Let them be sisters: a campus-wide referendum on a sorority at the College is inappropriate

A new institution will soon join Greek life on campus. In 2013, Kappa Alpha Theta will become Swarthmore’s first sorority since 1933. Though the sisterhood has not yet begun, its very existence has been the subject of intense controversy throughout the previous school year, with scores of students opposing the presence of a sorority on campus for various reasons. Now that the administration has granted sorority advocates their green light, opponents have called for a campus-wide referendum on the issue.
Originally dubbed, “No Sorority at Swarthmore College,” but now bearing the revised title, “Call for Referendum on Sorority at Swarthmore College,” a petition published by sorority opponents has been circulating online, calling upon Student Council to “hold a referendum on whether or not students agree with the presence of a sorority at Swarthmore.”
Holding a referendum on whether or not to allow a student group to operate on campus is highly inappropriate. An issue should only go to referendum if the outcome will affect every member of the community voting. It is appropriate for such issues as national independence, or statehood. For example, come November Puerto Rico will vote on whether to become the 51st state in the Union. Becoming a state will allow Puerto Ricans to vote in presidential elections and send delegates to serve in Congress, but will also subject them to different laws and regulations than they would need to abide by as a territory. All citizens of Puerto Rico would be affected if the island became a state, so it is only fair that everyone has a say.It is inappropriate, however, to hold a referendum across an entire community when only a small segment of that community would be directly affected. One could argue that everyone in the nation, and perhaps the world, would be indirectly affected if Puerto Rico achieved statehood. Depending on the political persuasion of the delegates the new state sends to Washington, the balance of power in Congress would shift, and thereby change the content of the laws it produces for the whole nation. At its core, though, this is an issue of whether Puerto Ricans want the rights and burdens that come with being a state. It is not the business of the other fifty to interfere with the island’s choices, just as residents of Montana cannot vote in Senate elections in Massachusetts even though they may feel the repercussions of the outcome. Puerto Rico’s decision of whether or not to become a state should be its own.

The same is true for the issue of whether or not to start a sorority on campus, since the only members of the community who would be directly affected are those who decide to join. Sorority opponents voice many concerns about the as-yet-hypothetical sorority, including a too-active party culture, exclusiveness and a dislike of the word “sorority” being associated with their college. But these concerns all refer to indirect repercussions, if tangible repercussions at all.

Holding a referendum on the establishment of a sorority is somewhat akin to holding a referendum on whether to grant a community the right of same-sex marriage. The only people who would be directly affected by the establishment of a same-sex marriage right are those who choose to exercise that right. Others may be indirectly affected because it offends their moral or religious philosophy, but such concerns are not sufficient to force a referendum on the issue.

Not to mention that the concerns sorority opponents voice about the potential sisterhood are immaterial if the sorority founders are listening. Swarthmore is a college with strong values which most campus groups respect. The sorority leaders will likely go out of their way to ensure that Kappa Alpha Theta is not racist, classist or homophobic, or a breeding ground for emotional and sexual abuse, as sorority opponents fear. The College’s third Greek institution will ensure that it adds to rather than detracts from campus life and sense of community.

In the unlikely event that, after the sorority has been established for a few years, students determine that the majority of them are being negatively affected by its presence, then a referendum on its right to continue to exist might become appropriate. But at this point in time, with the sisterhood not yet off the ground, the College could not justify leaving its fate in the hands of those who have nothing to do with it.

Swarthmore ought to follow the simple, moral philosophy of live and let live, and let its students be sisters.

A Different View

Sorority requires further conversation before approvalIt’s no secret that the sorority is a contentious issue at the College. It is no small segment of the campus that has reservations about allowing more Greek life into Swarthmore. Many of their concerns, such as sororities’ histories as breeding grounds for irresponsible partying and sexual abuse, are very legitimate, and they may have been dismissed in this case.

1 Comment

  1. The real issue here is not to deny a specific group, but to start a conversation on whether the student body feels that greek life is an aspect of Swarthmore that we could perhaps do without. Should we really be forced to accept the fact that our school sponsors hazing? And should such a large percentage of our partying opportunity have to be Greek-controlled?

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