime soon, he said. “But I also didn’t think we were going to have Kappa Delta, but the interest was there.”

Mobilizing a network

Wood said the quick backlash from the Greek community over the off campus policies demonstrated its power to mobilize.

A social media firestorm erupted this summer, with disapproving – and sometimes angry – 140 character messages pushed to @GWPeterK accused the University of unfairly targeting the Greek community.

“The last thing we want Greeks to do is feel like they’re being targeted, because they are allies on campus,” Konwerski said.

That’s because Greek organizations are structured to mobilize their members, with this summer’s show of force built on the same advantage that helped Greeks raise over $350,000 for philanthropy last year.

“If you’re trying to get something to spread like wildfire, it spreads like wildfire in the Greek community,” Wood, the IFC president, said. “If you’re trying to get one person to reach out to 100 people within literally the click of a button, that’s easily doable.”

Media Credit: Nick Rice
Affiliation of SA in Greek Life

Having access to a wide network and thousands of inboxes also helps Student Association candidates. About 71 percent of elected undergraduate SA leaders – from the president to SA senators to members of the Marvin Center Governing Board – are in Greek life.

Panhellenic Association President Rachael Abram said she pitches Greek life as a “stepping stone” to climbing the ladder of student governance. The voices of those 11 SA senators plus the body’s president have contributed to the community’s “really powerful” influence, Abram said.

Panhellenic Association President Rachael Abram said she pitches Greek life as a “stepping stone” to climbing the ladder of student governance. The voices of those 11 SA senators plus the body’s president have contributed to the community’s “really powerful” influence, Abram said.

The top student affairs official said he will continue to speak with the SA and students in Greek life as the University shapes its policies, such as those governing the consumption of alcohol, and called the University’s current relations with the community “close to the strongest they’ve ever been.”

“The last thing we want Greeks to do is feel like they’re being targeted, because they are allies on campus,” Konwerski said.

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