The Row is filled on a Monday night with girls in dresses and boys in dark suits headed to weekly chapter meetings. These two residential blocks on 28th Street are known for many things — blockbuster parties, all-you-can-eat fundraisers.
But the Row and the students who inhabit it are often criticized for a more prevalent issue — a lack of diversity.
It’s a standard stereotype. The Row is mainly white, wealthy and straight, representing an exclusive caste of society. But in the wake of nationwide criticism of Greek life — and on a campus known for its diversity — the Row is striving to create an accepting environment for all students.
According to Director of Fraternity and Sorority Leadership Development Jenell Lanski, the Trojan Greek Community Standards define how the Greek Office should match the needs and goals of the USC community.
“Diversity, inclusion and cultural competency are the standard of fraternity and sorority membership,” Lanski said in an email statement.
The Standards, however, are 14 pages long and mention diversity only twice. And despite setting out a goal for leaders to “develop and broaden their knowledge of diversity,” the document is vague about how this goal can be implemented.
That ambiguity leaves a lot up in the air for Greek leaders. Julian Mowatt, an executive board member for Beta Theta Pi, believes the nature of the Greek system creates an exclusive environment that is hard to escape.
Mowatt is a gay, black fraternity man, an outlier on the Row. Beta has been an accepting and loving home for him. But his home on the Row is also where he has heard the most homophobic and racist language in his time at USC. He believes this is because the members of Greek life are sheltered in a homogenous community.
“It’s so easy to get sucked in and never really interact with anyone who’s all that different from you,” Mowatt said. “It makes sense, those are your people, you know, your best friends. But if you don’t interact with anyone outside that environment, then you’re not really getting the full experience of understanding other people.”
The houses themselves are segregated into “tiers,” which are formally ignored but widely accepted across campus. Typically, fraternities only mix with a few sororities in their tier, and vice versa, which Mowatt believes creates a sheltered environment. This system of self-segregation starts as early as recruitment.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a racist system, but it’s definitely a prejudiced system,” Mowatt said. “And we start that prejudice from the very first week in rush. It’s such a quick week, and you don’t really get to know anyone deeply during that week, but that’s what the rest of your time [in Greek life] is based on.”
Throughout the country, sorority recruitment in particular draws ire, resulting in hundreds of articles criticizing the glitter-infused, kiss-blowing superficiality of the week-long selection process. Videos and pictures from the process often create a wealthy, whitewashed picture of sororities.
It’s an image that the Panhellenic Council is attempting to erase from Greek culture at USC.
“The University of Southern California Panhellenic Council’s mission is to create a unified, multi-faceted Greek community by empowering women to discover their fullest potential,” Panhellenic Council president Alaina Hartley said in an email statement. “One of our priorities is developing a more diverse community.”
This year, the Council implemented a “Values Based” recruitment plan to attempt to create a more accepting experience for potential new members. The plan banned smaller details of the process — such as hair flips during chants and catered food on certain days — and required potential new members to wear T-shirts for the first two days.
In the week before recruitment, Panhellenic released a “Panhellenic Perspectives” series highlighting women from each chapter who come from diverse backgrounds. And each chapter participated in diversity training during Rush School, focusing on issues of gender, race and sexuality in a sorority environment.
These changes were made to create a more authentic vibe for a week that sophomore Delta Gamma member Carlota Rodriguez says can be overwhelming. Rodriguez rushed as a freshman, but as an international student, she entered the process completely unprepared for its intensity.
After three days, Rodriguez dropped out of rush, certain that sorority life wasn’t for her. She focused on school and became an active member of the executive board of the Expat Society. But after befriending three fellow freshmen who were each in a different sororities, Rodriguez began to reconsider.
The communities that attracted Rodriguez were strikingly different than what she’d seen during rush — close-knit, driven groups of women absolutely foreign to the superficiality of recruitment. She decided to give rush another shot.
Since joining her sorority, many of Rodriguez’ friends have joked about her new Delta Gamma backpack, remarking that she doesn’t seem like a sorority girl. And maybe that’s true, Rodriguez said, because she certainly doesn’t fit with the image shaped by pop culture. But Rodriguez is quick to point out the Greek life at USC isn’t all like the movies.
“I think most girls come into rush with this idea of what being in a sorority is like,” Rodriguez said. “And most of those [ideas] aren’t really true to what it’s really like.”
The important thing, Rodriguez and Mowatt both say, is that there is good and bad to Greek life. This community provides supportive houses where members live, study, volunteer and bond with close, lifelong friends.
But that community isn’t always open for everyone. And while it’s a harsh truth, Mowatt believes that by accepting it, Greek life at USC can improve and grow in the future.
“I really think [the Row] can become that inclusive environment where most of the students on campus feel comfortable,” Mowatt said. “It’s not that now, but it can get there. And if you’d asked me that same question back in the ’80s, I would have said no, there’s no way. But now, I think there really is that hope for the future.”