Last year was a time of upheaval for Greek life in universities across the United States.
Some universities, like Penn State University, opted to centralize their Greek system, which put the administration in a position to directly dole out punishments to delinquents. Some, like the University of Michigan, decided to suspend Greek activities outright.
But others, like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are actively striving to reverse the potentially adverse trajectory of Greek life with a series of reforms. For UNL, those reforms are packaged in the Greek Vitality initiative.
Launched in April 2017 with all UNL Greek chapters as members, the Greek Vitality initiative will help UNL become “the best place in the country to be Greek,” according to Chancellor Ronnie Green.
Green, a member of Alpha Gamma Rho in his college days, said he’d like to see fraternities and sororities forge a new and positive path for themselves rather than the administration have to dole out punishments.
“I’m very much a proponent of Greek life with the caveat that it takes better control of its destiny,” he said.
To Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer of Academic Affairs Donde Plowman, the architect of the initiative, the task ahead for UNL is straightforward but daunting: to change the culture of Greek life by making it more independent and internally policed.
“[Greek Vitality] was partly in response to just too many situations where the university was policing the behavior of Greek houses,” she said. “That’s not the way it should work.”
The top-down approaches adopted by many universities across the country, where the administration takes a more energetic role in stomping out misbehavior in Greek houses, are doomed to fail, according to Plowman.
“Top-down solutions don’t work,” she said. “If the solution comes from the top and nobody close to the problem had any participation, there will be no ownership of the problem. The people who are most affected by the problem have to be a part of the solution.”
Plowman said that is why Greek houses need to begin to see themselves as independent entities with a responsibility to stay in line.
While many other university administrators didn’t see Greek life as anything more than a failed system, Green and Plowman sought to change the way it is practiced on UNL’s campus.
It was clear to Plowman that many cultural and systemic issues, such as the use and abuse of alcohol, plagued fraternities and sororities. For her, it was just as clear that those problems could be solved if the administration and Greek houses could find common ground.
“I proposed that we get everyone in the room together to identify what challenges we have and how we want to go about solving them,” Plowman said.
Plowman got that opportunity in the basement of the Newman Center on April 24, 2017, when 91 Greek organization leaders and administrators came together to discuss the future of Greek life, and thus, the Greek Vitality initiative was born.
First, the group of students and administrators broke into small groups to identify the characteristics Greek life should and should not have.
The group also came up with potential solutions to the problems facing Greek life.
“We spent the night brainstorming, going back and forth trying to come up with solutions,” Plowman said. “And before the evening was over, we had a list of 11 task forces that were all charged with the task of fixing a specific issue in Greek life.”
Members of the 11 management teams, which were comprised of five to 10 chapter officers and Greek council members, were given 12 weeks to research the issues pertaining to their respective group. Those groups then reconvened during a five-hour long meeting in July, where they reported on what the problems were, such as high-risk behavior, a lack of diversity and academic negligence, and how they planned to fix them.
And during the fall of 2017, they began to put those theoretical solutions into practice.
“This fall, the Greek organizations under student affairs worked on the first set of action plans,” Plowman said.
While still in its infancy, the Greek Vitality initiative has begun emerging from its planning phase and has started affecting policy, said coordinator for fraternity life Jon Gayer.
“We’ve moved on from the planning phases, and now we have the 11 work groups coming together to meet the different standards that were set up in previous meetings,” Gayer said.
Some of the management teams, such as the academic improvement team, have even started providing concrete assistance to chapter leaders like Delta Gamma President Lauren Bruning, who said the programs developed will help members of Delta Gamma.
“We’ll be using the data and strategies they’ve given to us so we can work to improve our time management skills,” she said. “We’ve also been using the Greek Vitality harm reduction strategies and things like that.”
Though not all the programs and policies in the Greek Vitality initiative have gone into effect, relationships between Greek houses and the institutions they answer to, which Green and Plowman see as crucial to the project, have already started developing.
Relationships are a large piece of Greek Vitality’s multi-faceted puzzle, according to Linda Schwartzkopf, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.
“You probably get more positive face time with our administrative staff than any Greek system in the country,” she said to the presidents of UNL’s Greek chapters during a Dec. 3 meeting.
During that meeting, which went over the future goals of Greek Vitality for incoming chapter presidents, UNL Police Department Assistant Chief Hassan Ramzah spoke to the crowded room of incoming and outgoing presidents, saying he was hopeful for future partnerships between the UNLPD and Greek houses.
Though relations between these two parties are often strained across the nation, Ramzah said he wants Greek students to place their trust in UNLPD.
“We all have the same goal in mind,” he said. “We all want a safe campus. We want to provide resources for addressing any safety issues or any issues students feel are important.”
Thanks to Greek Vitality, Bruning said she now trusts campus police better.
“I feel like I can reach out to them if there’s a major issue in Delta Gamma,” she said. “I know their faces and they know mine.”
Plowman said she’s noticed the relationship between the administration and Greek chapters also blossom as a result of Greek Vitality.
“I’ve heard from the fraternities and sororities that they feel much better about their relationship with the university,” she said. “There was some feeling that we wanted to get rid of them, but we’ve made it very clear that we only want to help improve Greek life.”
An increased sense of trust and relationship is the foundation upon which the Greek Vitality policies and programs will continue to be built, according to Plowman. To her, Greek chapters need stronger respect for the administration, the police and the chapters around them if they’re going to start regulating their actions.
“The administration isn’t here to police Greek houses,” Plowman said. “That’s their responsibility. We’re here to provide them with a quality education.”
To Green, who sees fraternities and sororities as integral parts of UNL’s cultural DNA, Greek life isn’t going anywhere.
“If you take away the Greek system, which is about one in every five of our students, you take away their sense of community,” he said.
That means the key to the future of Greek life at UNL is the Greek Vitality initiative, and Gayer said that future is bright.
“It’s a proactive way to internally look at the operations of fraternities and sororities on campus,” he said. “It works to provide better programming, better community and really works with students, alumni and the university to make UNL’s Greek life like no other.”
To Gayer, the road to revolutionizing Greek life on campus clearly won’t always be easy, but helping to make Greek houses more independent and responsible is a goal worth striving for.
“We know there are going to be hiccups and road bumps along the way,” he said. “There always will be. But with the Greek Vitality initiative, there will be ways to deal with those issue in a fair and equitable way.”
With the foundation dug and some programs in place, the Greek Vitality initiative will give UNL everything it needs to build a new and sustainable Greek culture, Gayer said.
And to Bruning, the initiative will go far in fulfilling Green’s original promise.
“[Greek Vitality] will help to make UNL the best place in the country to be Greek.”