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Capitalists Prefer Blondes

Last week, I visited with students at Indiana University in Bloomington, where one topic dominated campus buzz--and it wasn't the naming of the new university president. Forty-four miles north, at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, a sorority scandal careened through the national talk-show circuit. Delta Zeta had evicted 23 members of its DePauw chapter, forcing them to give up their active sorority membership and scramble to find new housing mid-year. The reason? The sisters, reportedly model students with no behavioral problems or alcohol violations, said it was their looks. All of the overweight, Vietnamese, and Korean sisters were told to leave. The remaining girls--half of whom resigned in protest--were slender and attractive.

Naturally, this caused an uproar. "Are you skinny or white enough for this sorority?" wondered Salon. "In sororities, no bad hair days--or doughnuts--allowed," mused At worst, the shakedown was seen as an act of thinly veiled racism intended to purge girls the national office deemed unworthy of the Delta Zeta letters; at best, it was seen as an astoundingly insensitive (and, apparently, misguided) attempt to boost the chapter's desirability--one that reinforced age-old clichés about Greek life that sororities are only now beginning to overcome.

But, in truth, the ouster wasn't just about Aryan uniformity--it was about business. As Delta Zeta's national office admitted, it needed to recruit new members because its house was half-empty--and it wanted to make the sorority popular again (it used the pretense of lax recruiting to boot the victims). The way to do that, presumably, was to make it seem pretty and perfect (even if that meant a caricature). Jennifer Crocker, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, has shown that "women (particularly European-American women) who base their self-esteem on their appearance are more likely to join sororities," which is probably what Delta Zeta had in mind. The historically white national sororities, which once viewed themselves as social and service clubs, have turned into businesses, with money and image as their bottom lines--and Delta Zeta was flagging.

The DePauw incident was an attempt at what sororities call re-colonization, a not-infrequent Greek practice nationwide. The method is usually different (typically, sororities shut down a failing chapter entirely and then begin anew), but the goal is to reverse declining fortunes. Many national organizations use the threat of a shut-down to nudge underperformers: The message is that, if a chapter doesn't recruit enough dues-paying members to keep the house afloat, then the chapter isn't worth having. In other words, a sisterhood is worthless without money.

Originally, sororities were founded on the pillars of service, scholarship, leadership, and friendship for life, all noble endeavors. In the twenty-first century, however, these pillars appear to have morphed into the corporate linchpins of quota, property, image, and profit. At age 17 or 18, girls join sororities expecting to join a social or service club, but they often find that, financially and emotionally, membership is more than they had bargained for. This begins with groups that refuse membership to girls who won't pay to live in the house. It continues with bulky sorority rulebooks that rival company manuals, some even containing policies about ethical use of sorority trademarks. (Some take a more arbitrary stance than the traditional company manual, as does the sorority that warns against promiscuous behavior and demands that a sister conducts herself "in such a manner that neither her activities nor the appearance of such activities would elicit unfavorable thoughts, judgements [sic] and comments about herself and/or the sorority.")

Hundreds of sisters have told me over the last few years that they came to believe that their national office cared less about sisterhood and more about their dues and the sorority merchandise they were encouraged to buy. Indeed, at the top of the Delta Zeta organization's Web page, one of the highlighted links is "Shop DZ online," a for-profit venture. This promotional push is not unique to Delta Zeta; I've seen sorority merchandise ranging from lettered flip-flops to sorority tissues, and I've visited houses at which new members felt obligated to buy their little sisters welcome packages of up to $500 worth of sorority gear.

But there isn't some structural reason for this m.o.--it's not like sororities have to be cash machines in order to survive. There are plenty of healthy, vibrant sorority chapters across the country whose sisterhoods, big or small, thrive without filling a house. Some share houses with chapters of other sororities. Some take in non-Greek boarders. Some live in dormitories. The historically black sororities usually don't have houses at all. They don't follow quotas, and they sometimes have as few as four to six members per campus. They are not run like businesses. But their sisterhoods are impressive, as is their commitment to community and public service--and the breadth and devotion of their alumni networks puts that of the white sororities to shame. The groups are both called sororities, but they employ entirely different philosophies of sisterhood.

DePauw has one of the highest rates (71 percent) of Greek membership of any university in the country, and it would be unfair to make generalizations about the school based on the cruelty of one sorority's national office. When I lectured at DePauw last spring about--coincidentally--sorority image and the national offices' influence on individual chapters, the intelligent panhellenic president (the elected leader of the historically white sororities) was neither white nor stick-thin. This scandal has provided DePauw with an opportunity to spark a movement that other schools might have been hesitant to lead because they fret about upsetting Greek alumni, who are notoriously more reliable donors than non-Greeks.

The university could set a trend in higher education by ordering Greek national offices to treat its sisters--well, like sisters, rather than as disposable income. Sororities often forget that they are members of a university community, not vice versa. Delta Zeta is hardly alone in this attitude; it is merely the most flagrant example. To downsize dues-paying, rules-abiding club members is bad enough; to pink-slip vulnerable, well-behaved teenagers is repulsive. By telling the Delta Zeta national office that it is no longer welcome on campus because of the way it treated DePauw's students, DePauw could set a standard for other schools.

Back at Indiana University last week, students defended their own Delta Zetas, who have been unfairly caught up in the mess. Some of them, presumably at the behest of the national office, had visited the DePauw chapter to help their struggling sisters with a recruiting event. In last week's media blitz, one of the ousted DePauw sisters called the Indiana Delta Zetas "plastic women," which, sadly enough, might be an improvement over sororities motivated by the other kind of plastic.

By Alexandra Robbins