I was a member of Phi Psi at Swarthmore from the Fall of 2011 to the Spring of 2015. I’m writing to publicly call for the removal of fraternities from campus.
Violence, disparaging language, and other behavior attributed to Phi Psi members have been partially documented by the Swarthmore Fraternities Tumblr. I can confirm these are not isolated instances but come from a culture that pervades this institution. Rather than documenting more episodes, however, I’ll focus on why these behaviors will persist unless the fraternities are removed. I can only apologize for not sharing this perspective earlier; I prioritized my social comfort as a member of the group.
Failure to hold Phi Psi members accountable for their behavior explains the persistence of a toxic culture despite repeated claims of improvement. There are several parties responsible for this failure. These include the leadership and membership of the fraternity, along with the school administration. The privileged treatment that the Swarthmore administration grants, as well as their severe incompetence in handling complaints against the fraternity members, has been well documented, so I will focus on the fraternity itself.
During my time at Swarthmore, the leadership of Phi Psi consistently failed to expel members of the group or otherwise sanction them for their behavior, which primarily took the form of sexual violence, and homophobic and misogynistic language. Moreover, members of leadership were responsible in that they were either perpetrators of the behavior or had social relationships with those implicated.
This persistent failure of the Phi Psi membership to publicly speak out against the behavior openly taking place is the strongest evidence of a deeply compromised institution. The group’s affiliation with the lacrosse team, a group I was also a part of, partially explains this inaction. This misguided association begins even before admittance to the school, where players on the team who were fraternity members would often bring prospective students to the house. As a result, they communicated a not-so-subtle message that the fraternity was simply a natural extension of the team, putting pressure on players to join. I noticed that players who did not join the fraternity frequently quit playing lacrosse after a year or two.
Rather than integrating themselves more throughout the student body, many members of Phi Psi spent most of their social time with a small group of people in an exclusive location on campus. One consequence of this insular and concentrated social culture was that fraternity members rarely empathized with the voices calling for institutional change. When confronted, fraternity members used the social shaming they experienced as proof of an apparent disingenuousness of their opponents’ positions, rather than as a valid expression of anger.
One of the most unsettling parts about these institutions is how they infect otherwise-decent people with a deep and profound silence. Both Phi Psi and the Swarthmore men’s lacrosse team amplify the bystander effect. Members of these groups committed violent offenses, and the rest of the group chose to joke about it, minimize these crimes, degrade those impacted, or stay silent. In most cases, brothers who called out others for their behavior were ignored or pacified. Any contrition that members expressed was usually for harming the image of the group rather than for the impact of their actions. When members did pursue institutional change, it was largely motivated by a desire to improve perception among students.
Some brothers, including me, attempted to rehabilitate the image of the fraternity despite knowing that members expressed behaviors which we knew conflicted with our message. For example, Phi Psi hosted educational trainings on bystander intervention and rape culture while being completely embroiled in both. However, these workshops were only mandatory for pledges, even though a significant portion of the offenses I witnessed were carried out by leadership and older members of the fraternity. While recognition of these concepts is better than nothing, I do not think they were internalized. I learned that several members that attended these workshops were later found responsible for sexual misconduct and assault. It is clear now that these educational solutions were insufficient on their own and delayed real change.
The bystander effect explains some of the unwillingness to speak publicly about what was happening. Members were also directly pressured to ignore or fail to report behavior they otherwise would not tolerate. Other members resorted to retaliation if this norm was not maintained. I witnessed this several times, ranging from ostracism of those raising concerns about fraternity activities to explicit threats of violence. Because Phi Psi holds power and influence in campus life, public disavowal of fraternity culture lends itself to exclusion from a large part of campus social activity. This dynamic continues after graduation, and explains the continued silence of alumni or defensive pleas that the fraternities are beneficial to the school.
Ultimately, Phi Psi is an institution inherently incapable of holding perpetrators accountable for their behavior. The solution is not to create better guidelines for behavior or continued education. Abuse of power is not remedied by education, but by justice.
The solution, in part, is to remove some of that social power that fraternities have by terminating the leases they hold. The environment fostered by the fraternity may change incrementally from generation to generation, but the behavior that I experienced during my time there has been reported upon for decades by those affected. There has been little visible result other than words and symbolic gestures, but not a curtailment of the behavior itself. We should lend little credibility to the statements made recently by current fraternity leadership. Similarly, Phi Psi “committed” itself to “words of change” in the fall of 2013:
Last spring, students raised concerns with the practices and attitudes of our institution, including heteronormativity and the objectification of women. We intend to change this perception, as well as work to eradicate sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination not only in our house, but also throughout campus.
I helped write that statement. It committed Phi Psi to a goal that could not be achieved. At that time, even the leadership of the fraternity had no intention of changing their behavior, but saw an opportunity to “save face” by associating with those words. They were still enjoying the “minutes” being distributed over the group listserv. If the current membership of Phi Psi actually internalized the affliction that the institution suffers from, they would not continue to be a part of it.
Ultimately, suggestions for solutions should come from the survivor community, not from the privileged and powerful that caused the harm. I am grateful to those who have shared their experiences and demanded action. Please listen to these voices and publicly support them. I’m certain that their perspectives will foster change and create a social environment at Swarthmore that prioritizes safety and equity.
I suspect many Phi Psi alumni agree with these positions. I encourage my peers to resist the existing culture of silence, share their perspectives, speak out, and demand that the fraternities are removed from campus. Incremental change is not sufficient. Time’s up.