Following a summer of mass deactivations, Campus Life considers next steps for Greek Life
Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of sexual violence. If you or someone you know is struggling, resources are listed at the bottom of this page.
Over 50% of fraternity and sorority members at Washington University have permanently deactivated from their organization since the summer, according to Leslie Heusted, executive director for Campus Life. This number has continued to fluctuate over the past few months, despite active membership remaining in every Greek organization on campus.
After a summer of students pointing out the systemic oppression present within the Greek system and calling for the abolition of fraternities and sororities, many questions remain about the future of Greek Life as the school year begins.
Systems of oppression present within Greek Life organizations drew schoolwide and national attention beginning in July, as students spoke up about experiences of racism, sexism, classism and heteronormativity that went ignored in their chapters and by the University. Posts submitted to the @abolishwashuwpaandifc, @blackatwashu and @metoo_washu Instagram accounts served as a jumping-off point for many of these discussions. Meanwhile, similar accounts and organizing sprang up at the University of Missouri, Vanderbilt University, the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford University, among many others, prompting national coverage and attention.
At Washington University specifically, the public opinion of Greek Life for those involved began to shift seemingly overnight—members of Greek organizations began to deactivate en masse, calling for the abolition of the organizations they were a part of just weeks before.
Campus Life is also experiencing staffing shifts. Molly Bennett, the coordinator for fraternity and sorority life, left the University, Sept. 25. Bennett declined to comment to Student Life. Associate Director for Campus Life Beth Doores is expected to step into her position for the time being.
65.13% of the respondents to a Student Union survey of the student body in July expressed that they were in favor of abolition, similar to the 57.73% of sorority members that favored abolition. However, only 20.69% of fraternity members at the time supported abolition.
This semester, Campus Life has assembled a co-curricular advocacy board that will consist of 30 students that will discuss ideas for how the University should move forward. The group will start meeting during the first week of October. Their goal is to propose an action plan by Dec. 1 and begin to implement it in spring 2021.
“It’s just a very challenging issue because people are so divided on it,” Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild said, in reference to the perspectives voiced during a July 14 town hall addressing these issues and with students who followed up with him. “I think one of the struggles we’re having, somewhat related to the pandemic environment that we’re in, is finding meaningful spaces for people on both sides of this to come together and really hear each other.”
When Student Life spoke to the Interfraternity Council’s (IFC) Social Justice Chair junior Matthew Berman in July, he said that abolition was not on the table at all for most fraternities.
“The trend within IFC is very significantly toward continuity and reform,” Berman said. “So whereas things are looking very pro-abolition, or at least disbandment or disaffiliation, on the Panhellenic side of things, the majority of IFC chapter members who have remained within their chapters thus far are those who want to promote continuity and reform within their chapters. And those individuals who have been pro-abolition have either actively deactivated by this point in time, or are planning a mass-deactivation date for the coming few weeks.”
Berman voiced his support for abolition in a statement to Student Life, and raised concerns about the pro-reform stance that fraternities are taking.
“This makes me, and many others, fearful of the self-serving echo chamber which will likely arise within the IFC community,” he wrote. “Those who support abolition are, in large part, chapter and community leaders and activists, and yet even with these individuals at the forefront of deactivation, pro-continuity community members seem adamant to reform. I’m just left asking—for who?”
Greek Life reform efforts of the past few years have yet to see significant results at the University. Along with racism, fraternities on campus have been called out for sexual violence within their chapters time and time again. A 2018 WPA survey revealed that instances of fraternity members committing sexual violence against sorority members extended to every chapter on campus. Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) and Alpha Epsilon Pi tied for the highest instances of nonconsensual sexual contact throughout all Greek organizations.
On June 29, SAE announced a set of new policies that would require the bystander intervention chair to undergo training in interpersonal violence and discussion facilitation starting this semester.
According to an anonymous former SAE member, these policy ideas arose from discussions about the sexual assault rates in the WPA survey, but were not announced until this summer, two years about the survey results were publicized. The member characterized a sense of ambivalence towards meaningful reform within the chapter at that time.
“I remember people being way more upset about the display that was put outside with the roses and everything than they were about the numbers themselves,” he said, referring to a spring 2019 art installation placed outside of fraternity housing that represented the results of the survey with bars representing the ratio of reported sexual assaults in each fraternity. The SAE president at the time removed the display when it first went up before putting it back later that night.
“People were trying to defend and justify, people were saying, ‘Because people know SAE’s national reputation, they might come to a party at our house and perceive something to be creepy when it’s not, just because they go into [it with] the expectation that SAE is going to be creepy.’ That’s not how it works,” the member said.
When SAE developed a sexual assault and harrassment self-reporting tool in 2018, Campus Life deactivated it because as undergraduate students, the fraternity members do not possess the training required to launch investigations into allegations. However, no similar tools have been publicly announced by any chapters or Campus Life in the following months. Since then, the topic of sexual violence in fraternities gained widespread attention on campus once again in February, when Kappa Sigma knowingly extended bids to students who were accused of sexual assault.
In fraternity Beta Theta Pi, 80% of their membership at the beginning of the summer had permanently deactivated by mid-August, including several executive board members. Former President senior Brandon Jones noted that from the IFC meetings he attended this summer before deactivating, most of the people advocating for reform were not offering solid ideas or ways to approach actually doing the work.
“If you’re not listening to the people who want change, what kind of change are you actually going to affect?” Jones said. “There’s nobody who’s coming out and saying, ‘Okay, I’m the president of this organization. I’m on the side of reform, what can I do? How can we actually change our organization?’”
In favor of abolition, Jones said that he did not believe Greek Life could be genuinely reformed at the University, and pointed to the fact that students generally do not have the time needed to fully dedicate their attention to transforming the system and fully listening to the student body.
“Maybe that’s why the abolition movement has lost some steam and also why you never see actual reform in the Greek community. Because true reform would require a dedicated effort from every member of the chapter,” Jones said. “As far as implementation goes, that takes entire semesters, entire academic years. And people are busy; people go to class and do homework and are up late and come back and they don’t have time for a meeting or whatever. I think that’s part of the reason why they shouldn’t exist—I don’t even think there’s a chance for reform.”
In August, 82.5% of the members of the sorority Kappa Delta (KD) voted to submit a petition to surrender their charter to their national organization, according to President junior Laurel Levinsohn. If successful, the petition, which is still pending, would allow them to formally close the Washington University chapter and create a new organization in its place. Right now, their national organization is in the process of interviewing every member of the sorority to see if there are a significant number of members interested in remaining in the chapter to focus on reform over abolition. The sorority will be notified of the decision after a majority vote from alumni and a unanimous vote from the National Council.
Currently, KD, along with Kappa Kappa Gamma, are both listed on Campus Life’s website as being “not in good standing” with the University due to “restricted status” from their national organization. Heusted denied any relationship between these organizations’ standings and any efforts to mass-deactivate and disaffiliate.
Kawanna Leggett, the interim dean of students, emphasized that the issue is more complicated and involves more considerations than just the decision to reform or abolish Greek Life. She said that one of Campus Life’s focuses over the course of the semester will be to find ways for students, regardless of their position, to come together to help shape the campus experience for the future.
“I think this is a very trying time, for a number of reasons,” Leggett said. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic that has changed the course of how we operate. We have significant racial tension and climate issues around the death of Black lives. And that has all bubbled up into this conversation. And so I think our students are feeling lots of pain and anger about what’s happening in the world, and also really finding their voice about how we can make change on our own campuses.”
Wild said that the University’s stance in creating student groups has always been student-driven, and pointed out that the University’s initial choice to add Greek chapters to campus was guided by student interest at that time.
“And we’ve supported that, just like we’ve supported a cappella groups and Uncle Joe’s and EST and all the other many things that students have brought forward,” Wild said. “Now we do have a responsibility as an institution to hold student groups accountable to University values, which is why this conversation is so challenging. And we have systems in place through the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, through Campus Life, when there are incidents and issues that are brought to our attention that violate expectations.”
He said that because systemic oppression also occurs outside of Greek Life and the University, conversations of how to proceed are made more difficult. He added that while the information from SU’s survey and additional input from the student body are useful, they will not solely drive any decisions.
“Should you, because a majority of students are not interested in that organization, get rid of it? You know, we wouldn’t do that to other organizations on our campus,” Wild said. “That’s why we’re trying to get away from a majority rule conversation…I think it was a useful survey. And I think it informs where we are and how difficult this conversation is going to be for us as we move forward.”
Many students, whether they favor abolition or reform, have voiced the opinion that they want to see more of a response from the University. WPA President junior Emily Regan said that in making efforts to repair damage done to marginalized communities, the University needs to take an active role and not rely solely on students to change the culture surrounding Greek Life.
“I think they’re very much trying to pass the buck to us, saying ‘This is your problem, you created it.’ But the reality is the administration decided to have these charters, they’re the ones that are paying nationals to have these charters on our campus. So it’s also their problem, and they are responsible for perpetrating these same systems of oppression that we’ve all bought into,” Regan said. “I think it’s really important to note that this is just as much the University’s issue to deal with as it is WPA and IFC members. By them saying ‘It’s not our job to abolish or we don’t want to abolish,’ I think that definitely ignores that they have a stake in the issue and are very capable of abolishing Greek Life to begin to fix it.”
Sisters of Color (SOC) President senior Caitlyn Johnson wrote in a statement to Student Life that the organization’s efforts in the past four years to make Greek Life a more inclusive space have historically been met with low student engagement.
“I am struggling to determine if the conversations happening right now are more performative than genuine,” Johnson, who is a member of Kappa Delta, wrote in July. “It is extremely frustrating that it has taken so much to get people to finally care about diversity. I also wonder if this is temporary because of the current climate of the U.S. or if people really are committed to doing the work it would require to reform the system.”
Senior Mia Hamernik said over the summer that while she has seen more students engaging with this issue than several issues in the past, she was not fully confident that the momentum would continue offline.
“Students [at Washington University] hold themselves in a high regard, and because they believe themselves to be free of these racist ideologies, they view themselves as exempt of having to engage or having to really analyze or think about themselves in the context of racism in the United States,” Hamernik said. “Regarding this current moment, I am honestly overwhelmed by how much people are speaking up and taking action because of Wash. U.’s history of not fully engaging or even participating in protests. I think it’s difficult to measure the commitment of students right now because I think it’s one thing to be vocal online and a completely different thing to take action and engage with your community in a physical sense.”
Johnson said that she has mixed feelings on whether Greek organizations would do the work required to educate their members and hold them accountable for their actions.
“The only way I think Greek Life should be able to continue at Wash. U. is if these organizations truly commit their energy to working with their national organizations to truly make a more inclusive environment rather than a diverse one,” she wrote. “Because too often, diversity is assumed to be enough, but it is important that chapter members are committed to ensuring that their members of color, LGBTQ[IA*] members, etc. truly feel comfortable being a part of the organization.”
Editor’s Note: The Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H) provides confidential and anonymous support and can be reached at 314-935-8080 24 /7 during the fall and spring academic semesters.
There are counselors at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center, located in Seigle Hall, Suite 435, available confidentially to any University student. The office can be reached at tel:314-935-3445 or by email at mailto:[email protected].
The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at tel:1-800-656-4673 or via online chat at https://hotline.rainn.org/online 24/7.