College campuses across the country come to life on a typical Friday night. Weary from a week of work, students make their way to bars, parties and other social events. But not so much at Stanford — not like they used to, at least.  

A noticeable decline of social life on Stanford’s campus has come about within one generation of students. Its causes have been documented by campus news outlets and prompted a restructuring of the university social scene.

Ten years ago, Greek houses were the dominant source of parties on campus. Now, students and the university are developing alternatives such as Farm Days, events organized by the Stanford Social Project, and the Enchanted Broccoli Forest dorm’s happy hour.

Stanford students contemplate the campus. (Sierra Enge)

Greek Life: The ups and downs

Jonathan Zwiebel ‘21 did not expect to engage with Greek life when he first got to Stanford. “I was like, ‘I have my own social circles. I don’t feel the need to do this,’” he said.

Now, he is the president of Alpha Epsilon Pi.

However, the transition to sophomore year represents a struggle for many students. As academic intensity increases and students are relocated to new dorms, many feel isolated in comparison to their first-year experience.

“Sophomore year, your freshman dorm community is gone, and a lot of people end up kind of isolated in their dorms, or they will have a small group of friends,” Zwiebel said. “They don’t have too many opportunities to meet new people on campus.”

At a university known for rigorous academics, one might think that Greek life plays a minor role in student life. But a fraternity or sorority can provide one of the only opportunities for students to gain a supportive environment to meet new friends.

“We just strive to be an example of a supportive and safe community where people can always feel like they have a physical and metaphorical place to go home to,” said Kayley Miller ’20, president of Stanford’s Delta Delta Delta sorority.

Greek organizations are a pillar of campus social life. Fraternities and sororities are in charge of planning parties for all students to attend, commonly referred to as “all-campuses.”

“The central pinnacle of the social Stanford is the all-campus, the event where all you need is a student ID to get in, and I think for a lot of people that is what they want to do on Friday and Saturday nights,” Zwiebel said.

Greek organizations also play key roles outside of social life by fostering events. Delta Delta Delta started a book club this year to analyze Chanel Miller’s memoir “Know My Name.”

“[Delta Delta Delta] is something bigger than just a Greek organization,” Kayley Miller said. “It is people who really care about Stanford as a whole and are very involved across campus.”

But recently, Greek life has been put to the test.

Last year, the university threatened to remove housing from the fraternity Theta Delta Chi (TDX) after the fraternity failed to meet Stanford’s Standards of Excellence, a system through which the university reviews Greek organizations. Later, the administration retracted the decision, seeing that a procedural flaw had mischaracterized its review of the fraternity.  

More recently, Kappa Alpha lost housing rights after allowing members to live in their residence without covering room-and-board costs.

While some expect Greek houses to provide events that anyone can come to for fun and socializing, others have expressed a desire to change this dynamic.

Campus response

Three  fraternities (SAE, SigChi, KA) have lost their housing within the last five years. The events hosted by these organizations — many annual all-campuses or mixers — have disappeared, leaving a void. 

In response to this social slump, students have looked to the university for a collaborative solution. Previous university-sponsored efforts to create social programming include Cardinal Nights, run by the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education. The program, however, is explicitly designed to “shift the campus culture away from a focus on alcohol,” which may not appeal to students who enjoy drinking as a respite from academics. 

The six student leaders of the year-old Stanford Social Project (TSP), have taken a different approach, encouraging students to act as the advocates and organizers of social rejuvenation. With the support of administrators, the group has organized social events like the Farm Day block party. Instead of discouraging the presence of alcohol, student organizers aim to create enjoyable and safe spaces where drinks can be consumed. 

“In my experience the university has, with the best intentions, tried to overcontrol things…and not only is that not particularly organic or spontaneous, it’s also incredibly uncool,” said Nate Boswell ’99, special assistant to the office of the vice provost of student affairs, lead TSP administrator. “For it to resonate with students legitimately, it has to come from students. They’re going to be much better at it than we are.” 

Stanford’s housing process may influence the environment for socializing. Few students live off campus, where they could more easily regulate their own social culture. Boswell added that in his time at Stanford, there were “a lot regulations, federally and from the school. But it’s a different time now.” With the intense regulation of campus social events, and lack of truly personal social spaces, students may struggle to create the social environment they want. This dynamic produces a need for the university to step in, or more accurately, take a step back.

While still in its early stages, TSP strives to strike a balance between student-driven action and university backing. 

Will Paisley ’20, leader of TSP’s “Row events” team, hopes to create events that become traditions on campus, such as Enchanted Broccoli Forest’s Wednesday happy hour or Narnia’s Bagelmania. He said he especially wants to “foster collaboration between houses, and to create events that are open to the larger campus community.” 

Recent TSP events include Row Trick-or-Treat, hosted on Halloween, and Samples & Samples, a wine-tasting event at Cantor Arts Museum. Progress is being made, but the future of Stanford’s social scene still remains a question; Paisley confirmed TSP is still awaiting funding for future years. Furthermore, the ResX housing plan looms in the distance. 

“We’re so early in that process that I don’t know what the end result is going to be, but I can tell you, for sure, the intention is not to squash culture or paint over existing traditions,” Boswell said regarding hesitations about ResX’s impact. “It’s to hopefully prompt us to think about ways the whole thing can be better in the long run.” 

Stanford students mark Halloween. (Kate Formico)

Looking ahead

Even beyond campus social life, the university is undergoing significant changes. 

Stanford’s transition to a new communal organizational structure, called ResX, will take place over the next 20 years and represents an opportunity to reinvent campus social life. Instead of navigating the bewildering housing draw process, students will be assigned to “neighborhoods” of 700 students for their four-year Stanford career. 

Despite a 100-page report about the plan, details and their consequences for social life — including the impact on Greek and themed houses, as well as housing cooperatives — remain vague. Mirroring Boswell’s message, the document espouses a commitment to the traditions and qualities that give the Stanford undergraduate life its unique character, all while recognizing that some organizations will have to change. 

The report recognizes Ethnic Themed Houses like Casa Zapata, Okada and Muwekma as “a treasure of the current residential system [which] should be supported and encouraged to enrich the entire campus community.” In regard to the more than 40 other themed houses and cooperatives, like Enchanted Broccoli Forest and Columbae, the university sees varying “quality and value” in their programming and will likely make decisions about their structure and role on a case-by-case basis. 

The future of Greek life is more uncertain. Sorority membership has grown 123% over the past decade and fraternities have grown 16% since 2014, and the report describes Greek life as providing “a place of belonging” for many students. But at the same time, the document asserted that “concerning demographic trends” and the association of living in a Greek with perceived social prestige “is a significant concern for ResX.” 

The task force recommended that a more extensive investigation of Greek life would better answer “how and if” Greek life fits into the neighborhood plan. In February, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole pledged to keep ten Greek organizations housed on campus, but under what conditions remains to be seen. 

If Greek life continues to fade on campus, a social vacuum will need to be filled. “It comes down to three things: people, space and funds,” said Patrick Kurzner ’20, a resident assistant (RA) in the recently rebranded row house 550 Lasuen. “Greek houses are uniquely able to access all three. If you think about it, no other organization can do that.”

ResX reported that  a desire for community, avoiding the housing draw and living with multiple friends were all motivating factors for students interested in Greek life. Notably absent was access to and participation in social events. 

Nevertheless, Stanford administrators seem to be taking the decline of social activities seriously. “In every conversation administrators have with [students] the question is brought up,” Kurzner said. “I think they recognize the problems and are genuinely trying to make progress, but they can’t appeal to everyone.” 

Signaling a commitment to improving social conditions, the university has told RAs on the Row it will help fund events with other Row communities. 

But providing funding alone may not be enough. While clubs and dorms can often solve the problems of people and funding on their own, finding a space to hold events is a major stumbling block. 

Here, the ResX neighborhood plan may offer the greatest hope for renewed social life. Rearranging the campus is an opportunity to create, expand and repurpose spaces to serve currently unmet student needs. Either way, the comprehensive proposal is likely to significantly alter student social life.

So far, students have been active in the process and Boswell maintains the sentiment that with the impending changes, the goal is positive progress. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “I want to craft an exciting future for Stanford, and I want the ResX process to be part of swinging the pendulum away from where it’s been.”

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