‘Founded on the principle of exclusion’: In Greek life, the harm to marginalized communities runs deeper than individual actions

| Managing Editor

Before Chi Omega’s executive board could post their original statement announcing that their members were planning to deactivate from their chapter, members of the sorority said they were locked out of their Instagram account by their national organization and prohibited from posting about their decision. Several members posted the chapter’s official statement on their personal Instagram stories, and asked other students to circulate it online.

Because the Women’s Panhellenic Association (WPA) and the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) do not have the authority to remove any individual member from a fraternity or sorority, policies and decisions regarding membership often come from the national organizations.

Junior Maria Cresci, the WPA’s Diversity and Inclusion chair, said that because each chapter has different guidelines outlined in their charter, some chapters can vote to have their charter removed entirely, and some of these chapters have recently reached out to their national organization to discuss this option.

“Nationals, in those conversations, [have] made it very clear to some of our chapters that they will continue to recruit with or without members in that chapter,” she said. “And chapters will still exist if Wash. U. chooses to recognize the chapters and charters on campus.”

In a statement to Student Life, Cresci added, “That instantly raises red flags for me. What is nationals really saying to us? That they value our opinions and are willing to reform? Or will they continue to operate as they were built to, as a business that values money over their members.”

Junior Jessica Huang, a member of Sisters of Color and recently-deactivated member of Chi Omega, said that beyond any individual’s actions, there’s a structural issue within Greek life that allows hateful actions to fly under the radar without consequences. She pointed to the fact that a Chi Omega member’s past racist actions had been reported to the president and personnel chair, but she ended up being allowed to stay anyways.

“The system in place is not there to check people, even when people report it,” Huang said. “There’s obviously a huge issue with people not holding each other accountable and just not reporting things in the first place, but there have been multiple instances where people do report and nothing happens.”

National organizations can often have different perspectives on which disciplinary measures are appropriate to take in a given situation, Huang added.

“That’s why I felt like it just didn’t seem possible to just remove [the member] from the chapter and just go on because everything — how it was dealt with, how Nationals sees it and how much they’re willing to address it and also let us make changes moving forward — is just so limiting.”

While the Greek life abolition movement has gained significant momentum over the last few weeks, it has also prompted backlash from some members of Greek life.

An anonymous member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) shared an email to Student Life that was sent to all members in his chapter from a former president. In it, the former president disparaged the Greek life abolition movement and those who have spoken out against fraternities and sororities on social media.

“I would like to say no amount of accusatory social media posts (unless they are self-incriminating) can get us kicked off campus. We will be on campus in the fall,” the former president wrote in the email. “Social media is a hodgepodge of mostly f–king asinine, unfounded, proselytizing garbage these days. People who think it’s a legit tool to bring about social change should reevaluate their motives. If you want to change the world, study hard and get a job that allows you to do so. Don’t just create an Instagram account like a lazy piece of s–t.”

In addition to handling legal fees for chapters, many of the national organizations also donate money to ensure protections for fraternity members who are accused of sexual assault.

The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FSPAC), whose mission is to “defend and enhance the fraternal experience,” is the nation’s largest political action committee wholly dedicated to higher education issues. The organization aims to maintain “due process rights” for students with pending lawsuits and the right of Greek organizations “to operate as single-sex organizations.”

The PAC has raised $714,764 in the 2020 congressional cycle alone as of June 30; the national organizations for Sigma Chi, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Delta Gamma, Gamma Phi Beta and Pi Beta Phi are among the hundreds of organizations that donated to the PAC in 2019-2020. Numerous individuals that work for Alpha Epsilon Phi, Alpha Omicron Pi, Chi Omega and Sigma Nu have donated to the PAC as well.

During this cycle, the FSPAC has contributed $220,500 to federal candidates such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, U.S. Representative Liz Cheney and Senator Rand Paul.

The PAC supported the 2015 Safe Campus Act, a bill that would prohibit colleges from pursuing internal sexual assault investigations, requiring survivors to report to law enforcement instead. Criminal cases often take years, meaning a case may not be handled until well after both the survivor and perpetrator graduate. This also forces survivors to enter a potentially retraumatizing criminal trial in order to come forward, which would likely lead to even fewer survivors reporting an already under-reported crime.

In 2012, FSPAC was able to thwart the efforts of a federal anti-hazing bill initiated by a woman whose son was killed as a result of fraternity hazing by dissuading U.S. Representative Fredericka Wilson from pursuing it. In 2020, the representative received $2,000 from the PAC.

Greek life, originally designed to preserve exclusive communities of wealthy white young men by law, now continues to exclude in a de facto manner.

For example, while only 8.5% of college men join fraternities, 85% of Fortune 500 executives were a part of Greek life during college. Further, 76% of U.S. senators and every U.S. president since 1825 (with the exception of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump) were involved in fraternity or sorority life, according to data from the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research. A 2016 study from Union College found that although joining a fraternity may lower GPA by .25 points, income rose 36% on average.

The lasting effects of these divides can still be seen today, which is notable for an institution like Washington University, where more students are from the top 1% than the bottom 60%.

Greek life has also been criticized for reinforcing a strict gender binary. Social fraternities and sororities are exempt from federal Title IX regulations on sex discrimination in higher education, allowing national organizations to set their own policies in regards to allowing gender non-binary and transgender students to join their organization. Several sororities that are present on Washington University’s campus have language in their national policies that extends membership rights to anyone who identifies as a woman, including Kappa Kappa Gamma, Delta Gamma, Pi Beta Phi, Alpha Omicron Pi, Alpha Epsilon Phi and Gamma Phi Beta, whose policy states, for example, that “in an effort to give meaning to the concept of an ‘all-women’ sorority and to give guidance to those making decisions about eligibility for membership, the word ‘woman’ should be interpreted as anyone who identifies as a woman.”

Chi Omega’s national membership policy appears less inclusive, stating,“Consistent with federal law, which recognizes the right of college social fraternities to maintain single sex membership practices, Chi Omega is a female organization.”

Even though individual chapters could have guidelines that are more inclusive than the policies dictated nationally, if a chapter were to utilize recruitment practices that were transphobic or otherwise oppressive, those members would technically not be in violation of their organization’s policies. In Washington University’s case, the decision about whether to enforce any disciplinary action would be up to the discretion of the Office of Student Conduct.

“Greek life was founded on the principle of exclusion. And if you look at the way it’s structured, even with how rigid the gender structure is, it’s 100% exclusive,” senior Mia Hamernik said. “You just have to look at the demographics of who participates. You just have to look at the financial barrier of dues. You just have to look at the numerous documented accounts of discrimination occurring within the system of Greek life, to be able to acknowledge that this is a problem.”

At Washington University, which has been made infamous in recent years for its lack of socioeconomic diversity, many argue that this type of structural exclusivity creates further divides between a wealthy white majority and marginalized communities on campus.

“I believe that there are people who participate in WPA and IFC chapters who have good intentions, who don’t want to harm people, who might be committed to actually following through with any reform efforts, if it means improving their immediate Greek life communities,” Hamernik said. “However, I also believe that in order for these reform efforts to be successful, everyone needs to be 100% committed to it. And that’s where Greek life falls short because I think it attracts a very particular type of person, one who is privileged, who has been entitled to everything their entire life. And Greek life just protects these people.”

Some sorority and fraternity members have acknowledged the racism, sexism and classism that exists within Greek life’s exclusive structure regardless of any individual member’s experience.

“The positive experience I had in my chapter does nothing to reconcile the pain Greek life inflicts on those who cannot access it and/or feel unsafe doing so,” Kennedy Morganfield, a sophomore who was a part of Pi Beta Phi, wrote in a statement to Student Life. “As a light-skinned Black woman who spent most of my life assimilating into predominantly white environments, I have an obligation to denounce the privileges this afforded me and actively render those privileges obsolete. This is more than a structural problem — I myself have prioritized my membership over my personal values, which has harmed my relationships and complicated the process of abandoning my ego. In decentering ourselves, we must abolish Greek life at Wash. U.”

National representatives from Chi Omega and Sigma Alpha Epsilon did not respond to a request for comment.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe