When Jana Mathews became an assistant professor of English at Rollins College, she initially struggled to connect with her students. As a medieval literature major, which wasn’t the most popular subject on campus, Mathews felt she had to make an extra effort to develop a recruiting pipeline and ensure students would take her classes.
So he did something unusual: he joined a corporation.
“It was totally freaky,” Mathews said. He had grown up a devout Mormon and attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate, so he knew next to nothing about Greek life.
Mathews fully embraced the partnership rush process, participating in new member rituals and forming a close bond with his “big.” Since then, he has served as an advisor to two Rollins sororities and fraternities for 11 years.
Now Mathews has written a book: The benefits of friends: In today’s complex world of sororities and fraternities (University of North Carolina Press, 2022). It is a study of close same-sex friendships that are central to sorority and fraternity membership.
Mathews didn’t want to make an argument about whether to eliminate Greek life organizations, as some have recently called for. Instead, he delved deeply into how fraternities and sororities can uplift students while perpetuating harm—with the goal of sparking a more informed conversation about the future of cliques.
While researching and writing the book, Mathews often found herself in situations where she witnessed students speaking and behaving in ways they would not in the classroom. “It was a really tough balance and difficult to negotiate between roles — where I’m a professor and where I’m an observer and where I’m a companion and interested in their well-being,” he said. He built such a high level of trust with students that some showed up at his door in times of crisis.
Mathews, now a full professor at Rollins, recently spoke Chronicle about how powerful friendships contribute to the enduring appeal of fraternities and sororities, how those relationships affect campus social life, and whether the benefits of Greek life outweigh the negatives. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is such a study important to understanding Greek life?
We tend to think of white fraternities and sororities as R-rated Boy Scout troops—that their influence on individual lives and the larger culture begins and ends on the college campus. And in fact, I hope to show that these organizations are powerful social agents that influence the way we think about basic relationships and what it means to be a friend. What does a family look like? How should I treat my brother and sister? What does it mean to call someone who is not related to me as a brother or sister?
The other thing I was interested in was the unsatisfying answer that I kept getting to the big question we always ask about these organizations: should they stay or should they go? First we need to understand: what do they do? Given such enduring controversy, why are they so prevalent in popular culture? And how do they work? Once we get to those questions, I think we’re better equipped to have a nuanced conversation about whether they should stay or go. And more importantly, we have some tools that allow us to follow some of these ideas.
When you first became involved with Greek life at Rollins, what perceptions did you have of the organizations? How did it change over time?
My exposure was about what a person who came from another country might have. I had seen Legally blonde, and I knew that they lived in houses, and I knew all the stereotypes that they were big drinkers and partiers. That was the scope.
But they populated my classes. At that time, 45 to 50 percent of Rollins’ student body was a member of the Greek life system. I teach medieval literature, which the masses don’t really like. I really missed opportunities to connect with my students. The common denominator that united many of them was their fraternity and sorority experience.
As I went through the initiation and shadowing process and then served as their advisor, I learned that these organizations are very important to the lives and happiness of many of these students, but also a source of tremendous angst, anxiety, and stress. heartache.
Greek organizations have long been a place for intimate friendships. Is there anything clear about the bonds being formed today?
Same-sex platonic relationships have always been critical. They were formative in the frontier period of our nation’s founding and come from Greek and Roman mythology – nothing new.
What is changing is the fact that women and men are staying single longer than before. People are marrying later and living longer. At critical stages of life — in the 20s and 30s and also at the end of life — people are single. These connections become truly critical in understanding the overall composition of society. Platonic friends mean more than they used to.
Fraternity men told you they create a gender imbalance at their parties and the result is hookup culture. Is this problematic?
We have more women than men in college. It’s not going back anytime soon. Men find ways to capitalize on it and pursue their romantic interests, and heterosexual women are put in a position where they have to fight it. Fraternities and sororities call themselves many different things, but they are primarily social clubs. When you’re a college student, part of the social experience is romance, dating, and sex. These groups inherently play an important role in the operation of this culture on a college campus. It’s neither good nor bad.
But the ways in which gender imbalances on college campuses work to foster a culture of inclusion, and how women in turn work against it—how they struggle to assert themselves—have so far been underappreciated. .
When I talked to women and men, the men were much more willing to admit exactly what they were doing. “We are creating a scenario where there are fewer men than women.” Women were not so conscious of what they were doing. I would say, if you look around, what do you notice about the demographics? It would take several steps for them to say: there are twice as many of us as men. Then they articulate what they did in response. It was less strategic.
If they figured it out, the sororities will definitely have to negotiate and create teams that can help their own members compete and try to get men’s teams together. The way to do this is to block other corporations.
Another dynamic you explored was the role of LGBTQ members in creating connections between straight men and women. Can you talk about it?
Homophobia is still prevalent in the college environment and in society at large. But we’re seeing more chapters see LGBTQ students as an asset. Fraternities don’t see them as threats to their masculinity, but as partners. Some gay men affectionately refer to themselves as girls’ hot friends. They have a bunch of girls that they’re all really good friends with, but they’re not romantic rivals for the frat guys.
For a gay member, it allows them access to that space and that group of male friends. On the face of it, this is a wonderful thing. The downside is that fraternities are putting LGBTQ members in a position where they are asking them to include women and that is their main goal. The level of self-acceptance is conditional; there is no reciprocity. You can never bring a gay date to a dance, bring a guy home to a fraternity, or show any affection in public.
You talked about how close fraternity or sorority friendships affect what happens after an alleged sexual assault. You wrote, “When things go slightly or horribly awry, the family metaphor becomes even more dysfunctional than it already is.” What did you mean by that?
When a sexual assault occurs, often the only people who know at first are the corporate woman’s friends. The reason they didn’t want to report it or do anything about it was because their experience with Title IX and the legal system through watching other friends didn’t produce the desired resolution. They believed that there are no excuses, only excuses.
So instead of blaming the person who caused the harm or someone else, they often turned to their friends. They blamed their friends for not protecting them, for letting them drink too much, for leaving them alone. It sounds really problematic and it is. But they did it in self-defense. They knew they could blame their friends and that they would be forgiven. They knew that at the end of that shift, that friend would hug them and take care of their needs—that that decision would come.
Have been increasing control for sexual assault in fraternities. Is there something inherent in Greek life organizations that creates this culture? Or is it just one manifestation of a wider culture?
To lump every fraternity chapter into the same category and say that they all promote rape culture is a gross exaggeration. But this understanding of culture is broadly defined and not taken seriously by the fraternity and sorority community. So they toe the line over and over again, saying, “It’s just a few bad apples,” and in doing so miss opportunities to have an important conversation about sex—something we should be having in society at large.
Having worked with a fraternity of great gentlemen, they stand out one by one. When you put them in a group, they often don’t bring out each other’s best qualities. I would say the same about women. Part of it is a developmental problem. From what I’ve observed, frat men are 18-22 year olds who are posing and trying to figure out who they are, so they gravitate towards the easiest and most dominant version of who they think they should be. and it’s often gross, sexist bullshit. Corporations do this too; they can be mean, nasty and mean. I’m not excusing this behavior, but part of it is caused by the sheer number of young people together without perspective and different experiences to control them.
Do the benefits of Greek life outweigh the problems?
If you think about the higher level around the world, all other countries are able to function without corporations and fraternities. The idea that we need them, that this is an essential part of our educational identity, seems problematic. There are other ways you can reap the same rewards without being part of a fraternity or sorority.
But perhaps the greatest benefit that fraternities and sororities provide is that they provide scapegoats for colleges. We like to say that all the bad behavior – misogyny, racism – is concentrated in these small pockets, and only a small percentage of our population says and does these terrible things. We need to know that this is not true. Fraternities and sororities provide convenient ways for colleges to avoid dealing with overarching issues that affect all campuses and the entire population.