Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is happening this weekend. It’s known for being the largest single student-run philanthropic event in America.
Since 1973 it’s raised more than $100MM for the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides aid for children and families fighting pediatric cancer. It’s a great Penn State tradition, it’s a great community effort, and it’s often a genuinely life-changing experience for its participants.
A few years ago I sat down at the Rathskeller with an alum for lunch. We didn’t meet to talk shop on THON, but the conversation eventually turned to Greek Life and fraternities, which have been incredible developers of community life and growth for most of Penn State’s history. This alumnus presented a provocative thought on how to look at the future of Penn State’s Greek Life. I wasn’t in a fraternity in college (he was), so I’m sharing this mainly to think out loud and without knowing how much weight is worth putting behind my friend’s thinking.
The basic idea was this: THON has come to epitomize Greek identity, and so over the course of each year THON consumes an enormous amount of human, financial, and communal capital. All capital that each fraternity or sorority is spending within the Penn State community. And 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 is that Greek national associations are less pleased with their Penn State chapters than their peers (even though many of them raise more for THON than other university chapters raise for anything else) and this 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.
Again, this alum was a part of Greek life as a student and remains committed to it today. 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 to Penn State and the community if these houses (and more importantly, the young people 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 by my friend is basically correct, it means that new systems of support, mentoring, and development for Greek Life needs to come from within the Penn State community, or else we risk the slow collapse of a system once responsible making so much of Penn State so great.