UT's social organizations must balance merit and inclusivity

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In the span of 11 days in the middle of February, UT rose to the forefront of one of the country’s most divisive controversies surrounding university culture.

On Feb. 7, a now-infamous party took place at the Fiji house north of campus, instigating demonstrations, investigations and embarrassing headlines that spread across the world.

And on Feb. 18, Student Government President-elect Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President-elect Rohit Mandalapu extended the criticism of UT’s social organizations a few blocks west of the Fiji house with a single sarcastic line in their first campaign video: “I want another Student Government president from Tejas.”

In the month that’s followed, discussions over the role that social organizations play in UT campus life have intensified. There are still protests against Fiji, SAE is under investigation for its own possible discriminatory customs and an SG election was framed almost exclusively around whether Greek and spirit organizations wield too much power.

There are obviously some very stark differences between the debate over fraternities, both at UT and nationally, and that over spirit groups at this University in particular. The former group carries connotations of misogyny and intolerance, justified or not; those same connotations are virtually nonexistent among the latter. And spirit groups at least ostensibly choose their members based on characteristics like service and leadership, while there’s a huge variation in selection criteria across different fraternities.

As a case in point, it’s ironic how the particular organization Rotnofsky and Mandalapu poked at is among UT’s best at not emulating Fiji’s example when it comes to race and elitism — the Tejas Club’s most recent New Man class, to use the group’s terminology, roughly mirrored the demographics of the University overall, and the Tejas Coffee distinguished speaker series provides the UT community with access to prominent leaders in a remarkable array of different fields.

Still, when every Executive Alliance this decade has featured at least one member of either Tejas or the female service group Orange Jackets (with the exception of 2012’s Thor Lund and Wills Brown, both of whom were in fraternities), it’s easy to see how this year’s Travesty duo were so successful in painting SG as a group that revolves around the interests of a select few organizations. In that regard, discussions over both Greek life and more explicitly merit-based social organizations revolve around the same central premises: exclusivity and the privileges encased therein.

Within Greek organizations, those privileges often manifest themselves as extensive alumni networks, which make any selection criteria based primarily on characteristics as innate as race, class or connections inherently problematic. But even spirit groups are capable of arbitrarily and sometimes wrongly leaving intelligent and capable voices out of their ranks. That exclusivity might be necessary to maintain a group’s legitimacy as a merit-based organization, but it’s worrisome how quickly it can become insular, which is why this year’s nontraditional Student Government campaign was so effective.

At the same time, outright antagonism toward exclusive groups of any affiliation strikes me as misguided. Elitism isn’t institutionalized in high school cafeterias or cubicle-adjacent water coolers, but it doesn’t take an avid fan of “Mean Girls” or “The Office” to notice that it still arises naturally. 

So just as UT’s musicians and top-tier athletes would find each other even without organized bands or sports teams, those attracted to Greek organizations would congregate into groups that look awfully similar to fraternities and sororities, while those attracted to service, school spirit or networking would wind up forming de facto spirit groups with their like-minded peers. Indeed, one reason Tejas and Orange Jackets have had such an influential history within Student Government is that all three institutions attract similar types of students by serving as training grounds for young leaders.

That’s not a problem. That’s freedom of association.

What is a problem is any organization viewing its selection process as the ultimate word on who does and does not deserve access to powerful positions or networking opportunities. In groups that select their members based on qualities other than merit, that type of exclusivity undermines the equality of opportunity for which universities are supposed to stand. And in groups that do select based on merit, it can stifle the exchange of ideas between qualified non-members and influential members.

To avoid those kinds of scenarios, organizations of all stripes should promote openness and inclusivity just as strongly as they do service, leadership, friendship or any other foundational principle. That’s the strongest path toward making UT welcoming and its institutions accountable to all of its 50,000-plus students.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He writes about campus and education issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.