The cliquishness, classism, and racial insensitivities of Greek life have never exactly been hidden. So it’s no surprise that the racial justice protests in summer 2020 combined with a pandemic affecting all college students has sparked a new wave of anti-Greek sentiment over the past year.
But instead of concerned parents or annoyed neighbors bringing attention to the dangers of fraternities and sororities, it’s college students who have been at the forefront of the call to abolish them. Students are quick to point out that these are institutions established for and by white men from a higher social class, where racism, rape culture, and classism are not unfortunate side effects but direct consequences of the system. And more recently, colleges have been forced to deal with the results of fraternities ignoring coronavirus restrictions in favor of holding large gatherings: campus-wide Covid-19 outbreaks.
After joining a sorority, Ann Marie Elpa, whose Filipino parents immigrated to Canada, wrote about her realization that “the system was not built for individuals like [her]” in a HuffPost op-ed. The fact that many students of color feel similarly is not an accident. Fraternities were founded on the principles of racial exclusion, many of which can still be seen today, in practices such as “Old South” parades and students in blackface. In fact, senior surveys of the classes of 2009 and 2010 at Princeton University found that 77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members were white.
Then there is the longstanding problem of sexual assault in Greek life. Women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women — and some of this treatment of women is baked into the culture and system itself. For example, the National Panhellenic Conference, an organization that oversees 26 women’s sororities at colleges in the US and Canada, bans alcohol in sorority houses, which by extension means that instead of throwing their own soirees, members have to attend frat parties. “This means that the women have to go into fraternities, into men’s homes,” said Natalie Chun, a student at Northwestern University. “Just being in those spaces can be very unsafe and open up possibilities for sexual assault.”
Greek life is discriminatory in another way, too: the heavy monetary dues. Fraternities and sororities require payment from their members to cover things such as social events, athletic programs, house maintenance, and general operations. The total cost varies: According to Campus Explorer, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill estimates that average costs for new fraternity members are $1,631 per year, while the cost of membership at a Kansas University frat (including room and board) is $5,300. This built-in barrier that prevents many students from joining is actually to the school’s advantage — it promotes a cycle fed by rich college kids craving an elite experience who are likely to become donors after graduation.
The ”abolish Greek life” movement has been gaining popularity and support over the past year, encouraging current and former Greek members to talk about the social exclusion, sexual coercion, and microaggressions they faced. But activism has extended beyond social media. Fariha Rahman, a student at American University who writes for the school’s newspaper, said, “I feel like there was this expectation of people to disaffiliate.” At AU alone, Rahman told me, two sororities and one fraternity were forced to dissolve because their membership numbers ran too low. At Vanderbilt University, more than 300 Greek members have dropped; meanwhile, Northwestern University’s Sigma Nu chapter suffered a loss of about 75 percent of its pledges, and dropout numbers across the country continue to rise.
Hank Nuwer, a founding board member of HazingPrevention.org and an emeritus professor of journalism at Franklin College, is cautiously optimistic. Although he believes disaffiliation can bring good on an individual level, once the students who care about change leave, “You’re left with the students who want to stick with the status quo,” Nuwer said. This means that, while it’s a start, Greek members simply leaving will not solve the problems inherent in Greek life. These problems intersect, Nuwer said, and must be addressed together. “You can’t address just the racism issue, the alcohol issue, or the hazing issue. A myriad number has to all be attacked at once,” he added.
I spoke to three college students who joined this wave of disaffiliation to find out why they chose to leave. Their stories have been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
“We’re part of the problem”
Will Gatling, 20, Thomas Jefferson University
One of the red flags was the willful ignorance in my frat. There was this kid in my law class who I saw every day, hung out with and partied with, and then during the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer, somebody posted screenshots of him texting the n-word in a group chat. This guy is white, and he’s a very promising kid. Like, he’s had internships with the governor, the mayor of New Jersey — he’s going places for sure. When I saw what he did, I thought, we don’t need one more person who’s going to get away with ignorance like this get put into a position of power and then be able to make decisions that are going to affect communities like mine.
Being a Black person, I needed to do something because silence was like compliance at that point. So I reposted the screenshots on my social media and got the school involved. What really rubbed me the wrong way was the silence from my fraternity. They didn’t support me at all. If you’re my brothers, you would be speaking out on issues like this with me. You wouldn’t be silent or have an issue with me talking about it.
After I decided to leave my frat, they basically disowned me. I was friends with these people even outside the frat house, and we’re supposed to be brothers, right? But I haven’t heard from them in, like, six months. To be honest, though, I knew almost right after I got into my frat that it wasn’t for me. I was interning at a homeless shelter and involved in student organizations on campus on top of studying law, and those types of things weren’t valued in my frat.
And there were other red flags. I realized the hypocrisy in this system because there are these values that we’re supposed to learn before we join the frat — what a man is and how he’s supposed to behave — and no one ends up meeting those standards. None of them follow that.
One time my friend told me about this experience that she had at a party, where one of the frat brothers was pressuring her and trying to take her upstairs, even though she was under the influence and didn’t want to go with him. It got to the point where she didn’t feel comfortable coming to any of our parties anymore.
And I didn’t bring that up. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even talk to my brothers about it — like, that’s the problem. We’re part of the problem. No one wants to do anything about it because they don’t want Greek life and party culture to get shut down. They feel like they’re taking something away from everybody by speaking up. But that something is not important. What’s important is for everybody to be safe. That’s why I left.
“The system as a whole doesn’t protect us”
Natalie Chun, 22, Northwestern University
Even though it was about 75 percent white, the sorority I joined didn’t feel like the typical sorority you see in the movies. I met so many great people and ended up joining the executive council as the education vice president, so I was pretty involved right up until I left. Looking back on my time there, I think, yes, I had an overall positive experience — but at what cost?
It all changed last summer, when we posted a graphic on Instagram addressing Black Lives Matter and showing our support for our Black sisters. Pretty quickly, the post got a ton of comments from current and former members who said we were being hypocrites for claiming to be supportive when they had experienced heavy discrimination and racial violence while they were part of the sorority.
We started looking into the comments and trying to figure out how to report people and help students who had been harassed. Then we started getting emails from alums who had been part of the sorority, and they told us that we should consider disbanding because of the harm that we caused as a group. Honestly, we didn’t know that was an option, but we voted on it, and the majority of our chapter agreed to disband.
I don’t know if everyone had the right intentions, like some might have voted just so they wouldn’t be on the wrong side of the conversation. Northwestern is an overwhelmingly liberal school, and when people say something is racist, the people who disagree will get quiet.
There’s an overall trend with Greek life, which is a lack of accountability, especially for fraternities. There’s this power dynamic where rich white men get to do whatever they want. Overwhelmingly, we’ve seen this with sexual assault, and if you look into the insurance costs for frats, you’ll see that there’s a lot of preparation in case a fraternity gets sued. The amount of effort that’s put into protecting fraternity members above the women they sexually assault is so disturbing.
Now it’s extended to Covid-19 restrictions. I regularly walk by off-campus frat houses hosting parties that are definitely too big. There is already an understanding on campus that frat members are going to do what they want and not face consequences, so to me, it totally makes sense that they would be spreading Covid and not caring or getting in trouble.
One of the good things to come from last summer and our sorority’s disaffiliation was that we got the chance to reflect on our community and figure out what’s causing harm, and I think we can clearly see that the institution of Greek life is causing harm.
A huge part of this for me was realizing that we don’t have a system to protect each other, and the system as a whole doesn’t protect us.
“It’s like an extension of high school — the same social hierarchy exists”
Emily Shiroff, 18, Vanderbilt University
I was bullied really badly in high school, so I wanted to build better relationships in college. My dad was in a fraternity, and I’ve seen the bond that he still has with his frat brothers, so I thought I could find the same. But Greek life has not changed with society in the ways it should, and when I decided to rush, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
Rush week started the weekend before classes began in January, and I dropped out after only two days. I remember walking into the first house and the judgment in the air was instantly so clear. I had just gotten glasses and since it was a new prescription, I didn’t want to wear contacts yet. A girl said to me, “Wow, you’re one of the only girls I’ve seen wearing glasses during rush. You’re really brave.” I was so confused. I’m brave for wanting to see? Another girl asked me what my favorite vacation I’d ever been on was, and I told her I really liked Rehoboth Beach and LA. She asked, “Oh, you’ve never been to Europe? My family’s been to Europe, like, five times. I haven’t met many people who have never been.” You’re not supposed to bring up money during rush, so I just had to brush it off. But I knew I couldn’t be part of an environment like this, and I decided to drop.
The movement to abolish Greek life at Vanderbilt gained traction in May 2020 because of a video that surfaced from spring break. A bunch of white Greek students were having a party and screaming the n-word. I was shocked because Vanderbilt knew about it but the frat and sorority chapters involved stayed on campus. At the end of the day, we all know it’s because of the money. Most students in Greek life have a financial head start, so they’re the ones who will donate back to Vanderbilt, which makes it hard to abolish them.
Most students who aren’t in Greek life want it gone, but it’s intimidating because those in Greek life are the most powerful students on campus. It’s like an extension of high school — the same social hierarchy exists. Girls who were in the popular cliques join sororities, and guys who were on the football team join frats. They have money, social capital, and influence, so it can be scary. I really don’t care about what a bunch of frat boys think of me, though, so I have no issue getting involved with the movement.
I think abolishment is possible. At a school like Vanderbilt, it’s going to depend on how educated the incoming freshmen are about the problems inherent in Greek life. But there will always be schools where people don’t really care about the issues that they’re perpetuating.