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.