‘We all share responsibility’: Campus Life dismisses movement to abolish Greek Life for its role in systemic racism
Following a July 14 Zoom panel hosted by Student Union, Washington University has made its position clear: Campus Life has no immediate plans to scrap Greek life.
The panel served as the first time that administrators have made a public statement on Greek life’s standing at the University following weeks of campus-wide calls for abolition to the Women’s Panhellenic Associate (WPA) and Interfraternity Council (IFC) for their role in upholding systemic racism, classism and sexism.
The University plans to focus on reforming the Greek system instead, against the wishes of students who have expressed their belief that sustainable reform of an exclusive system is not possible.
The panel featured Leslie Heusted, the executive director of Campus Life, Kawanna Leggett, the interim dean of students, Rob Wild, the interim vice chancellor for student affairs, and Molly Bennett, the coordinator for fraternity and sorority life. It was moderated by sophomore Nkemjika Emenike, SU Senate’s Diversity and Inclusion chair.
During the panel, Wild said that even if the University eventually chooses to abolish Greek life, it would happen after continuous dialogue within the community, and likely not right away.
“The harms that happen, we all share responsibility for, and we all share responsibility for trying to fix these problems as they’re arising… But that needs to be a process, and not a moment in time where we immediately say ‘That’s it, they’re done’ because I don’t think that is actually going to, in the long-term, solve the issues that I read about on Instagram,” Wild said.
However, Wild later said that if students demonstrated a desire for their Greek organizations to be abolished, the University would respect that choice; they would not work with the national organizations to continue recruiting new members and maintain a chapter’s presence on campus.
“If students don’t want to be a part of organizations, then those organizations will go away, and we’ll bring in the kinds of organizations that students feel should be valued as part of our community,” he said.
Heusted added that any of the University’s decisions to potentially reactivate chapters after they have been deactivated would be made “with our students in mind.”
IFC Social Justice Chair junior Matthew Berman said that at this point in the call, he felt there was a change in tone in the panelists’ sentiments.
“They started with ‘We are anti abolition.’ And then they resolved to ‘If students don’t want to be a part of, or have these groups on campus, they have no place on our campus,’” Berman said to Student Life. “Yet nothing is happening with any of those sentiments… It’s just another blank promise, a lot of empty words.”
Throughout the call, the panelists emphasized their belief that it is the responsibility of the entire Washington University community to break down systems of oppression that exist on campus as a whole.
With most students physically spread out across the world right now, the campaign to abolish Greek life has circulated almost entirely through social media.
Following an anonymous July 1 post on the Instagram account @blackatwashu, an account designed for Black students and alumni to share their experiences of racism on campus, sorority Chi Omega faced pressure to disband after a member’s repeated acts of racism were detailed in a post.
The post described the member’s repeated use of the n-word while non-Black members of Chi Omega stayed silent.
The post garnered nearly 2,000 likes and 200 comments, many of which called for Chi Omega to take accountability for the member’s actions.
The next day, the Instagram account @abolishwashuwpaandifc formed, allowing anonymous users to share more stories of racism, socioeconomic exclusion, homophobia and sexual violence within Greek organizations.
As more stories were submitted, more students called for Greek life to be abolished altogether on Instagram and Twitter. Many members of Greek organizations, mainly sororities, publicly posted about their decision to leave their chapters and their support of Greek abolition.
Currently, most fraternity and sorority chapters are discussing whether to disaffiliate from their national organization, undertake reform efforts or to disband their chapter entirely. The dissolution of a chapter would require the University and the national organization to agree to revoke the chapter’s charter, an agreement between the two entities allowing the chapter to remain on campus.
While conversations about abolishing Greek life are not new, the movement has gained more nationwide momentum in recent weeks— pro-abolition Instagram pages have similarly begun to circulate at universities such as the University of Southern California, Tufts, Northwestern, Duke and Vanderbilt.
Similarly to the @blackatwashu post about Chi Omega, submissions posted to the Instagram account have demonstrated that instances of exclusivity in Greek organizations are not isolated occurrences.
A former member of sorority Kappa Delta submitted a post describing the time that an executive member of their sorority instructed the chapter not to “wear your hair messy, like in an afro” during recruitment. While the member apologized in the sorority’s group chat, her offense was swept under the rug shortly after.
According to the poster, for a low-income student, the financial aid for sorority fees was also largely insufficient — the need-based scholarships, if granted, cover only $100, while dues can add up to nearly $500 per semester for a returning member and nearly $900 for the first semester, depending on the chapter.
“I don’t know whether it was my financial background, being first generation college and a first generation American, my queerness, or my politics that left me feeling like I didn’t belong in Kappa Delta… I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders when I signed my papers to deactivate,” they wrote.
In another post, a former member of Kappa Kappa Gamma told the story of when another member referred to her as the “token Black girl” of the sorority and continued to call her “token” for the rest of the year.
“Many other girls were around when this happened and all laughed,” the member wrote in the post. “Even I did too because I felt pressured to try and fit in with these girls. I didn’t know my own worth.”
The same poster detailed their recruitment practices, which intentionally grouped together BIPOC members and paired them with potential new members of color. When she pointed this out to the rest of her chapter, she was silenced. “One girl came up to me and said, ‘Why are you so mad? Don’t you want people like you in our sorority? How do you think we convince them to join?’”
“If you do make it into Greek life, you might not experience any racism. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening all around you,” junior Maddy Molina, a recently-deactivated member of Chi Omega, wrote in a statement to Student Life, adding that she wants to take this time to amplify Black voices and be more aware of the systems she has been complicit in.
At the time of publication, there have been more than 50 submissions from current and former students posted on the account, sharing their experiences and beliefs on why Greek life should not be welcomed on campus any longer.
On July 2, the day after the @blackatwashu post went up, Chi Omega’s executive board penned a public statement that their current members would deactivate, effectively dismantling the organization for the time being.
“We do not have the power to change Nationals in the ways we need to in order to be anti-racist and an equitable institution,” the statement read. “Even when our chapter did not have racist intentions, participating in Greek life as a whole is a complicit form of racism.”
A week after Chi Omega’s deactivation statement was publicized, their president, junior Dani Worthalter, walked back this statement in an internal email to the organization announcing that Chi Omega would not disband after all.
“When Nationals chartered this chapter 17 years ago, they hoped to make active change and take a firm stand in combating systems of oppression, especially those of racism and inequality,” Worthalter wrote in the email. “Given our current situation, it feels as though we have failed; not only them, but our members of color. Moving forward, we are faced with the challenge of returning to our foundation on a local and national level, and I look forward to working towards meaningful and enduring change with all of you, in or out of Chi Omega.”
Worthalter declined to comment to Student Life.
While several sorority and fraternity chapters are considering disaffiliation from their national organization, Bennett told fraternity presidents that Campus Life will not support fraternities who disaffiliate in a meeting, July 9, according to an anonymous chapter president. They would have to apply to become a Student Union student group.
Similarly to Campus Life’s statements during the town hall, Heusted wrote in a statement to Student Life that because Greek life exists within the greater University community, working to address racism on campus as a whole would be most effective.
“The University, Student Affairs and Campus Life have been open in our acknowledgment of systems of racism and classism within our community…We believe the best path forward is to work with our students to make our campus more inclusive,” Heusted wrote. “Simply put, closing chapters does not address the systems and beliefs that are causing harm here on campus. We stand ready to work alongside our students to challenge these systems.”
She also encouraged fraternity and sorority leadership to listen to the student body and work with them to make change, and that Campus Life is available to help facilitate those discussions.
“Campus Life is always focused on improving the co-curricular community and experiences of Washington University students,” she continued. “Our partnership with the student leadership of sororities and fraternities, and all student groups, is often about challenging the status quo and making changes to improve the overall experience.”
However, for many students, including current and former members of fraternities and sororities, the issues ingrained in Greek life are past the point of reform.
“I think the excuse for a lot of people joining Greek life at Wash U., and I know it was for me, was that ‘Wash. U. Greek life is different, it’s more diverse, it’s not like big state schools,’” Emenike said in a conversation with Student Life. “But there’s still a lot of things within Greek life, such as paying dues or the obviously prevalent culture of sexual assault that just can’t be reformed. And I think that a lot of the reforms that people are proposing are a lot of things that sororities and frats have tried to implement. It just simply does not work. I think that anything good that can be taken out of Greek life doesn’t need the Greek life system…But I think there are a lot of things that, in my opinion, simply can’t be reformed.”
Emenike also emphasized that when considering options for reform or abolition, the voices of those who have experienced harm from Greek life should be prioritized.
“When we think about reform, I think there’s a lot of components to it, like who’s going to be doing the reforming? Is that going to take more energy and time out of marginalized groups, many of which who are calling for an abolition of Greek life? …If we want to hold ourselves accountable, and we really want to repair the damage that’s been done, and if we want to center marginalized voices, then we need to listen to what their demands are… because at the end of the day, the ones who are in Greek life, chances are aren’t the ones who have seen the most harm done,” Emenike said.
Most of the students who asked questions aloud or through the chat function during the panel were pro-abolition. Towards the end of the call, Emenike invited any students who favored reform to raise their concerns in the call, but no pro-reform perspectives were publicly shared, except for an anonymous message in the chat that read, “I think a lot of students are afraid to say that they think there is room for reform in the system.”