I Was a Member of Phi Psi — Swarthmore’s Fraternities Must Go

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.

28 comments

  1. 7
    Miriam Goldstein says:

    I really appreciate your bravery, Callen, since I imagine some of your brothers won’t be very happy with you for writing this. I also hope you’ve taken the time to reflect on and fully acknowledge the extent of any hateful actions you committed or took part in over the years (which I have no firsthand knowledge of) and to think about how you want to grow from your mistakes. Thanks for going beyond denouncing the actions of frat brothers (including yourself) and instead calling for this firm and specific action. I hope voices like yours make a difference in the movement to end frats at Swarthmore and create a safer, more respectful, more loving community.

      1. 0
        Miriam Goldstein says:

        This was meant to be a response to the comment by “cmu student”:
        “Really interesting how the exact culture of Phi Psi that is the topic of controversy is being reflected without shame by some in the comments…”

  2. 5
    Ellie says:

    Sometimes we grow up and can look back on experiences, realizing, in the aftermath, how devastatingly wrong they were. Some, however, never grow up and carry these attitudes through their adult lives. Thank you for bringing these pervasive attitudes to light.

  3. 3
    Conscientious objector says:

    I know that calling out people is not the purpose of this testament, but, if possible, in addition to making very broad generalized statements and causing people to overreact, can you please provide at least an approximate list of numbers of cases of misconduct that you vitnessed along with a timeline. Brave or not, at the very least provide people with some empirical evidence that you can potentially back (confidentially) in order for students and college to make a decision not based on some general information which applies to any college organization in the long-run, but facts. Specifically elaborate on whether you think that the incidence of misconducts increased/decreased/stayed the same over the years during which you were in Phi Psi and throughout the its existence.

  4. 2
    Umba says:

    thank you for your bravery in coming forth about this. I was in phi psi for a spell years ago, and bore witness to the minutes and misogynistic behaviors. There’s no place for that at Swarthmore. The future would-be frat brothers themselves would be better off not being herded into this club, and instead integrating into campus life, contributing to it, and learning the many lessons they can learn from their peers. The campus as a whole would certainly be better off. Get rid of the frats!

  5. 2
    Mia says:

    Thanks for changing the narrative and opening the door for other fraternity brothers, Callen. Time for everyone else to take the step through the door!

  6. 2
    James Doe says:

    There’s many ways to affect change and make things better – publicly blasting an organization that you were part of for over four years is probably the least effective.

    Have you spoken with your advisory board? Regional headquarters staff? CEO? Greek Advisor? Who all did you partner with to create benchmarks and revised member standards before you decided that ALL organizations should be terminated?

    1. 8
      CL says:

      Sounds like he has listened to the Swarthmore campus community of survivors who have come forward, spoken about the trauma they’ve experienced as a result of fraternity conduct, and offered ways to affect change and make things better. He says this himself towards the end of the op-ed, “Ultimately, suggestions for solutions should come from the survivor community, not from the privileged and powerful that caused the harm.” This is directly in line with the transformative justice strategies that the Organizing for Survivors group has taught the campus community over the past year as they have worked to affect change and make things better. Kudos to Callen for absorbing and applying the tenets of transformative justice. Consulting with fraternity advisory boards, regional headquarters staff, CEO, etc. does not transfer power from the oppressors to the oppressed, as transformative justice intends.

  7. 1
    Cindy Hipps says:

    I applaud your willingness to speak out even though it appears unpopular by your former brothers. You are better off without those kind of friends.

  8. 1
    W Mark Felt says:

    This is really rich from someone who put literal notches in their bed posts and has been described as a “predator” by some of your classmates. I see you are still getting off by taking large hipocritical stances in order to feel better about yourself.

    1. 11
      CL says:

      Part of transformative justice, which the O4S group has introduced to our campus community, involves allowing space for everyone to heal– including individuals who have caused harm. Regardless of an individual’s actions in the past, the words published on 4/21 showed Callen taking accountability and calling for the inclusion of those he harmed in developing solutions to the current issues on campus. I don’t know Callen. I don’t know what his intentions were in writing this piece. Could it have been to help him sleep better at night, to save face despite things he may have done in the past? Maybe. But if that is a part of campus community healing, let’s make space for that. If that allows more fraternity brothers who have caused harm with their words, actions, and inactions to step forward and hold themselves accountable, let’s make space for that. If hearing these words from fraternity brothers allows for the healing of survivors and other who have experienced harm, let’s make space for that. What there isn’t space for in transformative justice: assuming people can’t change; assuming people who cause harm cannot simultaneously experience harm; silencing community members based on their past.

    2. 1
      Zuck says:

      Furthermore, it’s absolutely mind-boggling that a current Facebook employee feels comfortable sitting behind his desk and talking about “complicity”. Insane lack of self-awareness from the author.

    3. 0
      haverford student says:

      I’m sure you’re totally right, but like if this guy wants to argue his frat is impossible to be reformed and must be taken off of campus just to make himself feel better about himself I’d say let him preach.

  9. 0
    Anonymous says:

    This incident certainly will make me think twice about having my kids apply to such a school…..I don’t want them to be prejudiced for being part of a minority as I have always taught them to be proud of who they are…..for a school with such reputation, I am surprised at the lack of action….

  10. 0
    Pho Keene Great says:

    it was so bad and reprehensible that you didn’t do shit to fix it, and the thing you point to as saying here’s my attempt to fix it (the we’ll be better statement) was recognized by you as bullshit at the time you wrote it. you’re an asshole with a stupid ass name.

    fuck you Frat daddy and all your little borderline rapist buddies — writing this article may clear your guilt, but it doesn’t absolve your conscience. the rest of us that aren’t full time misogynists see right through this bullshit apology. you’re standing on the sidelines throwing stones

    but when you were a player on the field (which you were, you admit it: “the offenses I witnessed were carried out by leadership and older members of the fraternity.”) we sure didn’t hear shit from you did we?

    fuck you clown

    you don’t get to whitewash your own sins for the sake of boosting your reputation, and call it “the bystander effect” like this entire section:

    “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.”

    is just you admitting that rather than you were fine with watching rape-y stuff happen in exchange for being in the cool kids group, and that the fear of not being in the cool kids group was enough for you to not say anything despite witnessing abhorrent behaviors. the arrogance you possess in even writing this from a position of moral authority just further illustrates your complete lack of understanding in regards to the situation.

  11. 0
    Anonymous says:

    I appreciate your willingness to speak out as you have. I am glad you brought up the men’s lacrosse team as it is closely associated with Phi Psi. I think the coaches of the lacrosse team need to also help intervene with this persistent behavior.

  12. 0
    cmu student says:

    Really interesting how the exact culture of Phi Psi that is the topic of controversy is being reflected without shame by some in the comments…

  13. 0
    '18 alumna says:

    It is absolutely disgusting that you would make an accusation like this in order to discredit Callen when MANY alumni know who wrote the minutes.

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