Time For A Referendum On Greek Life At Swat

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

When a group of students tried to initiate a referendum on the presence of a sorority on campus last year, they were rebuffed. The vote would not have complied with Title IX; if a referendum were to be brought on any part of Greek life, it would have to be brought on Greek life as a whole.  With that, and no further discussion, the sorority was re-established — despite extensive, campus-wide debate and a referendum to abolish it 80 years ago.  The campus has been short-changed by this process, particularly in light of widespread concerns that the administration-sanctioned fraternity spaces are intimidating, even unsafe, for certain members of our community.  A renewed conversation is in order, and there is no more powerful way to start one than with the referendum we never had — a referendum on all of Greek life.

None of our many student groups, teams, and organizations have quite the same impact on student life as do the fraternities. For those who choose to partake in college nightlife, the effect is obvious. Greek organizations host a large number of the campus parties in spaces that they control.

It is undoubtedly true that some students regard the Greek presence as a positive one. But there are concerns that these can be uncomfortable spaces, compelling some students to stay away. Even as they open their doors to all students, this atmosphere makes them exclusive.

Exclusivity is not, in and of itself, bad. Some groups’ exclusivity is used to establish closed but safe spaces based on shared identities, cultures and interests that strengthen the community through productive dialogue. But whether the fraternities fall into this category is a point of contention. Indeed, many have drawn a link between Greek organizations and incidents of intimidation of women and queer students, bringing into question whether they are safe spaces at all.

We feel that as the sorority expands the presence of Greek life on campus, it is especially pressing that these questions and concerns be aired, examined and answered. There is no more effective mechanism than a referendum on its existence to achieve this aim.

A referendum would force the community to have a serious dialogue and to review the effect these institutions have had on our school. It would force both advocates and opponents of fraternities to explain their positions to the student body. But most importantly, it would finally give all students a chance to have a say on the presence of an institution which affects their lives. Questions of whether Greek spaces are safe and tolerant apply to all who attend Swarthmore, not just those who choose to rush and attend their parties. Unless we address these now, their existence will continue to hang over the reputation of fraternities — and now the sorority — in times to come.

It was after years of careful consideration and the input of a whole community of women that sororities were abolished in 1933. The new Kappa Alpha Theta chapter was instituted in just a few months without a substantial and legitimate campus-wide dialogue, contrary to the values exhibited in past debates on Greek life.  We need to let students decide if fraternities shape the college for better or for worse, and a referendum is the best way to begin that process.

2 Comments

  1. Unless it’s possible to identify some truly unique feature of Greek organizations that separate them from other student activities, I think the idea of holding a referendum on whether to allow Greek life is unacceptable. Moreover, such a distinction would need to either explain a) why some structural, non-substantive, feature of the organizations distinguishes them (the fact that they charge dues, for instance) or b) their substance is so antithetical to Swarthmore culture they uniquely deserve the censure of the student body (explicit discrimination would qualify here).

    So, here’s why: holding a referendum on whether to allow Greek organizations operates on and institutionalizes the principle that the majority of the student body ought to be able to decide whether a subset of students are allowed to create or maintain an organization based on their shared interests. This seems extremely anti-democratic. Imagine 1950s Swarthmore— even in our liberal bastion, I imagine that a referendum like this in response to a student who desired to make an LGBTQ-related organization would result in the defeat of that organization. We might suppose that we have no need to worry about this happening— after all, Swarthmore is progressive and would never do such a thing! But,

    a) I don’t know what social movements/identity groups will emerge in the future. I can’t know with any real certainty that our supposed progressive mentality will condone such future organizations (or that our progressive mentality will be maintained at the same level it is today.

    b) Most students probably think that a conservative club, for instance, is bad for college life— it attracts a less progressive student body and probably fosters values to which most Swarthmore students object. However, it seems clear that we would not want to stifle free thought by giving the progressive student body the prerogative to ban such groups.

    It is not the job of the majority of students to decide whether a minority of students can form an organization. We cannot be confident in our everlasting ability to make such decisions well and is objectionable in principle. This seems to rule out calling for a referendum because we don’t like the culture of Greek life. Unless Greek organizations are engaging in explicitly discriminatory or violent behavior, their abstract objectionability doesn’t seem like good grounds for a referendum. I don’t think we have any basis for thinking the Fraternities are or the Sorority will be discriminatory or radically dangerous in such a manner.

    Alternatively, we might object to some structural feature of Greek life as a reason for a referendum. For instance, Greek organizations charge dues— we might object to any organization that demands dues for participation. A few thoughts:

    1. A referendum ought, then, be to prohibit organizations from charging mandatory dues so as to not wrongly single out Greek life. Any referendum targeted at just Greek organizations cannot be justified under the structural argument, as it then ought to just be this general referendum. Particularly as illustrated by the discourse occurring around campus, the Greek-targeted referendum falls into the unacceptable “bad culture” justification I explained above.

    2. I’m pretty sure lots of organizations charge dues, e.g. social dues. Maybe I’m wrong, and these are regularly waived for those unable to pay. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case universally, however. That means we should either abandon the referendum for consistency’s sake, or have a more general referendum on required club dues.

    3. If this is really our problem, we should just demand that the sorority and fraternities do what I’ve suggested before to some of the sorority leadership— maintain high dues in order to create a scholarship system whereby any applicant to the sorority who demonstrates financial need has their dues waived. The higher dues for members able to afford participation would subsidize other members. This process would, of course, have to be set up to maintain as much anonymity as possible. That, however, is an implementation problem I’m sure creative Swarthmore minds can solve, and which gets us out of the problem of dues-based exclusivity.

    OTHER ARGUMENTS PEOPLE MAKE

    1. Gender: Yeah, Greek life probably promotes bad ideas about gender. So does the conservative club or many religious groups. See my first argument: not a proper justification for allowing a majority of the student body to ban them.

    2. Parties/Social Life: Still not a good justification. But also… maybe other clubs should raise money and host more competing parties? And if Greek parties are really so pernicious for social life and people don’t want them… how about organizing a boycott? If the boycott is ineffective, that just means we were wrong to think students didn’t want this sort of social life.

    SUMMARY
    Look, I’ve never stepped foot in the Fraternities. I never will, either. That’s because I think Greek life is pernicious. Yes— I think it creates a worse campus, promotes bad values, etc (note that everyone always makes and is true: criticism of the institution doesn’t amount to criticism of all the people in it— there are good people involved in the fraternities and sororities and they are my friends and I like them). I also think that’s probably true of conservative organizations and some religious groups. That doesn’t mean I think it’s my right to sit on my progressive high horse and band together my fellow left-moralists to legislate against the existence of those groups. I’m not sufficiently confident in my own moral authority or in the future strength of progressive institutions to want to institutionalize a principle of majoritarian student control over free association on campus.

    Sadly… this is a Phoenix thread and not a DG thread so this comment will probably be largely ignored. But yeah, there’s my two cents. This might be the only possible position capable of offending all camps: Greek life is bad, and so is the referendum. Bring on the hate!

  2. I should also add that I’m totally open to hearing arguments for why Greek life is in fact explicitly discriminatory/awful in ways that distinguish it from other clubs that promote “bad ideas.” After all, I’m no fan of Greek life and would love to feel morally justified voting for the referendum… just like I wish someone could convince me it was okay to eat meat because it’s oh so delicious but oh so unethical.

    I just think that’s a pretty high bar to meet.

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