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.
As we hope you are well aware, the referendum on Greek life will be taking place today and tomorrow on Moodle. Since the referendum is fast approaching and given the recent dispute over posters we have put up, we thought it would be helpful to clarify the origin of this campaign and the rationale behind it.
So, how did we get here? The campaign began last spring, when the administration announced that it would permit sororities to return to campus. A number of us were bothered by the fact that this decision was handed down by the administration, with little input from the student body. Nevertheless, we decided to look into the issue, and spoke with a number of members of the Not Yet Sisters (NYS) who intended to form the sorority. We left these conversations reassured by two promises: first, that a sorority-to-be would provide financial assistance in order to eliminate economic barriers to potential pledges, and second, that it would have a clear policy of admitting any woman-identified student.
Fast forward to this spring, by which time NYS had selected Kappa Alpha Theta for its national affiliation. The national chapter sent two Educational Leadership Consultants, or ELCs, to campus with the intention of recruiting members and answering the community’s questions about Theta. We found it upsetting that the ELCs—representatives of the national organization and its values—proved ignorant of trans issues, stating that a trans person’s sex assigned at birth is their “real gender.” Moreover, in an open meeting on campus, the ELCs and national representatives from Kappa Alpha Theta stated sisters would need to be registered as female on the college records in order to be a part of the sorority. While Swarthmore’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta announced yesterday in a public notice that they will admit trans women and provide financial assistance for dues, we have been, and remain, troubled by the fact that the group would choose to affiliate with a national organization whose stated policies discriminate on the basis of wealth and gender.
During the period in which the sorority got its start, a separate set of issues with the fraternities began to come to light. A number of intensely troubling stories of sexual assault, violent behavior, and homophobic, sexist and racist hate speech committed by members of the fraternities, in and out of their houses, came to our attention. Beyond the incidents themselves, we were shocked by the indifference of witnesses (brothers included) and the lack of accountability among the fraternity leadership when they were informed of what transpired. These problems have been illustrated by two students who courageously shared their stories in The Daily Gazette. In an op-ed published on The Daily Gazette in February, Parker Murray ’15 describes being verbally and physically assaulted by a brother while others looked on; the offender was not punished by his fraternity. In another piece, Marian Firke ’14 describes being harassed by the multiple fraternity brothers who aimed to keep her quiet about the menacing behavior of one of their brothers.
Given inadequate responses by the Greek organizations and administration to these problems, we decided that holding a referendum on Greek life would call attention to the issue. Joyce Wu ’15 announced the first petition to hold a referendum in mid-February. The leaders of the Greek organizations took offense at this and claimed that the move came out of left field. We then agreed to hold all-campus discussions about the problems with Greek life. At the first meeting, representatives of the Greek organizations did not propose any meaningful policies to address the problems raised. The second meeting was nearly scuttled when Greek organization leadership refused to have the meeting moderated by a dean trained in mediation. Still, we relented and allowed the meeting to proceed with the Student Council co-presidents moderating in place of the dean. At this meeting, members of the Greek organizations once again proposed no substantive policies and rejected all structural changes posed by unaffiliated students.
Since the discussion was not leading toward any concrete solution to the pressing problems of violent behavior and hate speech, Joyce decided to hold a new petition for a referendum. In light of the perspectives the discussion opened up, we included six questions in the new referendum to make it a true test of campus opinion, which you can read here. These proposals include five major structural reforms to Greek organizations and a proposal for abolition. They are:
- Do you support ceasing Delta Upsilon’s and Kappa Alpha Theta’s affiliations to their national chapters?
- Do you support admitting students of all genders to sororities and fraternities?
- Do you support making fraternity houses into substance-free spaces?
- Do you support merging all sororities and fraternities into one campus building?
- Do you support having no campus buildings expressly for the purpose of housing Greek organizations?
- Do you support the abolition of sororities and fraternities at Swarthmore College?
Since we have heard from many students that the posters we hung last week made too short shrift of the issues, we’d like to spell out here the reasons for voting YES on Monday and Tuesday:
- At other institutions, sexual assault, unsafe drinking practices, violent behavior, and homophobic, sexist, and racist hate speech committed by fraternity members here would merit serious punishment to the organization as a whole. At the University of Michigan, for example, a fraternity was suspended and then expelled from campus when a pledge was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Additionally, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a fraternity was suspended after a group of students at a fraternity party used racial slurs against and threw a glass bottle at two black students. After the numerous instances similar occurrences on our campus, we would expect the fraternities to be held accountable. Instead, they have continued operating as is.
- One of the most basic tenets of a Greek organization is to privilege the bonds between an individual and their brothers or sisters over that between those they have with other students. This type of emphasis leads to the coercive behavior described in Marian’s op-ed. It also leads to the complicity with misbehavior described in Parker’s. In other words, Greek organizations have a culture that shields wrongdoers from accountability and scares victims into silence. We do not deny that unsafe drinking, sexual assault, and harassment on the basis of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity happen on other parts of campus, but this aspect of Greek culture makes these events even more dangerous. Furthermore, tackling them in one specific group of organizations is one part of tackling the issue at large.
- Disciplinary problems with Greek organizations are routed to Tom Elverson, Delta Upsilon brother and advisor to the fraternities. This policy creates separate disciplinary channels for fraternity brothers and other students. We expect students to be treated equally.
- The fraternities maintain disproportionate control over the party spaces on campus. Of the four major party spaces, two are fraternity houses (the others being Paces and Olde Club). This is unfair not only because many students do not feel comfortable in the fraternity houses, but also because no other student group has such a degree of control over wet spaces.
- Fraternities are the only organizations on campus that are the sole occupants of a building. The Intercultural Center, Black Cultural Center, and Women’s Resource Center are shared spaces that numerous groups occupy and that the college ultimately controls. Furthermore, these spaces are all dry. Some student groups have offices or rooms that they have control over, but these are not equivalent to a full building, as well as being completely non-residential.
- While Swarthmore’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta has confirmed that it is open to anyone who identifies as a woman, representatives of the national chapter have yet to articulate a clear policy regarding the acceptance of all woman-identifying students. We were told by a representative of the national organization that Kappa Alpha Theta’s current stance is that they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. This represents a gap in communication between the local chapter and the national organization that is highly concerning. Similarly, the national chapter of Delta Upsilon requires that all brothers be registered as male on college records. Furthermore, students who do not identify within the gender binary are completely excluded from all Greek organizations, since they identify as neither women nor men. No other student group has such trans-exclusive policies.
- The Greek organizations have yet to propose any meaningful policies that would address any of the above points. The proposals made during the two campus-wide discussions included creating a college Pan-Hellenic Council, which would merely increase bureaucracy and further separate Greek organizations from other student groups.
- We have heard the argument that making decisions about Greek organizations by referendum would lead to a slippery slope where the majority of the student body could make decisions about any student group that they don’t like. Historical precedents would indicate that this is not the case. In 1933, Swarthmore abolished sororities by referendum, yet no other group has since been voted off campus by referendum. Furthermore, Greek organizations are not ordinary student groups. They require special Board of Managers approval in order to form, are not regulated by Student Council like every other group, occupy their own buildings, and have more privileges than other student groups.
In order for the referendum to pass, 1/3 of the campus must participate in the vote, and of those who do not vote “no preference” each question, a majority must vote “yes.”
Please consider these points and use them to inform your decision when you vote today or tomorrow. Thank you.
Op-Ed submitted by Amanda Epstein ’15, Koby Levin ’15, Hope Brinn ’15, Parker Murray ’15, and Joyce Wu ’15 on behalf of Swat Vote Yes