THON, Greeks, and Unintended Consequences

The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon took place in State College this past weekend. It’s the largest single student-run philanthropic event in America and, I think, the world. Since its start in 1973 it has raised more than $100 million for the Four Diamonds Fund, ensuring support and aid for children and families fighting pediatric cancer. This year THON broke all records, raising $12+ million.

It’s a great tradition in the Nittany Valley, it’s a great community effort, and often a positively life changing experience for those who participate. And as with all good things, there are some who would turn this strength into a weakness.

In December I sat down with an alumnus for lunch. THON was not the reason for the lunch, but our conversation eventually turned to the Nittany Valley community and particularly Greek Life and fraternities, which have been such an historic driver of our virtue and growth for much of our University’s history—and, yes, arguably less so lately.

Anyway, this alumnus presented me with a provocative framework on how to look at the future of Greek Life in the Nittany Valley. The basic idea is this: THON has come to epitomize Greek identity and over the course of each year consumes an enormous amount of human, financial, and communal capital. All capital that each fraternities or sorority is spending within the Nittany Valley. All capital that, at other universities, ends up being spent on the efforts of each fraternity’s or sorority’s national chapter philanthropies and efforts.

What this means, explained my alumnus friend, is that Greek national associations are less pleased with their Penn State chapters even though many of them raise more for THON than other university chapters raise for anything else—and this displeasure or resentment manifests itself in that the national associations are less likely to strengthen, support, and defend their Penn State affiliates when they need reform, mentoring, or other assistance.

This alumnus was a part of Greek life as a student and remains committed to it today, as far as I can tell. I was not a part of Greek Life. I’m presenting this here simply in the spirit of asking, “Is this a plausible explanation for why Penn State Greek Life might be doing more good than ever and yet finding itself weaker and less secure than ever?”

An obvious example of a national Greek organization abandoning its local chapter was the destruction of Phi Delta Theta a few years ago.

In downtown State College there are some 50 historic, beautiful mansions built by fraternities over the past century and a half. And while it seems few fraternities have retained their gentlemanly character, there is the chance for real and tangible loss in the Nittany Valley if these houses—and more importantly, the young men within—are left to the fate of bureaucracy and national leadership whose vision seems to involve, in its best instances, tepid disinterest in leaving them to their own fate.

If the framework laid out to me in December is basically sound, it means new systems of support, mentoring, and development for Greek Life will need to come from within the Nittany Valley—or else we risk a slow degeneration and collapse of a system critically responsible for the University we enjoy in our time.

Posted from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.