Phi Psi Leak Sparks Questions About Fraternity Culture

One week after the leak, we ask: why did those who had access to lewd Phi Psi party recaps remain silent over the six years for which these documents existed? And was this just an isolated incident — a snapshot in time, as some members say — or a deeper issue that continues today?

Content warning: sexual assault

Last week, the college saw 121 pages of documents that members of Phi Psi fraternity circulated on a college listserv between Spring 2013 and 2014. On campus and in the alumni community, discussions surrounding the fraternities and their roles on campus were reignited.

While the minutes are from 2013 and 2014, some students have emphasized the lack of fundamental change within Phi Psi and fraternity culture since the “Spring of our Discontent,” a period of heightened activism in 2013.

One Phi Psi member, to whom we will refer in this article as Jason*, arrived at the college in fall 2013. Coming to the college as a first-generation, Hispanic student from conservative Orange County, California, he saw pledging Phi Psi as an opportunity to have the typical American college experience his high school peers expected. He didn’t join until his sophomore year, after he had come out as gay, and he became a full member in spring 2014.

Reflecting on 2014, Jason said he recognized there was something problematic with the minutes, but felt as though he was peripheral to them.

“I saw the minutes but I didn’t read most of it … I didn’t want to waste my time with it because it seemed like idiotic banter that very much was inside jokes,” Jason said. “They were incredibly self-reflexive and inside jokes within a niche in the Phi Psi community that I did not have access to.”

But a little over a year after joining, Jason decided to leave the fraternity.

According to Jason, he had only seen parts of the minutes through other people his first year. When he became a member of Phi Psi, he recounted not being included on the listserv initially, though he stated that other members of the pledge class were, and felt he was not a part of the inner circle that circulated the minutes.

“I can look at everything that happened now in retrospect. I read the minutes now, and it’s shockingly obvious disgust at this kind of thing. I honestly don’t think that me as a 19-year-old boy, reading those things, understood the gravity of what they represented,” he said.

According to Jason, efforts to make Phi Psi more inclusive following the “Spring of Discontent” existed but felt unsubstantial.

“I felt like it was incredibly superficial. When I joined I thought there were so many issues within the frat that upperclassmen in the frat were trying to change from within,” said Jason.

In an interview with The Phoenix, 2016 Phi Psi President Conor Clark stated that Phi Psi’s work on changing attitudes within the fraternity since 2013 should not be overshadowed by the actions of members at the time.

“[The minutes] will probably dominate kind of like the topic of your discussion in this article. However, if we’re talking about Phi Psi, especially in your time period that you’ve been in contact with it…I know I obviously have a biased point of view but I’ve seen significant improvements,” he said. “ They’re on a very positive uptake.”

Another former Phi Psi president, Mike Girardi ’13, said that the changes the fraternity made should not be seen in isolation.

“Phi Psi was undergoing changes throughout my four years,” Girardi said. “To look at it in a snapshot in time is to do a disservice to those who spent their time and talents trying to improve the organization. With that said I think that that spring was a very eye-opening experience for both the leaders of Phi Psi at that time as well as its rank-and-file brothers.”

According to Clark, the improvements to the fraternity included workshops and trainings for pledges which Andrew Barclay, Greek Life liaison and Director of Student Activities, is in charge of overseeing along with the Title IX office, now directed by Bindu Jayne.

One effort to improve the relationship of fraternity culture to the campus community resulted in a video called “It’s On Us” from August 2016. This video was created by a group of students in the Title IX advisory team led by former Title IX Coordinator Kaaren Williamsen.

The video features Conor Clark ‘16, president of Phi Psi in spring and fall 2016, as well as a member of the Title IX Liaison team, and Raven Bennett ’17, who went on to become a Title IX Fellow for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 watched this video as part of their freshman training and orientation. The video now remains on the college’s Sexual Harassment/ Assault Resources and Education website.

Bennett, who said she very rarely or never attended fraternity parties in college, started working with Phi Psi after members of the executive board approached her in 2014, during her sophomore year, about starting a program that would later become the Fraternity Mentorship Program. The FMP, which was also adopted by Delta Upsilon, the other on-campus fraternity, for two years, paired upperclassman members of the college’s two fraternities with pledges. They would meet once weekly and attend “special topic trainings on topics including masculinity, gender and sexuality, consent and allyship, bystander intervention, and alcohol and other drugs.” She worked closely with Clark as it developed, and led workshops with fraternity brothers.

Bennett said that when she began the project, she was hopeful about the change she could make by opening dialogue with members, though she told members later during her time at the college to relinquish their leases on the fraternity houses. After the release of the documents, however, Bennett wrote in an email to the Phoenix that she was disappointed and disgusted.

“I felt betrayed because I had been very forthright with members of the fraternities, including sharing my own experience of being sexually assaulted at Swarthmore, and it seems they did not reciprocate that same level of transparency,” she wrote.

While the goal of Bennett’s collaboration with the fraternities was harm reduction, she said that she believes that the trainings have not been sufficient.

“If Phi Psi has truly embraced a commitment to developing a culture of accountability and inclusion, as they claim, they would recognize that participating in trainings is not sufficient to repair the harm that has been done, and the only way of truly taking accountability is for current and past members to endorse forfeiting their house,” she wrote.

Jason noticed that fraternities on campus did feel pressure to reform themselves. After joining Phi Psi, however, he noticed a halt in the progress of reforming fraternity culture.

“I think when I joined [Phi Psi] in 2013, you could just feel there was a shift and a pivot in a different direction. Whether or not the direction was a good one, I think we can let the last five years inform us,” Jason said. “But then within the next year, 2014, there was a stagnation; it didn’t really feel like much had changed.”

Morgin Goldberg ’19, a core member of activist group Organizing for Survivors, believes that the training and education that fraternity members receive are ways that they can talk about sexual violence. But she doubts that there is a there is an overall commitment to enacting that training.

“I do not think [Title IX trainings have] foundationally really impacted the behavior or norms of the fraternity,” said Goldberg. “And that’s not to say there are no individual men in the fraternity that are invested or trying, but there is something structurally impossible about reforming the fraternities.”

Phi Psi is largely structured by its connection to the men’s lacrosse team, from which it recruits the majority of its members each year. Some students say this has created insular communities among the groups; Jason described this process as creating “layers of exclusivity.”

“I mean, if you look at the sports team at Sharples, [they’re] exclusive in the sense that they’re very much in their own world for obvious reasons,” said Jason. “But to have that in another exclusive space again, I don’t really think that that affords inclusivity unless you’re actively trying to create the structures within the space.”

Tess Wild ’19 is a current women’s lacrosse team member who regularly attended the fraternities in her first two years, but later stopped. She feels strongly that the connection between Phi Psi and the lacrosse team is harmful because it discourages those involved from addressing issues that arise.

“The relationship with athletics is really complex and damaging in the way that the teams are linked. The women’s teams have relationships with those guys. I think it’s hard for people on the teams to speak out because it’s removing yourself from the culture of the team,” said Wild. “Not only are you taking yourself out of the party culture because there’s not much party culture outside of the frats; I think when you’re vocal about being against the frats and you go, they take it as a personal attack,” she said. “I think there’s an emphasis on being a chill girl and being okay with a lot of the stuff that happens and I definitely felt that pressure.”

Christina Labows ’18 is another member of women’s lacrosse who stopped attending fraternity parties. She said that social pressures to attend were among the reasons she stopped attending fraternity parties.  

“At Sharples if everyone’s talking about like, ‘Oh, did you see so and so on Saturday night,’ and I don’t know what they’re talking about, you know, you start feeling like an outsider, you start feeling like you aren’t ‘on the in’ in the team,” said Labows.

Wild also dated a Phi Psi member and men’s lacrosse player for two years, and believes the culture of the fraternity leads the men in it to prioritize their social connections over holding each other accountable.

“[When] my relationship ended, [I told him], ‘You need to be able to talk to your friends about this kind of stuff,’ and his explanation was, ‘I do have a problem with it and I can’t do anything about it because they won’t be my friends anymore.’ That is the leveraging of validation: they were going to withdraw the validation if he was not complicit,” said Wild.

For Wild, the structure of Phi Psi impacted not only her relationship, but everyone proximate to the fraternity.

“The violence that takes place in the frat was the rupture in my relationship. it was the reason it [my relationship] ended and it was a constant problem throughout the relationship,” Wild said. “It’s not just my friends and women who are harmed by this. We know that patriarchy serves no one and masculinity serves no one but this is a place on our campus where masculinity and patriarchy are turned way up and that’s harmful to the people involved in any capacity.”

Wild also described parties at the fraternity as harmful towards women, and described an atmosphere at Phi Psi where women are regularly talked about in derogatory and sexually explicit terms.

“At parties, the culture was not respectful of women. I saw girls being passed around. The way that [members of the men’s lacrosse team] talked about who they hooked up with or who they called ugly because they didn’t want to get with them and stuff like that,” said Wild.

According to Goldberg, who was sexually assaulted by a Phi Psi member her freshman year after a formal, Phi Psi’s ownership of the space and the power that accompanies it create pressure on female partygoers.

“You feel special if you’re friends with them, and they’ll give you alcohol and other privileges, like you can go upstairs to the balcony, you can go downstairs… And that obviously [is significant] when somebody is trying to hook up with you, right?”  [You think], ‘Isn’t this their house? Aren’t they doing me a favor by giving me alcohol and inviting me into the space…? So it made it really hard to say ‘no’ to people’s advances,” said Goldberg.

The pressure to remain silent — for social connections as well as other factors — affects many who frequent the fraternities. Goldberg felt this pressure after her assault, when she feared retaliation from members as well as other regular partygoers she had gone out with during her freshman year. She said it prevented her from reporting the assault immediately.

“And so I didn’t report for a year, I didn’t report for a year afterwards. And that’s something that came up in my [Title IX adjudication] hearing: ‘Why did you take a year?’ And that was really part of it, ‘I don’t want to take that risk. And I’m a freshman and I don’t have…stable relationships yet,” she said. “And [I worried], ‘Am I going to piss off these guys that I also see doing other kinds of aggressive things where they’re also yelling and fighting and using slurs and screaming at people?’”

Daria Una Mateescu ’20, another student who began college attending fraternity parties and eventually stopped, initially believed that fraternities at Swarthmore did not suffer from the same problems as those at other colleges.

“Freshman fall, I really bought into the myth that Swarthmore’s fraternities were not like other fraternities. And I thought that because I was friends with many frat members. And I thought that … the stereotypes about frats were untrue, that in the Swarthmore context, things were different,” she said.

But after three years at the college, Mateescu — who recently co-founded the Swarthmore Coalition to End Fraternity Violence — feels differently.

“It’s something that I think from the outside, they very much mastered the art of making it appear like a much more innocent thing than it is in reality,” she said. “I think you have to go through the process in some ways of really seeing how bad it is.”

Bennett hopes that the release of Phi Psi documents encourages discussion within the fraternity.

“I just hope that instead of this being a reason for people connected to the fraternity to close into themselves and get really defensive, that it’s an opportunity for them to open up and examine, ‘How can we do better?” she said. “And how can we really live up to the values we claim and make a decision that’s about the greater campus community instead of the smaller community of the fraternities?’”

Currently, the college’s Task Force on Student Social Events and Community Standards is in the process of compiling their recommendations on fraternities at the college. They are set to be released on May 10.

Editor’s note: The article previously stated that Raven Bennett was a current staff member at the college, which she is not. The article was updated at 6:47 A.M. on April 25 to reflect this change and include an additional comment from Bennett. It was also updated at 10:53 A.M. to clarify that Daria Mateescu is a founding member of the Swarthmore Coalition to End Fraternity Violence.

4 comments

  1. 0
    Bill Robinson '60 says:

    The “It’s On Us” video by the Title IX Team was great! What happened to this effort? The leaders of Phi Psi and the lacrosse team had resources to draw on. What happened? Why wasn’t this situation dealt with? Again, “the culture made me do it” is nonsense. That is a failure of personal leadership.

  2. 0
    Bill Robinson '60 says:

    It is stunning to me to read these stories about the Phi Psi brothers and lacrosse players. It simply was not my experience as a DU and lacrosse player. I am also surprised that these Phi Psi members and lacrosse players would be so passive in dealing with this behavior. My brothers and lacrosse players would not put up with such nonsense, and the leaders of both groups would not either. The “minutes” and other material is intolerable. Posting it on a fraternity list serv is another matter indeed, It is beyond stupid. I’m surprised it wasn’t dealt with on the first iteration. It would have been reported to the administration. How did it take years to surface? I’m not just talking about what my response would have been. My closest friends would also not have tolerated it. My lacrosse coaches would not have tolerated it. Please don’t talk about institutional response or culture. It was the failure of individuals, pure and simple.

  3. 0
    Ed Hawes says:

    The author failed to mention that this out of control fraternity is NOT affiliated with the national Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. I also want to note very important she used the reference of the lacrosse team which could be percieved connected with the phi kappa psi scandal at Duke university with the their lacrosse team. But as you all know that case was thrown out as meritless and the woman who made those charges found herself in court And Rolling Stone Magazine was force to make a retraction.

    While the Greek system does have some bad apples there are many good apples in the system and I as an alumni who is actively involved in helping our fraternity remain as a leader in academics and philanthropy.

    I am waiting to hear some negative stories about the sororities in the Greek system. They contribute to part problem as well they just don’t host the parties But also are heavily involved in the bed behavior… this isn’t a gender exclusive issue.

    And I want make myself clear I don’t condone any bad behavior… violence, sexual assault, hazing, drug use, or any of those activities that stray away from a safe learning and living environment. As a parent of a fraternity son his experience provided him leadership experiences that have vaulted him into significant roles with a major organization. Not having the experience in a well run fraternity house would have left him disadvantaged against others that had that experience.

    1. 0
      Let's go with Tony says:

      “could be percieved connected with the phi kappa psi scandal”

      Literally no one but people falling over themselves to make excuses is making that connection.

      And i before e except after c, college boy.

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