Friday, February 23, 2018

Alumnus writes open letter to President Berger-Sweeney

ROBERT S. HERBST

ALUMNUS CLASS OF 1980

 

Dear President Berger-Sweeney:

As a member of the Class of 1980, I have been receiving calls, e-mails, and letters about my upcoming 35th Reunion. Instead of looking forward to what should be a joyful occasion, however, I am filled with angst. For the past two years, my relationship with my alma mater has been clouded by the College’s ill-conceived ban on single-sex organizations, which threatens the existence of my fraternity. I am a proud member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity (Pike). Lest someone my age be stereotyped as some “Animal House” frat boy, please know that I graduated Salutatorian Optimus, and among other things, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was a Teaching assistant in history and psychology, was a four-year member of the SGA, wrote for the Tripod, wrestled and played lacrosse. I was not unique in accomplishing so many things. The year after I graduated, a Pike brother was Valedictorian, while also a classics major and a member of the fencing team.

It is beyond dispute that some people thrive in single-sex groups. As a liberal arts institution, Trinity should offer choice and the opportunity to be in single-sex organizations. When I was at Trinity, students were free to join single sex organizations, co-ed ones, or none at all, and that is the way it should be. Being in a fraternity was one of the highlights of my Trinity experience and it served as a bedrock, which enabled me to achieve the success that I did. When I think about Trinity, my fraternity is one of the first things to flash in my mind, counterbalancing the horrible winters and bad neighborhood to give me a good feeling about the College.

Suffering collateral damage in the backlash against fraternities are the young women who belong to single sex sororities. There were no sororities at Trinity during my time. My first experience with them occurred after I met my soon to be wife. She had been a member of Alpha Chi Omega at the University of Virginia. After she moved to New York City, where we met, she became advisor to the chapter forming at Columbia, which had recently become co-ed. Through her I saw the benefits to women of being in single-sex organizations, as they shared interests in an environment that was free of male influence. This is not something which is limited to the college years. My wife still enjoys being in two all-women book clubs and a women’s networking group.

I have heard the argument that the fraternities dominate the social life at Trinity. The College claims that they would step in to the void if they were gone with College-promoted functions, but everyone agrees that College-run parties are not as much fun. I can confirm the sentiment was the same in the 1970s. As a member of the SGA, I helped to organize the parties, and I clearly remember being asked by the roadies of the band Pure Prairie League to help carry a piano up the Mather stairs to the Washington room. The reason that Greek run functions are better and will always be better is because they are each run by committed people who are putting their energy, passion, and own money into making the party a success. This comes with being a member of a brotherhood or sisterhood and can never be duplicated by the SGA. The beneficiaries of this spirit, passion, and effort are the other Trinity students who do not belong to that Greek organization.

While much has been said about the fraternities promoting binge drinking on campus, we all know that the fraternities alone cannot be blamed for this. When I was at Trinity, the drinking age was 18 and we had beer on tap in Pike 24/7. Yet, there were no horrors that have been assumed. I agree that underage drinking should be policed and that things should be done in moderation, but banning single-sex organizations is not the way to achieve that.

When I left Trinity, it was a top 25 college vying with Amherst and Williams. Since then, its national rankings and reputation have plummeted. Trinity will only continue to decline if it cannot attract the best students and it will not get the best students if they are arbitrarily precluded from participating in single-sex organizations. When I visit high schools as an Alumni Support Representative, I am universally asked “I hear Trinity is going to close all the fraternities.” I currently have two sons in college and they chose not to attend Trinity because, much to my dismay, I had to tell them that I could not guarantee that they would have the same fantastic experience that I had. My high school sophomore daughter is similarly concerned. To improve Trinity, we need a rational approach that will gain the unified support of alumni, current students, and faculty. We should all be focusing on developing that approach rather than having fraternities and sororities dreading when the other shoe will drop, scaring off applicants, having alumni close their pocketbooks, and gearing up for litigation. To paraphrase President Ronald Reagan, President Berger-Sweeney, tear up that policy!

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