Petition Status Unclear; Greek Life Discussions Inch Forward

Swarthmore's Greek organizations, Delta Upsilon, Phi Psi, and Kappa Alpha Theta, no longer face any threat of a ban. But uncertainty remains about interpretation of referendum Question 2, which asks the Greeks to go gender-neutral.

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Thursday, Joyce Wu ’15 posted a petition on the Internet asking students to support a campus-wide referendum on the following question: “Do you believe that the presence of fraternities and sororities should continue to be permitted at Swarthmore College?” The StuCo Constitution stipulates that any referendum petition that has received signatures from ten percent of the student body may be formally submitted to StuCo for a vote. Referendum votes must occur within two weeks of formal submission, and are decided by a simple majority. To take effect, one-third of the campus would need to vote in the election.

The greek life petition has received at least 180 signatures, more than enough to make a referendum possible, but Wu, the petition’s creator, has waited to formally submit. At Sunday’s StuCo meeting, she said that there would need to be campus-wide discussions, possibly including a collection and a fireside-style chat before she would submit the petition.

At Sunday night’s StuCo meeting, StuCo Co-President Victor Brady ’13 said that he and Co-President Gabby Capone ’14 planned to meet with Dean of Students Liz Braun on Wednesday to discuss the future of the referendum.

One question likely to be discussed at that meeting is whether or not students even have the power to vote away groups, though Swarthmore women voted to ban sororities in 1933. The StuCo Constitution merely states “Referendum resolutions may not supersede this Constitution”. Separately, there has been speculation on campus that the referendum cannot be phrased as an interrogative statement. Some students have speculated that greek alumni would stop making donations, much as total donations supposedly dropped after the Swarthmore football program was ended in 2000. Bowdoin College, which banned greek life in 2000, actually saw donations increase after the ban.

Few of these questions can be answered in a public forum at this time.

Both Braun and President Rebecca Chopp declined to comment at this time.

Members of Kappa Alpha Theta did not respond to requests for interviews.

Both Presidents of Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon declined to comment until they have more information from StuCo and Braun.

With many voices choosing to remain silent, attention has been focused on Wu, and the petition she created.

In an interview, Wu said that she personally hoped to see greek organizations banned from campus, but had created the petition to learn what others felt. “I see the referendum as a tool to help push discussion,” she said.

“I don’t really know what the campus climate really is, and I don’t think anybody does,” she said. “Something that I desperately want to know is what does the large part of the student body think? […] If in the end we have all these discussions and the frats and sororities stay, I will be fine with that as long as some different measures are taken to improve them.”

Parker Murray ‘15, who helped circulate the petition by email and wrote an op-ed about his experience with the frats for today’s edition of The Daily Gazette, also said hoped primarily for discussion. “Whereas originally I was really utterly opposed to fraternity life and to greek life in general,” Murray said, “I realized I wasn’t going to be able to have this bitter, negative attitude towards sororities and fraternities, and I effectively needed to channel my feelings through some sort of mode of discussion.”

He said that now is a good time to have this discussion, not only because of the referendum but also because the campus has just added a sorority. The referendum “is not just for us to say, ‘greek life is absolutely the worst thing on campus and it’s a terrible force,’ and to have the greeks say ‘we’ve been around forever and we’re not leaving–we don’t affect anybody,” he said. “We’ve all heard that before. There needs to be some sort of change of the tides and we have to come up with alternatives […] If it’s just this constant bickering, there’s really nothing.”

Wu explained that most her concerns about greek life, based on anecdotal evidence, could be roughly grouped under three categories of harassment–verbal, sexual, and physical-non-sexual.

She also expressed concern about identity-based discrimination, including homophobia, transphobia, and racism.

She said she saw a clear difference between greek parties and other parties on campus. “I think that because the fraternities and the sororities’ main goal is to be a social club, the main issues that emerge among their party culture are unique from any of the issues that occur around party culture at Swat in general. I’m not saying that these issues don’t exist outside the frats.”

That the fraternities have made efforts to address these concerns was not lost on Wu. “In terms of sexual assault, I know there are brothers that work with the SMART team, I know that at GenderFuck they have dry brothers there helping with ground patrol,” she said. “I know that around alcohol and the drinking issue, there are lots of DART-trained brothers.”

Wu also said she had spoken to a Phi Psi alumnus who claimed the current Phi Psi pledge class was the most racially and ethnically diverse class in the fraternity’s history. She said she knew there are queer frat brothers as well.

“I’m not saying we should ban the frats because trans people don’t want to join them,” she said. “I’m saying that one of the problems with the frats–which isn’t on its own a reason to ban them–is that they have a culture that is homophobic and transphobic. The fact that they have brothers of color or queer brothers does not solve that problem. So their presence does not necessarily mean that they’re not discriminatory.”

The petition’s supporters believe that the discussion they hope to see has already begun. Murray said he had recently seen one of his friends, a member of a fraternity, having a discussion with a member of the sorority “talking about what are the flaws of the greek system.” “Everybody has to do a little bit of a retrospective on their values and then evaluate these groups on campus relative to that,” he said.

Murray said if more people came forward with their particular greek life experiences, some of the serious issues could be addressed head-on. “There’s a lot of people on campus, including me, who require knowing that they’re not alone in the desire to discuss an issue in order to come forward,” he said.

Wu said that she planned to speak with members of the Administration about potential avenues for discussion. She also accepted an invitation from Isaac Epstein ‘14 to go on a tour of Delta Upsilon’s house.


  1. Having spent 4 (unaffiliated) years of my life at Swarthmore, and in that time gone to every imaginable party here, there are a couple truths about life at Swarthmore that I think we all have to acknowledge.

    Sexual assault and harassment does happen. Every week, every weekend, at the frats, at paces, walking around campus, in the dorms, in the academic buildings, in public, and in private.

    While everybody I know has had an unpleasant or threatening experience at the frats, so too has everybody I know had one of these experiences elsewhere on campus. Especially at paces or outside and around paces.

    The fact is that it isn’t greek life’s fault, and there really isn’t much they could do much to prevent sexual misconduct at their parties just as there isn’t much i20, or Deshi, or the Senior Class Officers could do to prevent it when throwing a party in paces. Sexual misconduct and partying with freely available alcohol and other substances are just two sides of the same coin. For better or worse.

    Which is all to say that the real culprit here, if people really are serious about wanting to do something about sexual misconduct on campus, is the school’s alcohol policy. The alcohol policy that is the saving grace of our social life on campus, our consequence free enabling of all students, underage included, to drink as much as they like on the weekends without paying a dime.

    That all said. I don’t think it would be right to try and take away any Swarthmore student’s right to drink without fear of suspension or expulsion for underage drinking, or of arrest by the police. While decimating the school’s social life would lead to less sexual assault and misconduct, it wouldn’t eliminate it in the end. The kids are still going to drink, find ways to party, and violate each other’s space.

    By all means have your conversation, conduct a referendum, take whatever steps you all feel necessary to legislate a solution to this. But understand that that it isn’t the frats that are at fault, and it isn’t the people providing alcohol that are at fault, it isn’t the drinkers at fault, it isn’t really even the school at fault for creating a drinking environment where people believe (almost always correctly) that they can get away with anything. There isn’t anyone you can point fingers at except the individuals that conduct themselves without compassion or care and who violate other people. And that problem can’t be dealt with via a referendum. That problem is a problem that transcends our school, our country, an every other level of human organization.

    People simply don’t always act with kindness in their hearts. And there isn’t much you can do about that other than to encourage your friends and fellow students to always think before they act.

    I look forward to seeing the direction Swarthmore takes on these issues as an alumni. Living in the real world where the stakes on issues of sexual assault and misconduct seem much higher and where there is even less that anyone can do to prevent it. If Swarthmore students can find a solution then maybe there is hope for changing our broader culture of sexual and social impropriety. Not that I am holding my breath.

    • I think we should be careful about how we talk about the specifics of the college’s alcohol policy on a public website.

      • This is the problem, the alcohol policy is so obviously a mistake people don’t even want to talk about it in public.

        • People don’t want to talk about the alcohol policy in public because they think it’s a mistake; people don’t want to talk about the alcohol policy in public because they like it and don’t want to end up in jail for underage drinking or supplying alcohol to minors.

    • I have two main thoughts in response to this comment that I would like to bring up.

      Firstly, an opinion that is certainly open for debate. I disagree with your negative characterization of the college’s alcohol policy. While I myself don’t drink and am admittedly somewhat judgmental about some people’s alcohol use, it is my impression that Swarthmore’s policies are actually positive in that they remove the clandestine atmosphere that can surround drinking at other schools (having talked to friends at other colleges) which can discourage responsible drinking. This is especially important in terms of our ability to seek help from RAs, Public Safety, Worth, etc, since we can focus on making sure people are okay without worrying about negative repercussions to them or ourselves for coming forward.

      Secondly, a concern I have. I dislike the use of alcohol as an excuse for rape/sexual assault. Surely we should not dismiss the relationship between alcohol and issues of sexual assault, but PEOPLE commit assault, not drinks. This is why I had to do a double take when I read this sentence: “Sexual misconduct and partying with freely available alcohol and other substances are just two sides of the same coin.” In fact, no, they are not; I truly believe that every individual on this campus is capable of attending an event, drinking as much as they wish, and still not committing sexual assault. Actually, this doesn’t seem like such a tall order to me! As such, I don’t like the attitude that sexual assault is inevitable and we should just throw our hands in the air. I appreciate when you later say that “There isn’t anyone you can point fingers at except the individuals that conduct themselves without compassion or care and who violate other people,” as you point out that assaults are indeed perpetrated by individuals, but I do not believe that just because we hold perpetrators accountable that we cannot also hold ourselves and other Swatties accountable for the attitudes we espouse about issues of sexual assault. I agree that Greek institutions should not be judged simply because sexual assaults occur there, but I think that we can hold them accountable for their reactions to allegations of assault and the culture of acceptance or nonacceptance of assault that they foster. And that’s all I’ll say on Greek life for the moment, or my post will become much to long.

      • ^ Ian Perkins-Taylor speaks the truth.

        If you’re going to be a shitty rapist when you’re drunk, you’ve already had that decaying mindset festering inside you.

        Which makes the fraternity brothers’ excuses for their fellow brothers’ “unfortunate” behaviors all the more sickening.

  2. Thank you Andrew for making it clear how NOT willing to engage in discussion the Greek organizations and administrators are.

    • Since the ideal forum for discussions regarding the total ban of institutions with about 130 members is an online newspaper and its anonymous message board….

  3. First they came for the football team and I did not speak out because I was not an athlete.

    Then they came for Sager and I did not speak out because I never went to the party.

    Then they came for the fraternities and I did not speak out because I was not a brother.

    Then they came for my club and there was no one left to speak out for me.

  4. I fail to see how standing up for survivors of sexual assault makes me a Nazi. I cannot believe some of what is being said in these comments.

  5. ““I don’t really know what the campus climate really is, and I don’t think anybody does,” she said. “Something that I desperately want to know is what does the large part of the student body think?”

    Here’s a thought: Let’s just do a poll. If you’re generally in favor of allowing greek life to continue in Swarthmore, vote this comment up. If you’re generally in favor of not allowing greek life to continue at Swarthmore, vote this comment down.

    • A Poll – Good idea, but this comment thread will not give you a representative sample of the Swarthmore population. 😉

    • Because thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs on the DG from the people who are most invested in this issue are clearly the best way to test the campus climate…

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