As political investigations teach us, there is much to learn when you follow the money. This will come as no surprise, but the money and resources put toward Greek housing in the State of Alabama is astounding and tells a much larger tale of privilege and priorities.
Records provided to The Associated Press by The University of Alabama show that Alabama’s Greek-letter organizations have undergone a $202 million dollar building boom over the past decade. The construction and expansion of about 30 houses are being financed by using public debt to provide loans that are repaid by private groups, university officials say.
Left and right, new multimillion dollar houses are casting their shadows over the university. Phi Mu, one of Alabama’s oldest sororities, is slated to begin building what will become the university’s most expensive house with a projected cost of $13.6 million. All of the money allocated for Greek expansion is going exclusively to traditionally white fraternities and sororities.
Of nine National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) chapters at the University of Alabama, only two have official houses on campus: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. Neither have had major renovations in the past 10 years. As one UA faculty member relayed to me, university officials were recently asked why this is. Administrators from different departments reportedly responded that black fraternities and sororities didn’t want or need houses. Somehow, with laws all but nonexistent in the confines of Greek row, I find it hard to believe that seven sororities and fraternities do not want a gathering place to socialize and bond.
This prioritization of housing for traditionally white student groups is not exclusive to the University of Alabama. Auburn University faces similar inequity. In a conversation with an Auburn University vice president regarding the state of affairs for sororities, I was told that NPHC sororities did not have any housing on campus because they couldn’t fill the needed spots. As the conversation went on, I learned that traditionally white sororities do not necessarily fill their spots in their Greek floors, in which case the spots are open to any students on campus. Basically, their excuse for not providing housing to black sororities is that it would disqualify the white sororities from residence floors.
Both campuses are short on housing, as Auburn’s administrator told me when she spoke regarding black sororities having a unified housing area. It is understandable that money would be spent on expansion. However, The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa’s cited reasoning for expanding Greek houses for the sake of providing more housing is irrational. UA System’s Board of Trustees approved spending approximately $66 million on Presidential Village, a student-housing complex on the north side of the Tuscaloosa campus. Once completed, Presidential Village will be home to 971 students. Greek houses and their expansions will house between 960 and 1200 students for approximately $202 million. That’s fiscally irresponsible for everyone.
But we know that the Board of Trustees is not a group of fiscally irresponsible people. They are investing in their priorities.
They prioritize Greek letter organizations that take in over $2 million dollars a year in dues. They prioritize organizations that represent Alabama’s elite—students who can afford membership in organizations with not only exceptionally high annual dues, but also arbitrary schemes for taking in more money. Ever heard of the fining system? Let me use examples from my sorority to fill you in: The Executive Board can choose to fine members whenever and however they want. For example, my sorority can fine up to $100 for missing a weekly meeting, $75 for missing a chapter event, or $100 for failing to vote in a campus-wide election. While some sororities and fraternities on campus are prohibited from fining members, others use these high fining systems to manipulate and control.
These are the groups that Alabama’s trustees cater to. They do not care about the historically black fraternities and sororities who have no space to gather; who needs separate but equal when you can have the cheaper option of separate and unequal?
With public funding dropping for higher education and state universities moving toward financing through private donations, it makes fiscal sense that university administrators would want to keep donors happy. But this affinity for the affluent should not mean a blatant disregard for the other members of the Alabama community. Would donors really not give money if they knew it would in some way help lift up the black or poor communities? Somehow, I doubt that is the case.
Yet, as policies and finances show us, Alabama’s universities are not committed to helping traditionally underserved communities. The University of Alabama and Auburn University display that we don’t need to focus on providing racial equality when we can continue mustering weak excuses and turning a blind eye.
None of this is necessarily surprising, but until we as actors in higher education demand response to the tangible issues of financial priorities, we will continue to get lost in the ambiguous ideas of integration, racial tensions, and centuries old power struggles.