Downplaying Union Greek Life results in alumni relations failure


921 Union students are Greek. This number represents 62 percent of eligible students on campus, a majority by any measure.

Let’s also not forget the growth of multicultural and service fraternities and sororities on Union’s campus, which demonstrates the continuing appeal of the Greek system as Union diversifies its student body. And yet Union’s administration does not see this critical mass as a resource, but rather a burden.

According to the Encyclopedia of Union College History, our administration once relied on fraternities to recruit top students: “In that period of recovery from very hard times the College was above grateful to fraternities for support … the fraternities encouraged members to recruit promising high school students back home, and the College needed the students who applied to Union as a result.”

Today, however, the picture is much different. When, for example, I began to train to become a tour guide, we were instructed to report that 43% of Union’s students are Greek, a figure that includes first-years who are not permitted to join. This figure is clearly less representative of reality.

When I was an orientation advisor, I was told to downplay the role of Greek life on Union’s campus. I felt this was dishonest and counterproductive. Instead of tapping into current Greeks as a resource to reconnect with a vast and powerful network of alumni who were also Greek, as any rational organization would, Union’s administration has instead marginalized the Greek majority.

Let’s imagine, for example, the positive impact that the Greek alumni network could have on Union’s rankings. One input in determining rankings is alumni satisfaction, which is measured by the percent of alumni who donate to their school. According to U.S. News and World Report (a subscription for which I paid $39, simply for this article), the average alumni giving rate at Union College is 33 percent.

Although alumni giving rates have improved under President Ainlay, Union College still lags behind competing liberal arts colleges like Colgate (41 percent), Colby (40 percent), Bates (42 percent) and Swarthmore (40 percent).

Perhaps the Office of College Relations, Annual Giving should tap into the 67 percent of alumni who do not donate (a number eerily but perhaps only coincidentally similar to the percentage of current students who are Greek) by connecting alumni to current students who are members of their respective Greek organizations.

I am on the Senior Class Gift Committee, and served as an affiliate caller through my junior year. I have never witnessed a targeted or personalized giving campaign on the basis of Greek affiliation. I contacted three alumni from Generation-U (i.e., graduates of the last decade) to ask whether the college had ever acknowledged their Greek affiliation post-graduation.

Ben Stewart, a Product Operations Manager at DraftKings and member of Chi Psi, when asked whether Union had ever tried to connect him to current Chi Psi members as a means of tying him to the campus community, quickly replied, “definitely not.”

Leanne Polliott (née Winters), Senior Administrative Assistant at Sarepta Therapeutics and former President of TriDelta, when asked the same question with respect to TriDelta, replied, “Currently alumni just get cold calls from students asking for donations to the college. If they acknowledged alumni’s Greek affiliation, and showed more support for the Greek community, I think alumni would be more willing to not only connect with current students but also donate as well.”

Jake Anderson, Co-Founder & CEO of Forsake Footwear and member of Chi Psi, expressed similar sentiments, “I suppose any and or all means of connecting students to alums should be tapped into. The fact that they are not seems like a wasted opportunity.”

Although these are the opinions of only three alumni, I would argue that they are three important voices. In fact, Jake Anderson is the first person listed on Union’s “Alumni of Influence”


From just the top ten names on this list of influential alumni, I was able to determine (after some LinkedIn and Facebook stalking) that at least half were members of Greek organizations at Union.

And although Union does not provide the Greek affiliation of trustees, we are all well aware that many of them were indeed proud members of various Greek organizations. Why then does Union College brush its Greek history under the proverbial rug? On the official fraternity and sorority webpage, Union admits in the passive voice, “we are hailed as the Mother of Fraternities,” and then mentions the word “hazing” four times.

In contrast to this reluctant admission, Union College’s Wikipedia page (under section 5.1) writes that, “Union would in the twentieth century call itself the ‘Mother of Fraternities.’” In other words, once upon a time, Union actively claimed this title. It appears as if Wikipedia presents Union’s Greek history more proudly than Union does.

Union was indeed a pioneer for Greek organizations in the 1800s, and is the only school in the country to establish two triads: Kappa Alpha (1825), Sigma Phi (1827) and Delta Phi (1827) were the first triad and Psi Upsilon (1833), Chi Psi (1841) and Theta Delta Chi (1847) the second.

Union is also a pioneer in the new Greek system: a diverse body of students who contribute to philanthropic organizations too numerous to list, raise more money than we can accurately count, and establish communities of inclusion for our members.

Union’s administration should work to harness this resource for our common purposes, not just to improve our rankings, but also to claim for ourselves a new title: “The Mother of Modern Greek Life.”


  1. The economics of this article is somewhat flawed. The author has not touched upon other key factors that would contribute to the percentage of alums giving back. One general factor is the spending habits of 22 to 30 years old and the financial inability to donate to their school after they graduate. Some students go on to graduate programs, law schools, etc. Most recent grads have a hard time with the idea of “giving back” to their school when they are paying student loans at the same time. This might suggest that maybe Colgate and Hamilton have better scholarship programs and less students that have insane debt. Secondly, many of those that are donating to Union are donating larger sums of money than the average donation to Colgate, Hamilton and Bates. Why do you think we get a new building practically every year? Third, not to mention Greek Life is not exclusive to a college or university. AEPhi is on campuses all over the country so why would that particular group have stronger loyalty to Union that Alumni Relations would tap into than say members of the Minerva’s Councils?

    All I’m saying is if the author had made an accurate comparison to the groups of people that actually donate to the college, maybe you would see a trend.

    • Sara- I respectfully disagree. I am in my second year of law school. I recently accepted a summer job with a top national law firm and would be happy to give $ back to Union; but, as this article articulated (nice job, Laura!), I am hesitant and will likely hold back on such action because of the clear and present trend Union admin is taking in constricting the Greek organizations. The regulations and lack of freedom imposed by the current admin runs counter to the independence and responsibility that being a part of a Greek organization is supposed to teach a student.

    The Mother of Fraternities continues to ignore her traditional heritage, identity, and an immense branding opportunity under current policies, which diminish – rather than celebrate & support – the Greek system at Union.

    Missing from the mix at many/most undergraduate collegiate fraternities is cooperative adult guidance & leadership from alumni, professors and the college administrative staff itself. The model does not yet exist, but could go far in helping collaborative management of operations and risk that would help support (not defeat) Greek life, while simultaneously re-growing and expanding alumni support.

  3. Sara,

    The economics aren’t flawed, there are historical reasons why Union’s endowment is small relative to its competitors and it has nothing to do with financial aid.

    Union has lost a significant number of students and graduates throughout its history. The Civil War is probably the largest driver.

    You might say, that was forever ago, a bunch of other schools went through the same.

    And you’re right. The difference being is that Union at one point was comparable to Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton and was home to some incredibly successful and wealthy inventors and scientists.

    Colgate and Hamilton weren’t on par with Union.

    Laura is arguing something financially intellectual.

    She is arguing that Union has failed to capitalize on a potential revenue stream that encompasses the majority of Union students.

    Psi Upsilon is the pinnacle example but if you’re a current student, you wouldn’t know about them.

    By the way, it’s AEPi, not Phi.

  4. I graduated in 2012 and was a brother in a fraternity. Since graduating, I have donated multiple times… to my fraternity. I have not yet donated to the school. The reason is simple: current brothers reach out to me and connect with me. I know exactly what my money will be going to and it is far more personal for me to donate to my fraternity. I don’t know if I would donate to Union if the school connected with me through Greek life, but I would definitely be more likely to do it.

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