The summer of 2020 will go down in history as a period of institutional reckoning as Americans of all ages confront the inequalities inherent within their police departments, schools, and workplaces. For some college students, the national unrest has led to scrutiny of a more insular institution, yet one that’s rooted in America’s higher education tradition: Greek life.
Taylor, a sophomore at Mississippi State, began the school year determined to drop out of Greek life — more specifically, the historically all-white, male-dominated system of social fraternities and sororities. The 19-year-old, whose full name and gender are omitted for privacy reasons, felt compelled by calls to abolish the institution, which were being posed nationwide at campuses like American, Duke, Northeastern, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Washington University, on social media and in campus opinion pieces.
Taylor was soon confronted by the reality of what would be feasible at Mississippi State, a Southern college with a hugely influential Greek presence.
“Abolition isn’t possible, at least in the near future, because of the way it’s so ingrained within our school culture and student organizations,” Taylor told me, estimating that about a quarter of enrolled undergraduates participate in Greek life. “So 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.”
For now, Taylor is still a member of their chapter, although they quietly started @abolishmsstategreeklife on Instagram to feature student voices critical of the Greek system.
Months of protests against police brutality and racism have pushed the concept of abolition — of radically transforming the current criminal justice system — toward the mainstream; more Americans have begun to question the excesses of municipal police budgets and, specifically, policing tactics. According to abolitionists, reform is impossible because reforms have failed, time and time again.
The same abolitionist argument is currently being lobbed at the historically white Greek system, which was established in the early 19th century as a sort of secret society for US college-educated men. Nationwide, students are rallying around the slogan “Abolish Greek Life,” establishing Instagram accounts that display anonymous student testimonies and informational slides on the many human and financial costs of the system.
Many involved in Greek life, in addition to unaffiliated students, are now questioning the basis of its existence while weighing the decades of baked-in harm it has imposed on students. The history of racism, sexism, classism, and mental and physical abuse within these organizations is hard to ignore.
A handful of fraternity and sorority chapters at certain campuses, like American, are publicly disbanding or having conversations about disbanding. At Northwestern, about 75 percent of Sigma Nu fraternity members have disaffiliated, including its former president, the Daily Northwestern reported. The Panhellenic Council at Tufts, which oversees its sorority system, announced in late July that it would suspend fall recruitment — something that also occurred in spring 2017 — to reflect and educate themselves “on the structurally and situationally problematic nature of Greek life.”
That internal push is one some experts have not witnessed before from members, who have historically been hostile to criticism. (A student exodus also occurred during the 1960s civil rights movement, the New York Times reported.) But the mobilization necessary to excise Greek life entirely from the American college education system is much more complex and difficult to achieve compared to these grassroots efforts. While members could withdraw from their campus’s chapter or vote to dissolve it, the national organization can still deploy resources to recruit new members and rebuild the chapter in later years.
For student activists, however, the ongoing movement is not defined by the odds against them but the piecemeal progress made so far, campus by campus. “I think this movement is on the right side of history,” said Roy, the anonymous student behind the national Abolish Greek Life movement and Instagram account. “We’ve seen this formally done at Swarthmore, Colby, and Williams, so there’s no reason to believe that fraternity and sorority life can’t disappear eventually.”
A rebellious history
For white men, fraternities have historically produced a long list of leaders in business, law, and politics: “An astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen, and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities,” the Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan reported. The revolving door of influence that surrounds fraternities, arguably the bulwark of the Greek system, is ironic in retrospect, considering their highly exclusive and secretive origins.
“These groups, which have always been exclusive by definition, were a way for men to express their independence and rebelliousness against an institution that said they couldn’t exist,” Nicholas Syrett, a historian who has published a book on the history of white college fraternities, told me. “They started in secrecy, until the first and second generation of men who entered frats became professors and college admins, who became much more sympathetic to their cause.”
This relationship gradually became more symbiotic and less hostile, and in the late 19th century, sororities were established as a sort of “sister” group that men socialized with.
Yet the debate over Greek life — primarily the purpose of frats — has been around since its conception. They’ve drawn comparisons to gangs, in light of a harsh pledging process that theoretically inspires loyalty to one’s house.
One former member of American University’s Delta Tau Delta chapter recently told the Washington Post, “The pressure was on those of us in Greek life to justify our existence and we couldn’t do it. … I realized that remaining complicit in the system was a moral issue, and it was one I could not live with.”
Only a small minority of undergraduate students go Greek, despite outsized media attention on the system: The National Panhellenic Conference has about 400,000 sorority members nationwide while the North American Interfraternity Conference (NAIC) has about 384,000. But beyond membership numbers, there isn’t comprehensive data on the Greek system in the US; few campuses provide a clear demographic breakdown of members by ethnicity or socioeconomic standing, and things like membership dues and housing fees aren’t widely publicized.
It has taken decades for a body of research and reporting to emerge that quantifies the system’s social and physical harms: A 1993 Harvard study found that four out of five fraternity or sorority members were binge drinkers. Women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women. In a 2013 survey distributed to over 200,000 Greek life members at nine public universities, about 72 percent self-identified as middle- or upper-middle class, while only 18 percent and 6 percent categorized themselves as working-class or low-income, respectively.
Beyond these statistics, frats and sororities have a documented history of exclusion, especially toward non-white members. Students of color say racial bias still persists in the rush process, and almost every year, a fraternity is in the news for engaging in blatantly racist behavior.
Usually, it requires a shocking national incident — usually a death or severe accident — affiliated with Greek life to spur this cycle of conversation. (Syrett himself was interviewed in a 2014 Business Insider story with the headline, “Why fraternities will never disappear from American college life.”) But after the chapter suspensions are handed down and schools publicized stricter policies, the Greek system still appears to be intact.
The Greek system has extensive financial ties. Colleges have no interest in getting rid of them.
If Greek life is so troublesome — as a hot spot for sexual assault, hazing, and civil lawsuits — why have most universities not taken a hardline stance against its existence? The short answer is money.
“Many of these fraternities and sororities have been on campuses for decades, and that’s led them to accumulate a strong alumni network that can be tapped as donors,” said Noah Drezner, a Columbia associate professor of higher education who researches alumni giving. “I would say that Greek alumni are disproportionately represented on trustee boards and in administrative positions.” It’s not in a college’s financial interest to anger or alienate their donors, he added.
Fraternities and sororities traditionally offer housing for students, a boon for universities, and wealthy alumni often pitch in funds for the construction of chapter houses and the land they reside on. Frats own about $3 billion worth of real estate across 800 US campuses, reported Bloomberg’s John Hechinger in his book True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of American Fraternities.
This funding is key in small college towns where housing is limited and most members live together. If, for example, a university sought to disband a fraternity, it would then have to purchase the house (or the parcel of land) to turn into student housing.
“The thing is, students in Greek life are richer to begin with, but they also may be more loyal monetarily,” said Syrett. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: As members graduate, some return as generous donors, eager to become beneficiaries for the next generation. And with money comes power — at both the student and institutional level.
The University of Alabama is an extreme case of how Greek organizations can harness their influence: For over a century, an informal underground society called “The Machine” has allegedly influenced how members, who comprise over 34 percent of the undergraduate population, vote in campus and local city elections. These students are, according to AI.com, “a powerful bloc of voters from fraternities and sororities” who have reportedly used intimidation and voter coercion tactics.
Part of a member’s dues toward the national organizations could also become contributions to the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, or FratPAC, which has historically donated a majority of its funds to Republican candidates and lobbied for pro-Greek legislation. “By remaining in these organizations, both through your membership and your financial contributions, you are allowing these organizations to influence politics and races in ways that may not align with your own opinions,” read one post from Richmond University’s “Abolish Greek Life” account.
Even at the chapter level, “Greek life is terrified of lawsuits,” said Gwendolyn Strasberg, a junior at the University of Southern California who recently dropped her sorority. “They have lawyers on retainer, ready to work if there are any actions that make them look bad.” Several Greek organizations at USC filed lawsuits against the university in 2019 after administrators set forth new recruitment standards that deferred the rush process from fall to spring. “Greek life is more than just influence at schools,” Strasburg added. “There is a political presence, and ultimately these organizations want to maximize their influence.”
How the coronavirus and the abolitionist movement could impact Greek life’s future
Many former members like Strasburg are cutting ties to the national chapter, highlighting certain nefarious aspects of Greek life that are typically swept under the rug: rampant misogyny in frat culture, body shaming, popular hazing practices, substance abuse, and more.
Although some students have voiced their support of eventual abolition, they are advocating for different solutions. Some like Strasburg see disaffiliation as the answer, since the culture is “beyond the capacity for reform.” Others like Taylor, the student at Mississippi State, believe their internal efforts could improve a system that is an entrenched aspect of campus life. In recent weeks, several fraternity and sorority group chats have been leaked online, which suggests that a few active members are exposing these behaviors, although it’s unclear if their goal is for their chapters to be abolished or reformed.
“Greek life is spending all of its energy fighting people like me who are speaking out, rather than looking to fix the system,” said Strasburg, who says she has faced online attacks for her beliefs. “How do you enforce anti-racist policies when half of Greek life centers around alcohol and intoxication? Can you hold people to these standards when they’re in an altered mindset?”
The response to “Abolish Greek Life” has similarly varied by campus; some chapters are acknowledging the validity of certain criticisms, while others are moving ahead with fall recruitment and actively ignoring the burgeoning movement. And as much as Vanderbilt is a poster child for Greek life abolition, students on campuses like USC or the University of Georgia with a well-known fraternity and sorority presence are reacting more negatively. This reaction in defense of the system is why Strasburg and Taylor are doubtful of change.
“I do believe that most adults who lead the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils work tirelessly to improve Greek life from within,” Taylor told me. “But no one’s ever seen those results, which is why people are turning to abolition.” Yet according to some former Vanderbilt Delta Tau Delta members, who approached the school’s Greek life director and the national organization, they felt their concerns were dismissed, the Times reported.
The North American Interfraternity and the National Panhellenic Conferences, two national groups that oversee most existing fraternities and sororities, have maintained that abolition is “not going to happen,” according to the Washington Post, and that those disaffiliating are among a small minority.
“Abolishing fraternities is not the answer to addressing cultural challenges across campus,” wrote Todd Shelton, a spokesperson for the NAIC, in an email. “The vast majority of students involved in fraternities want to work through their organizations to improve campus culture by enhancing diversity, inclusion and respect for all students.”
And while the National Panhellenic Conference didn’t address the concept of abolition, CEO Dani Weatherford admitted that sororities “must reckon with the legacy and manifestations of systemic racism and other forms of bias that impact the sorority experience.” In August, the organization formed an “access and equity advisory committee” to improve the recruitment process with the aim to “eliminate structural and systemic barriers.”
The coronavirus pandemic, however, could very well be a factor in the decline of Greek life. Colleges across the country have seen Covid-19 clusters emerge in student housing facilities and fraternity and sorority houses, some of which have not ceased in-person recruitment or social events. The Times’s coronavirus tracker has identified at least 251 cases tied to Greek members.
Plus, the pandemic has exacerbated financial stressors on students, particularly those from lower-income or middle-class families, who might no longer be able to afford Greek life membership dues. (Dues and additional fees for housing, meals, and apparel vary from chapter to chapter, but members are expected to pay about $500 to $1,500 per semester.)
“The coronavirus could stress the relationship between higher education institutions and Greek life, specifically because of the many risks that fraternities and sororities exacerbate on college campuses,” said Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Tulane University who has advocated for Greek abolition. “We’ve adapted to those threats — the rise of sexual violence and physical harm to students — and have accepted them as a cost of doing business in higher ed. But Covid introduces another risk that’s especially dangerous.”
Universities tend to tolerate the Greek system, Wade said, but in recent years, administrators have cracked down on fraternities and sororities. Some schools began monitoring parties in 2017, and at campuses with severe allegations of hazing and sexual assault, fraternity activity was entirely suspended. Public university presidents even attended a conference on Greek life in 2018 as part of an effort to create a nationwide Greek chapter scorecard to track student misbehavior. (Penn State’s newly established Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform is in charge of collecting data for the national scorecard, but it has not yet published a public annual report since its 2019 launch.)
In the meantime, the coronavirus will likely remain the top priority of administrators nationwide, but it could be an unexpected accelerant in the favor of Greek life abolitionists. This time feels different, students say. “That’s what everyone hopes, right? That this time, we’re a little better and society is willing to demand and make more change,” Taylor said. “I’d rather fight a losing battle than sit passively on the wrong side.”