I was a college president. Why I started a Greek system.

Jim Gray was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity on S. Columbia St. in Chapel Hill.
Jim Gray was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity on S. Columbia St. in Chapel Hill. News & Observer file photo

I believe I was the only college president in America in 2011 to actually start a fraternity and sorority system. Truth be told, most college presidents and chancellors would like to have a magic wand to make them disappear.

Jim Gray

At North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, our campus culture needed the good things that Greek life brings to college life.

It worked, and three sororities and one fraternity continue there. I retired as president in 2014 and remain proud of that counter-intuitive initiative.

The voices against fraternities and sororities are vehemently against them. Too much drinking, exclusion, hazing. The tragic deaths sadden us all. There is a chorus now singing a song of eradication. Don’t!

What Greek life means to members is hard to define, but it centers on brotherhood and sisterhood—having not just friends in college but also brothers and sisters whom you learn to love and rely on. Today at almost 70, a week does not go by that I do not intersect with Delta Kappa Epsilon alumni brothers from UNC Chapel Hill, where I graduated in 1970.

How to lead

Fraternity and sorority houses break a huge university down to a manageable community. Houses teach their members how to lead and how to follow. They teach community service.

They go on to be the college’s most generous donors and volunteers. And it is a fact that Greeks at UNC have higher GPAs than non-Greeks. Look it up on the UNC website.

Here in North Carolina there are tens of thousands of Greeks and Greek alumni. At UNC, a full one in five undergraduates is a member of a Greek organization. Those 3,702 undergraduates are finding the same benefits that I did.

Look at 2017 grades on the website. The all-Greek GPA is higher than the undergraduate average (3.324 to 3.26). All men grade out at 3.217, and fraternities are higher.

What to do

But what to do to make Greek life better? The deaths, underage drinking, hazing, and other forms of occasional undergrad stupidity—they can be reduced. Here is how, based on research and history:

▪ Alumni must stay involved to oversee and help. Ten years ago I and others founded a UNC fraternity alumni group, and it remains in place today helping to make things better.

▪ The college must see its self as a partner and not an enemy. At UNC, the administration is firm but fair.

▪ There must be strong Interfraternity Councils and Pan Hellenic Councils. Self-governance is a critically important part of Greek Life, but no one believes there should not be university oversight and guidance. Be firm but fair, and Greeks will respond positively.

▪ The Greeks must become more diverse. That is happening slowly but surely as the U.S. itself changes racially.

▪  And finally, the academics of Greeks must go up as they have at UNC.

You may notice I have not said much about hazing of new members. It is outlawed by fraternizes both national and local, colleges, and state legislatures. But its ugly head rises from time to time. I am convinced from working closely with active brothers, national Greek organizations, and administrators that hazing is in decline and will go to virtually zero in the coming years. It’s that ugly and abhorred.

The next time you nod your head at a news story that calls for abolition of fraternities, first talk to an active member or an alumnus. You will hear emotional explanations of why that bond between Greek brothers and sisters means something special. You can tell them that their house will be a positive part of their life as long as they live.

And you will see it’s often Greeks who are serving meals at a soup kitchen or raising money at the football stadium gate for children’s cancer. So with many areas of university life or just plain life, the good outweighs the bad.

Jim Gray of Durham is a consultant in fund-raising and marketing communications. He is a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon and founded UNC Fraternity Alumni 10 years ago.

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