On Exclusivity

Yesterday’s frat boy post prompted some interesting discussion, one piece of which is a response from Matt “Dean Dad” Reed (also at Inside Higher Ed), who overlapped with me at Williams for a year, but had a very different reaction to the social scene there. His take mirrors mine from the other side, though, which suggests I’m not wildly off base.

The other chunk is a comment exchange on Facebook where some colleagues mentioned the problem of social exclusivity as an issue that I didn’t address. And that’s true– as I was at a school without fraternities, where all organizations were formally obliged to accept all comers, I don’t really have a parallel to that experience. I can sort of speculate about what role the exclusivity of Greek organizations plays in the lives of those students, and what they get from it that they consider valuable, but that would necessarily be from much more of an outsider perspective than my thoughts on drunken buffoonery, and thus not really accomplishing the goal I was aiming for, which is to understand the features faculty find problematic from the student perspective.

(I can confirm that this is an aspect that students regard as important, though. Over ten years ago, now, I was on a committee with faculty and students where there was some discussion of the rush process for sororities. One of the students noted that nearly all of the women who tried to join a sorority had been accepted to one– the number of students shut out entirely was in the low single digits, I think three. We asked “Couldn’t you just find a space for those three?” and the students recoiled in horror. But we never really got into and deep understanding of why they felt it was so important to be able to shut out that tiny fraction of students.)

I would note, though, that the combination of these two reactions is sort of instructive. That is, as Reed notes, it’s entirely possible to have a system without any formal mechanism for excluding people from social organizations that nevertheless leaves a lot of people feeling excluded. Again, he and I overlapped, and while I was more comfortable within the existing social dynamic than he was, I would absolutely agree that there was an exclusionary dynamic there. If you weren’t interested in drinking, there wasn’t a lot of large-scale social activity going on. There were persistent attempts to change this, increasing over my four years, and the college has made big efforts in that direction so that I think the current culture is pretty different, but I don’t really know.

To drag in a tiny bit of science blog content, you can even see this in organizations that pride themselves on being inclusive. One of the things that came out in the big blow-ups around Science Online last year was that there is some sense that there are exclusive aspects to the way that organization, and particularly the conference, is run. This came as a surprise to a lot of people on Twitter who talked about the lengths they go to to try to welcome new attendees, but as I pointed out at the time, that only works for people who get to the meeting in the first place, and there are significant hurdles to that. The limited size and first-come-first-served registration process, for example, makes it difficult for those who aren’t free to be sitting at a computer hitting a particular web form at 3pm on a weekday to get in. And as friendly as people are, the party atmosphere was off-putting to a lot of other people.

This is stuff that, once it was brought up, was partially addressed– they added some less bacchanalian events to the meeting, and have expanded the board that runs things– but it’s a reminder that inclusion and exclusion, like all human social behaviors, are a tricky business. Shutting people out isn’t always a matter of obvious formal policies, and officially banning groups that are deemed to be exclusive won’t necessarily lead to everyone feeling included.

You can even end up turning off some groups of people by way of policies that are intended to be inclusive. We hit this a bunch with a student life initiative at Union that I was involved with, where a well-intentioned desire to avoid anything that felt too frat-like ended up ruling out large classes of activities (anything with a competitive element, for example) that would’ve been powerfully attractive for some groups of students. I don’t think that trade-off was ever understood all that well, in spite of repeated efforts by a couple of us to explain it.

This is another area where I think it would be useful and important for people to work at understanding what’s really going on, in a way that doesn’t amount to ascribing atavistic impulses to the “in” groups. (At least not without a significant amount of study, first…) It’s not something I have any particular insight into, though, unlike the heavy drinking, which is why I didn’t talk about it much in the previous post.

8 thoughts on “On Exclusivity

  1. One of the students noted that nearly all of the women who tried to join a sorority had been accepted to one– the number of students shut out entirely was in the low single digits, I think three. We asked “Couldn’t you just find a space for those three?” and the students recoiled in horror.

    For those three, this was a worse outcome than a process where a large (but not too large) fraction of the would-be sorority members don’t make it. If getting in is competitive, then there is no shame in not getting in, and you can find friends among those others. But if I were one of the three, I would reasonably wonder what was wrong with me that led me to being left out, and there wouldn’t be a critical mass of people to commiserate with.

    Sure, I can understand the impulse toward exclusivity. Groucho Marx famously resigned from a club that would have him as a member. But it’s often used to hurt people. The trick is to find the right balance.

  2. Yeah, that’s why we asked– it seems utterly awful for those three (or four, or whatever the number was– it wasn’t large). The students at the meeting didn’t have a really coherent answer as to why it was essential to shut those few out, but the whole discussion was a tangent to the actual purpose of that committee, so we didn’t have any ability to do anything about it. We all left shaking our heads, though, the faculty at the idea that they couldn’t include everyone, and the Greeks at the cluelessness of the faculty.

  3. Isn’t it the point of the Greek societies that the feelings of the people who are out are /less important/ than the feelings of the people who are in? One supports one’s own, but not outsiders. If faculty shake their heads at this idea at the level of the Greek societies, then they are perhaps not recognizing the wider aspect of in-the-university and out, cared for by the university and not, the Greek system that they are part of. How many faculty follow up to find out how well rejected applicants to their university are doing after their rejection? To faculty, the three/four students rejected are still in, but to the Greeks, they are out.

  4. I think the observation about faculty hiring is a good point, but it’s difficult to elaborate on that without straying into bad territory for public comments.

  5. The students at the meeting didn’t have a really coherent answer as to why it was essential to shut those few out

    And this is why it’s a problem. There might be good reasons for excluding them: maybe they think Suzanne is is this far -><- from a nervous breakdown, or Jane has a criminal past the admissions office overlooked, or simply that they had only so many beds available and they didn’t have room for Cathy. But it could also be that Suzanne, Jane, and Cathy didn’t have quite the right looks. By not being able to give a coherent explanation, they are doing nothing to dispel any impression that the latter reason was the actual reason. I wouldn’t want to be the dean who had to deal with Suzanne’s parents if the sorority sisters were accurate in their impression of her mental state, did nothing (or worse) to help her, and the rejection drove her over the edge.

  6. Having attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa as an undergraduate (they paid me,) I can attest that the Greek system has a sovereign positive quality: it provides a ghetto for the members of the fraternities and sororities to live, when not attending class, and hence relieve the rest of the campus of their presence.

  7. There’s the famous “Geek Social Fallacies” essay, that points out that geek culture’s extreme emphasis on inclusiveness for the socially weird can actually lead affiliated organizations to retain people who would be better kicked out for the good of everyone: various kinds of creeper, the guy who just will not take a bath, endless drama-generators, etc.

  8. “Geek Social Fallacies” was another example I thought of, and also the idiotic “Fake Geek Girls” nonsense that swept through fandom a little while back. And the Toni Weisskopf thing, and the Jonathan Ross thing, and…

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