THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Liberté, Egalité, Sororité

Greek power and the tension of abolition

by Lucas Gelfond

Illustration by Simone Zhao

published October 22, 2020


Since its founding in 1870 as the first Greek letter organization for women, Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity Inc. has expanded to include 143 collegiate chapters, including one on Brown’s campus. In its 2018 group tax filings, the organization and its chapters reported more than $57 million in annual revenue. The sorority boasts more than 250,000 initiated members and 200 alumni groups.

Many Greek organizations, including all four of Brown’s historically white sororities, are associated with national chapters. None of Brown’s five historically white fraternities belong to national organizations anymore; Brown’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, for example, disaffiliated from its national organization in 2015. Three Greek organizations, fraternities Kappa Alpha Psi and Alpha Phi Alpha alongside sorority Delta Sigma Theta, are associated with historically African American national organizations. In exchange for dues and obedience to sorority-wide traditions and rules, chapters get access to extensive alumni networks, scholarship opportunities, and more. These organizations also politically lobby for legislation friendly to Greek organizations and advise individual chapters.

Brown’s Theta chapter, however, has seen its relationship with the national organization cool. The national sorority’s large size makes communication difficult. “By nature of the fact that the organization is so large, they are just such a beast and a lot of emails get lost in the shuffle,” former chapter Chief Education Officer Charlotte Everett ’22 told the College Hill Independent. Amidst nationwide calls for racial justice, however, its history has proven even more problematic. “One of the reasons I was proud to be in Theta was that it was the first all-female fraternity or sorority,” Everett said. “I think the flip side of that coin is that they are so old that they have their own institution that’s inherently classist and racist.”

Everett noted that these barriers in communication presented immense barriers to making change in the sorority. Brown’s chapter, for example, proposed a policy in which members would write their dates’ names on a public Google Document to which all members had access. The policy was designed to protect victims of sexual assault; if any woman saw a guest they felt uncomfortable with, they could request for them to be disinvited. The idea was immediately shot down by the national chapter. “[The national organization told us] if there are issues with boys misbehaving, you should just tell them to behave themselves, or something ridiculously antiquated like that,” Everett said.

Poor communication and resistance from the national chapter became a pattern. One of Brown’s members was removed from a leadership role without cause by the national organization, and the Brown chapter’s appeals were denied, Everett said. Brown’s chapter also faced immense resistance in putting together a committee for diversity, equity, and inclusion and received little funding or training for implicit bias workshops and other efforts to make recruitment more inclusive.

Over the summer, several members noted that they no longer felt comfortable being associated with Kappa Alpha Theta nationals and discussed disaffiliation. The process of disaffiliation, separating an individual chapter from its national organization, differs among Greek organizations. For Theta, the process involved a chapter-wide vote that would need to be unanimous. Were the vote contested, any members who voted for disaffiliation would be removed from the chapter, leaving those who voted for continued affiliation to rebuild the sorority.

The chapter held an official vote on October 5. Of the chapter’s roughly 120 members, 77 attended the official vote and 91 percent voted for disaffiliation. While those who didn’t attend the vote could later vote to remain in the organization, the seven remaining members are now tasked with rebuilding the chapter and recruiting new members.

Everett voted for disaffiliation. “Whenever we try to do something that we feel would make our chapter more inclusive or more comfortable for different types of women, we always face backlash from the national organization,” she said. “We felt like if we didn’t take a stand as an organization or seek to create an organization outside Theta nationals, a lot of our members of color would drop and then future women who are thinking about joining Theta would see themselves even less represented in our chapter.”

Theta’s vote parallels nationwide upheaval in a re-examination of Greek life. The movement is largely decentralized, led by anonymous students posting on school-specific pages like the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, Washington University in St. Louis, Michigan State University, and the University of Richmond, rallying around the #AbolishGreekLife tag. The accounts follow a common format, split between posting anonymous confessions and news updates on administrative proceedings regarding school’s Greek organizations.

The #AbolishGreekLife movement advocates for pure dissolution rather than the disaffiliation that Theta discussed. Students advocate for dismantling or quitting Greek life, nationally affiliated or otherwise, arguing that such institutions are beyond reform. “A big part of why I chose to disaffiliate or depledge was because of the Black Lives Matter movement and my views on defunding and abolishing the police,” Northwestern University sophomore McGuire Price told the Daily Northwestern. “I realized it was hypocritical for me to think the frat can reform if I don’t believe that the police can reform.”

 

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The spread of fraternities largely parallels the expansion of higher education to a more diverse group of students. More fraternities formed as college campuses filled with students who were no longer exclusively white, male, Christian, and wealthy. However, fraternities did not diversify with them, keeping whites-only clauses into the late 1960s. Progress toward integration since then has remained feeble. Matthew Hughey, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, published a study of eight historically white Greek chapters on three East Coast campuses, finding an average percentage of non-white members to be at just 3.8 percent. Before Princeton University abolished its Greek system, it was one of a few universities that collected demographic data on its own Greek system, finding that 77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members were white, compared with 47 percent of the student body. Issues with integration are perhaps more dire outside of the Northeast; until 2013, the University of Alabama had pledged a single Black woman to a historically white sorority in its entire history. While recent protests for racial justice have energized the nascent Abolish Greek Life movement, it incorporates critique that has been levied against the Greek system for decades.

Much critique around the Greek system has revolved around the system’s treatment of gender and the perpetration of sexual assault. A study by Dr. John Foubert of Union University found Fraternity men are three times more likely to commit acts of sexual violence than other men on college campuses. This climate of sexual assault is also reinforced by cultures within fraternities; well-documented incidents like an email sent to Georgia Tech University brothers titled “luring your rapebait” or a group of Yale University fraternity brothers chanted “no means yes, yes means anal” as they passed the Yale Women’s Center.  Rising Vanderbilt junior Daniel Wrocherinsky noted similar attitudes at his university to NBC News in August. “When we brought up the fact that one of the houses didn’t have enough lights, one member of the frat made a joke that we shouldn’t get new ones because that was the point,” Wrocherinsky said.

These attitudes are reflected in political donations paid for by several national Greek organizations using member dues. Ben Owens ’17, former president of local fraternity Beta Rho Pi, cited troubling legislation around sexual assault as a reason the chapter disaffiliated from the national Alpha Epsilon Pi organization in a 2016 opinion published in the Brown Daily Herald. “It seemed to us that representatives of the national organization characterized sexual assault as an issue of ‘risk management’ rather than one of education and prevention,” Owens wrote. The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FratPAC) lobbies on behalf of these organizations’ ability to exist and be absolved of resulting liability, and this political disagreement has long fueled the movement toward Greek abolition.

Kappa Delta president Lauren Reischer ’21 noted that the national organization’s celebration of Rhodes College Kappa Delta alumna Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court was difficult for Brown’s chapter, particularly because of her vocal support for overturning landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade. While the tweet praising Barett’s nomination was deleted, Reischer was disappointed with the national organization’s messaging which noted that Kappa Delta was not a political organization and praised the nomination solely as an achievement. “We don’t have a party label stamped on us but we don’t just choose to be political when it is trendy or convenient,” Reichser told the Indy. “Her values don’t align with ours, she’s not an alumna of our chapter, so we don’t have to back her.” Almost two thirds of FratPAC’s donations have gone to Republicans between 2006 and 2013, where fewer than two percent of students polled said they would vote for Republican nominee Donald Trump in a 2016 Herald poll.

FratPAC likely began as a response to proposed anti-hazing legislation. At least one man has died in a fraternity every year for the past two decades; last November alone saw four fraternity deaths. Hazing, the brutal initiation process for new Greek pledges, is responsible for many of these deaths. In addition, this dramatic method of attaching new members to the group may prevent members from speaking out against aforementioned abuses committed by members of the organization, hazing or otherwise. A study by two professors at the University of Maine found that 95 percent of students who experienced hazing did not report it. In her phenomenal piece “Special Journey to Our Bottom Line,” writer Elizabeth Schambelan notes that comparisons to torture are innaccurate. The brutality of these rituals, often involving near-fatal alcohol consumption, physical abuse, and humiliation are not like torture, they are torture. University administrations tend to distance themselves from these rituals, instituting zero-tolerance hazing policies or making certain Greek houses “dry” (alcohol free) in the hopes of preventing severe injury or death. These policies are not effective, however; the house in which 19-year-old Penn State University student Timothy Piazza died after a particularly gruesome hazing process was supposed to be “dry” and was considered a ‘model’ fraternity, already bound by a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy like most national organizations dictate. The flaw in these measures is that they presuppose that particularly extreme pledging processes are an exception, ignoring the essential role they play in the functioning of Greek life.

While many fraternities dominate the social scenes of their respective campuses, perhaps more significant is the way these power structures continue to manifest after graduation. A now-archived post from an official Cornell University page about Greek life in 2014 boasts that, in spite of making up just two percent of the male population, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives and 76 percent of U.S. senators and congressmen were fraternity men. This may be particularly visible in finance. A Bloomberg piece titled “Secret Handshakes Greet Frat Brothers on Wall Street” describes secret mottos, career advice, and the extensive network that allows many Greek participants to secure such high-level jobs in business. Everett notes that she got a finance internship last summer because of connections from Kappa Alpha Theta. “I would be nowhere without the Theta network,” she said.

It’s possible that this is mostly a result of who enters Greek life; a 2013 survey of 200,000 Greek life members at nine universities found that 72 percent self-identified as middle or upper-class. Regardless, the cycles of wealth perpetuated by these organizations may further entrench Greek life. Greek donors are four times more likely than non-Greeks to be lifetime donors to academic institutions, and as such have immense influence on University policy. At least 14 of the 38 members of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, which weighed in on Piazza’s case, were in fraternities or sororities as undergraduates, for example. Caitlin Flanagan details this in her piece “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” noting, in addition, that fraternities serve as essential marketing tools to specifics groups of students and control immense amounts of property needed to house students (conservative estimates suggest fraternities and sororities own $3 billion in property). Ultimately, fraternities and sororities reinforce patrician power structures. In doing so, they’ve increased their own power, and made themselves near-impossible to remove from many campuses.

An anonymous student at Mississippi State University told a Vox reporter that abolition is unfeasible because of how strongly rooted Greek life is, and instead that reform must take place within the organizations. “If people like me, people who want reform and change, were to drop their fraternities and sororities, that would lead the space to become even less inclusive than it already is.”

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At Brown, no historically white fraternities are affiliated with national organizations, but all historically white sororities remain nationally affiliated. Brown’s chapter of Alpha Chi Omega maintains a strong relationship with their national organization, chapter president Sarah Fife ’21 told the Indy. Because of low recruitment numbers, Brown’s chapter was placed on ‘recruitment priority’ and as such received considerably more resources and attention than other chapters. Greek organizations typically send consultants and advisors to visit and check in with chapters once or twice per year; Alpha Chi Omega had two or three visits per semester, in addition to more funding during recruiting.

Brown’s chapter is also one of a precious few to have found luck implementing change from within the Greek system. The sorority began to include the chair of its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee in executive board meetings, a change which Fife said their consultant advocated for on a national level; the position will officially be a part of Alpha Chi Omega executive boards nationwide. The chapter has worked to lower barriers in recruitment as well. Many sorority rush events have outfit guidelines that the chapter noted may have affected financial accessibility. As such, Fife said the chapter created a ‘community closet’ and had people donate extra outfits so that more people could participate.

Brown’s chapter of Kappa Delta held a vote for disaffiliation similar to that of Kappa Alpha Theta, Reichser said. Unlike Theta, however, members who vote to leave the sorority are not forced to leave if the resolution doesn’t pass, and only a two-thirds majority is needed for dissolution. About 55 percent of the chapter voted to disaffiliate or dissolve and roughly 45 percent voted to remain affiliated and reform. Reichser said Kappa Delta’s relationship with the national organization has improved lately. “We always used to think of nationals as being this big far away thing, and they feel very close recently,” Reischer told the Indy. “There’s work to be done, but we’ve already seen dramatic improvement in how communicative and collaborative nationals have been with us in wanting to create these changes.”

Without national organizations to disaffiliate from, local fraternities like Delta Tau have been tasked with reforming internally. “We hope that we can become a place where everyone feels welcome, and we just want to continue to figure out how we make ourselves a place where that’s the case,” chapter vice president Andrew Alper ’22 told the Indy. At present, Delta Tau eschews many of the norms about fraternities that have contributed to the Abolish Greek Life movement. None of Brown’s official fraternities or sororities own the property that they live on and, because Delta Tau is not affiliated with a national organization, its alumni base is less robust and exerts less influence on the University; while the fraternity has made efforts toward databasing, it only maintains a few years worth of alumni information. Alpert noted that, while Delta Tau has yet to see any people who do not identify as male attend their events, the fraternity sees itself more as a social group than a gendered space. In addition, more than 50 percent of the executive board are people of color and two of the previous three presidents have been from traditionally marginalized identities (both Black and queer), according to president Chaz Vest ’22. “We welcome everyone from every background. It’s definitely been disheartening to see a lot of the fraternities that occupy the same ‘fraternal space’ as us be the opposite of that,” Vest said. “The question becomes ‘how do we reshape and remodel the fraternity based on 21st century values?’”

Abolition itself may be an imperfect solution. A guest editorial from the former brothers of Delta Tau Delta in the Vanderbilt Hustler noted that the vacuum of social power left by eliminating Greek organizations must proactively be filled, mentioning efforts to form partnerships with organizations on campus. Here Brown may be an outlier—statistics from 2015 found 11 percent of Brown students were involved in Greek life, compared to 32 percent of Vanderbilt students in the 2019-2020 school year.

Other campuses have failed to take these precautions and proto-Greek organizations have formed in the presence of abolition or abolition-like policies. Harvard University passed sanctions in 2017 against members of single-gender finals clubs, sororities, or fraternities, preventing them from holding student organization leadership positions, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for fellowships. In response, many of the organizations affected by the ban changed their membership policies to be gender-inclusive. While Princeton does not officially recognize fraternities or sororities, 74 percent of the Class of 2020 ‘bickered’ at one of the six selective ‘eating clubs’ at the University.

An editorial in the Vanderbilt Hustler notes that Greek life may also serve as a scapegoat for some issues that exist regardless on college campuses, citing unchanged rates of sexual assault at Harvard and Princeton before and after Greek life bans. “It thus seems that the AGL movements at these institutions did nothing more than provide their supporters with the symbolic opportunity to absolve themselves of responsibility for horrifying campus phenomena, which can now metastasize ‘out of sight and out of mind,’” guest writer Jared Bauman stated.

In certain ways, Brown has attempted partial Greek abolition. In October 2019, the University suspended Sigma Chi for violating hazing and alcohol procedures, joining Phi Psi as now-derecognized fraternities. Instead of disbanding, however, Phi Psi has rebranded as ‘Lantern’ and continues to host parties off-campus, now even further removed from the oversight of a national organization or Brown. Wesleyan University found itself in a similar dance with fraternity Beta Theta Pi, which refused to comply with its Program Housing restrictions and continued operating after it was banned from campus, just outside of the jurisdiction of Wesleyan Public Safety.

Conversations about reform of Greek life parallel those interrogating many long-standing institutions. Everett noted that, while the chapter felt that disaffiliation was the best process, repairing the harm caused by such institutions should be handled on a case by case basis, although reform may often be insufficient. “I think it’s a problem that society is grappling with overall and I think it would be hard to say ‘we’re just going to tear down every institution that has stood for something,’” Everett said. “I think, on balance we just didn’t feel like Theta was doing anything to combat a lot of the practices that had for so long persisted because of a classist and racist legacy. Do I think Brown is doing enough? No. But do I think Brown is in the right direction? Yes. Similar to Theta, it’s a slow beast, but it’s a slow beast that’s moving.”

 

 

LUCAS GELFOND B'23.5 gave “Animal House” 3.5 stars on Letterboxd.