Greek Life Referendum a Dangerous Precedent

Over the last week, debates over Greek life have revealed the intense divide between those for and against the institution. The Phoenix’s staff editorial last week calling for a referendum to ban all Greek life opened the floodgates. Within a day after the editorial was published, a formal petition began circulating online. By now, we are all aware of the petition’s intent: to force a referendum on banning fraternities and sororities from our campus.

The petition requires signatures from ten percent of the student body before a formal referendum can be submitted to Student Council. This mark has already been reached, and the students behind the petition have organized a meeting tonight to plan the referendum. Rather than trying to start a dialogue, the meeting appears to be a strategy session to gauge support before the referendum is formally submitted to Student Council. Once submission occurs, voting will commence within two weeks.

Many of the same students behind the petition attempted to prevent a chapter of the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta from coming to campus last year. This attempt could not succeed because of Title IX. The campus already has two fraternities, making it impossible by law to prevent a sorority’s existence. With Kappa Alpha Theta now established, this new effort to ban Greek Life as a whole has been launched with a scathing rebuke of both the individuals involved in Greek Life, and the institution itself.

The debate is showcasing the worst of Swarthmore: an exclusive community looking to reject ideas and social practices contrary to some ideal manufactured vision. Reading through the comments on the petition, I am struck by the number of unfounded assumptions made about the fraternities and sorority. Accusations of misogyny and homophobia abound; many of my fellow students are decrying Greek life as contrary to utopian “Swarthmore values.”

Aaron Kroeber ’16 writes, “Greek life supports a culture of division, of drawing lines between peers. The college has no place endorsing such behavior, particularly by giving them their own space…There is no place for exclusionary, divisive organizations at a college that seeks to be all-inclusive.” (Aaron Kroeber is a columnist and Assistant Opinions Editor for The Phoenix.)

An anonymous commenter writes, “Social grandstanding, attention grabbing, and exclusivity. These are the three main facets of Greek life, and they really only serve the function of over inflating egos and making life miserable for those of us who do not wish to be part of it.”

The referendum presented by people uncomfortable with Greek life demands jettisoning the practice from our community, rather than asking for a rational dialogue between the two sides. A open campus forum between the fraternities and sorority leadership and a couple of individuals opposed to Greek life would be a more appropriate way to reach a common understanding and talk reform. Instead, those behind the petition have opted for an uncompromising confrontational approach. Last week’s Phoenix editorial naïvely claimed that a referendum to end Greek life would be a powerful means to initiate “a renewed conversation” on the issue. Threatening to disband Greek life altogether seems to have instead prompted unfair accusations against member of the Greek life community, and put ending Greek life on the agenda, rather than inciting a respectful campus dialogue.

Missing from the current conversation are the potential implications of the referendum. The “tyranny of the majority” in a democracy that Founding Father James Madison and others warned of seems ever-present in our consensus-oriented Swarthmore referendum structure.

“Minority” at Swarthmore is, for the most, reserved exclusively to describe ethnic or racial minorities. We forget that there are many other minority groups on campus, whether for ideological or social reasons. Those who participate in Greek life in an official capacity, the members of the fraternities and sorority, are in the minority. In the case that the referendum received the simple majority vote needed to pass, would association rights actually be denied to particular members of our community who want to be part of Greek life? Could other groups be denied the same association rights by a simple majority referendum vote in the future?

I worry about groups like the Swarthmore Conservative Society, a group that most of the campus disagrees with, being subjected to a referendum. Other students have mentioned this concern at the recent Student Council meeting and on the Daily Gazette. Even these defenses, however, have been less than accepting of institutions that are framed as against the Swarthmore “norm.”

In an otherwise sound defense of Greek life on the Daily Gazette, Andrew Waks ’13 claims that just because students think a group “is bad for college life” does not mean it should be denied a right to exist. The uses two examples: “a conservative club” or religious organization, both of which he claims have “bad ideas about gender.” Perpetuating this unsubstantiated rhetoric only incites antagonism between the campus majority and minority groups that are already made to feel excommunicated from the progressive culture that dominates Swarthmore’s campus.

The ability to force a vote to take away the right of association from a group of students is dangerous. Quaker government has always been a reality at Swarthmore, but there is a difference when students are being denied their rights by the majority. Student Council should amend its constitution to clarify the uses of referenda and ensure that student groups, including fraternities and sororities, have their rights of association protected. Student Council is supposed to represent our entire campus. The body should establish ground rules to protect groups opposed by a segment of the campus from constant threats of forced exclusion.

Debates about Greek life bring us back to a quandary that has existed throughout the College’s history, from the past disbanding of sororities to the elimination of the football program: what is Swarthmore about? Most people would answer that question along the lines of an “inclusive community.” Yet, the debates over Greek life suggest this is a much more selective inclusivity, predicated on progressive ideological and social norms, than most of the campus is willing to admit.

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