When will Sewanee abolish Greek Life?

It’s not a matter of whether, but when.

By Luke Williamson
Contributing Writer

A little over a month ago at the dinner table, following the conclusion of a rather dizzying semester of college, my younger brother brought up the COVID-19 regulations that Vanderbilt would enforce come fall semester. A member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, he was frustrated by the way that these regulations would invariably hamper the Greek life experience that people, well, pay for. I don’t remember my reaction. Perhaps I rolled my eyes? (My facial expressions often spring to life at the most inopportune of moments.)

One the one hand, as a rising senior, I sympathize with any student whose college experience has been impacted by COVID-19. That we students cannot return to school this fall as we’d like—to rediscover a sense of daily rhythm and stability—really is a shame. On the other hand, I felt a kind of shock that Greek organizations would be allowed to operate at all. Beer pong and social distancing, I can’t imagine, mix well.

Nonetheless, it seemed my brother was game to skirt the regulations if his fellow fraternity brothers were willing (and, they were). There’s no telling what combination of eye-rolling and pursed lips might have animated my face, but as a queer person, I couldn’t have helped a bit of contempt from spilling over and into my body language. I have always been wary of Greek life, particularly fraternities.

Imagine my surprise when, a week after that dinner table conversation, my brother announced that he’d decided to drop Greek life indefinitely.

His decision is part of a larger movement happening at Vanderbilt. Following the surge of activism that has erupted across social media platforms these past few months, Vanderbilt students have taken to Instagram, and are now calling upon the university’s administration to abolish Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils (IFC, PHC). Their account has 2,615 followers and counting. When I learned of these efforts, I wondered why—and was saddened that—Sewanee students hadn’t done something similar.

This movement is not isolated to Vanderbilt. Students at Duke also call for change. So do students at Washington, Richmond, the University of Southern California, and American University. Since I began drafting this piece, still more schools have joined (among them, Emory, Tufts, UPenn). These institutions—like Sewanee—all stand to join the ranks of prestigious institutions that have opted out of Greek life. Here, I am speaking of colleges and universities like Rice University, the University of Notre Dame, Williams College, Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Middlebury College, Swarthmore College, Vassar College, Smith College, Wellesley College, and more.

As I see it, these recent student-led movements are the latest in Greek life’s eventual, however recalcitrant, nation-wide dissolution. A Google search into the state of Greek life unearths a good deal of anxious handwringing: What is the future of frats? Is it time to ban them? Are they worth saving, given the slew of students who cite Greek life as “one of the best decisions [they] ever made”?

 Another Google search shows how Greek life continues to occasion violence and harm. (See, for example, its impact on grades, or the way that it structurally excludes queer and nonbinary students). Indeed, Greek life damages the social and intellectual lives of its students. When fraternities and sororities serially harm their own members, though, Greek organizations also undermine their own filial language—they harm their own kin. One New York Times article underscores as much. “Following a night of heavy drinking at a fraternity” at Texas State University, the article reads:

“A 20-year-old was found dead. Another 20-year-old died at Florida State University in nearly identical circumstances. At Penn State University, the victim was 19. […] At Louisiana State University, the victim was 18, with a blood alcohol content of .496 percent.”

The article’s claim seems, to me, unimpeachable: Their pledges die; so should the organizations themselves.

Two short years ago, in an incident close to Sewanee’s campus, 11 women—10 who were Sewanee students—were hospitalized after a Greek life-related car crash. Spend enough time on the mountain, and other stories—fuzzy around the edges, lacking in detail— emerge: about drunk students falling off bluffs and severely injuring themselves, about drunk students being airlifted to hospitals (as four in the car crash were). In the aftermath of these instances, radical reform—not just increased insurance fees for local Greek organizations—was necessary. The University’s reaction to the car crash incident, though, was a mere sorority chapter suspension coextensive with an investigation. They regained full privileges in less than a year

The time for reform—however radical—has passed. The burgeoning student voices are clear: Greek life is beyond reform.

In this historical moment of the Black Lives Matter Movement and of national outrage regarding the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, protesters and activists demand the end of not just police brutality but also of the systems that enable (if not outright subtend) that violence. It is no coincidence that student-led movements at Vanderbilt, Duke, Washington and others all began in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Just as police departments have emerged from scrutiny unscathed for years—so too has Greek life.

Institutions like police departments and Greek organizations are engineered, calculated, to invite shrugging sympathy in the wake of unthinkable harm. To quote Robin DiAngelo (the author of White Fragility, a professor and lecturer examining critical discourse and whiteness studies), the “twisted genius” of whiteness—which these institutions tacitly organize themselves around—is its knack for “persuad[ing] you that [it] does not exist.” In response to critiques of Greek life, how many times have we heard or uncritically repeated the common refrain that “Greek life isn’t for everyone”?  Let that sink in.

The posts on various Instagram accounts that call for the abolition of IFC fraternities and Panhellenic sororities are well worth reading. They give anonymous first-hand accounts of student experience across the country, and patterns emerge: Black and POC students report fears of becoming or being tokenized; LGBTQ+ students testify to being ostracized for their sexuality; low-income students highlight the inequality inherent in a social apparatus with a price tag. Despite advertising language of family and inclusion, time and time again, Greek life unwittingly reveals the exclusionary practices it is built atop of. One student puts it succinctly in this laundry list: “Racism, homophobia, misogyny, sexual violence, ableism, colorism, classism” are all, they claim, part and parcel of the culture that Greek life promotes. Transphobia, I think, could easily join that list.

The call for abolition—not reform—is explicit. Perhaps informed by the stories and opinion pieces regarding defunding police departments, students I follow have reposted from Instagram accounts championing the grassroots, abolition-demanding campaign while leveraging clarifying language like “systemic” to articulate why reform, as a tactic, is simply not enough. (See also from the New York Times, Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.) One student duly noted that Greek life is “an inherently racist, white-centric, superficial system that is rooted in privilege.”

The knee-jerk reaction to these critiques, I imagine, might be a species of pedantic defensiveness: How can I character-assassinate Sewanee’s Greek life system by bringing up the problems that other schools face? Have I considered that, perhaps, Sewanee Greek life is more inclusive? Or that Sewanee’s sororities are all local? What about the BIPOC and queer students who love Greek life? Furthermore, what about all-black sororities and fraternities?

I do not find these localized rebuttals substantial because these issues are not local; they are endemic to, and in the DNA of, Greek life. I matriculated at Sewanee in the fall of 2017, then transferred two years later because I found Greek life—at Sewanee—pernicious and ultimately untenable. As a former Sewanee student, I know well that some Greek organizations are upheld as unproblematic and progressive. When “woke” Greek organizations implicitly juxtapose themselves against a fraternity like SAE (“Sexual Assault Expected,” as it is known to some on campus), they rid themselves of any culpability. Moreover, this image maintenance often takes the place of seriously interrogating the oxymora of progressive fraternity or progressive sorority. I ask only that we think hard about that irony: What exactly does inclusivity within Greek life even mean?

To the question of all-black sororities and fraternities, it is worth clarifying that many of the student-led movements I’ve mentioned call for the abolition of IFC and PHC chapters, not the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) chapters—9 historically black sororities and fraternities. Unlike IFC and PHC Greek organizations, historically black sororities and fraternities, for self-evident reasons, are not “inherently racist” (to riff off of the post I mentioned earlier). And while concerns of whether or not NPHC Greek organizations might, even if to a lesser extent, participate in or tolerate homophobic, transphobic, classist, colorist, ableist, or misogynistic behavior, I am not in a position to speak to those experiences nor suggest how those issues might be addressed. Furthermore, in my view, BIPOC students locating community through NPHC Greek organizations remains rather different from predominantly white students seeking out (predominantly white!) brotherhoods or sisterhoods at a predominantly white institution.

Commenters responding to the Sewanee Purple article about the almost fatal car crash from two years ago are laudably kind. One writes that “[my] prayers are with these young people”; another sends “prayers for the injured, their families, and the University community”; still another extends their prayers. Yet I hope for more than these commendable well-wishes. I hope that with the wisdom that retrospect affords, we might eradicate the very system that occasioned the need for “prayers” and “good wishes.”

It’s true that, at the dinner table a little over a month ago, part of me sympathized with students who will return this fall to unfamiliar campuses. A global pandemic has forced us to upend our lives. As many have pointed out, though, COVID-19 has also proven to be an unprecedented opportunity to critically examine and reimagine our lives. We are embroiled in systems that increasingly reveal themselves to be rotten to their core, and needlessly so. My hope is that Sewanee students will take advantage of the opportunity to reimagine their lives and, in particular, to reimagine Sewanee.

The matter of Greek life’s dissolution, I believe, is not one of whether, but when. Emboldened by this sense of perspective, I would point out the opportunity here: the opportunity to make history. With the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor Brigety, Sewanee promises to change for the better. Instead of indulging in utopian visions of what he might accomplish during his tenure, let us take action. Consider: What could Sewanee be without Greek life? Rather than wait another fifty or one-hundred years for Greek life to meet its end, why not make history now?

Special thanks to Hellen Wainaina, assistant editor at the Sewanee Review, whose careful eye sharpened this piece tenfold.

7 comments

  1. Sounds like you’ve missed the point about being in a Greek organization: the brotherhood/sisterhood component. Partying is a fun side effect, but it’snot the point. Sewanee isn’t like most other schools when it comes to greek life. Unfortunately, without you actually being a part of it, you are going to miss this. I can safely say I wouldn’t have rushed a fraternity if I had been at any other school.I can also say that my organization was incredibly inclusive of people of all types, men, women, LGBTQ, BIPOC, etc. That’s because we value brotherhood and respect for others above all. Without attending a bid session, or a rush meeting, you really can’t make blanket judgements about the inclusiveness of an organization. Yes, some organizations inherently look for certain types of people. Yes, some of them may be based on discrimination, but you can’t assume that’s true for every organization. Yes, KA is tied to Robert E Lee,, but that doesn’t mean all the members are white supremacists. Do you even know SAEs? Is it ok to stereotype them? Plenty of our membership didn’t even go to parties on the weekends, but they still attended every chapter meeting. If you had rushed, maybe you would have found this group, or a similar group, and your perception would be very different. There are plenty of bad examples of Greek life, even at Sewanee, but that’s not reason to abolish the whole thing. I can’t take your article seriously because you present this as an outsider’s uninformed and judgemental opinion of something you don’t understand (and having never even sat in on a chapter meeting, or attended anything other than a party, how could you?).

    Greek at Sewanee doesn’t have to be, and isn’t, greeks vs independent, and that’s what this take seems to be.

  2. Luke!! Thank you for writing this. A lot of your points mirror a long conversation I had with friends who are Vanderbilt grads that I met since moving to Nashville. This conversation began with me defending my sorority at Sewanee (ADT) and some other smaller orgs that I felt like were established so the few non-white, queer, and otherwise “different” people at Sewanee could survive Sewanee’s alienating environment. Honestly, if I hadn’t found ADT, I probably would have left Sewanee too. However, after further conversation, I found myself realizing that all the things I loved about my sorority weren’t necessarily because it was apart of the IFC/ISC system or because it followed the rules of a typical Greek organization. I came to further realize that the Greek system enables students to put themselves in boxes and not interact with others. I am 1000% sure that Greek life only serves to exacerbate the racial and class divides at Sewanee. My sorority is so special to me, but I think our space and community could and should exist outside the racist, classist, sexist institution that is Greek life. I don’t know what that would look like but I think it is where we’re headed.

  3. Seems disingenuous to use examples of problems with Greek life on the national stage (e.g. lower grades) that don’t apply to Sewanee (Greek students have higher grades at Sewanee) and disregard out of hand any “localized rebuttal” as simply pedantic.

    The possible rebuttals you list seem reasonable on their face, but your only response to discount all of them is that the issues you raise are in the DNA of Greek life (if the rebuttals proved valid then they would suggest the opposite, or an exception to this). This is begging the question.

    Also who are these burgeoning voices? The followers on the Vanderbilt Insta? In my experience in Sewanee Greek life we had a higher percentage of non-hetero members than the public at large has. We had as diverse a membership as the campus (not saying much, admittedly).

    I do think that there should be more accountability for heinous actions made by Sewanee students. I also think a good way to lessen the grasp of Greek life on the Sewanee social scene would be for the University to provide other reasonable outlets besides the lone pub. Helping ‘non-traditional’ Greek orgs start would also be welcome, I think.

  4. As a GDI with no skin in the game but an older alumnus I can safely say the answer to your headline is simply, “Not any time soon.”

    Your perspective is interesting but ultimately extremely limited by your own biases to the point that it is far beyond the average Sewanee student. But the real fundamental piece that you are failing to perceive is the influence of the trustees and other influential alumni and donors, virtually all of whom are members of the Greek organizations on campus. When +80% of your alumni are Greek do you really think something as drastic as abolishing Greek life will be even discussed with any degree of seriousness by the board of trustees? IF Sewanee ever pivots away from Greek Life (and that’s a big if) it won’t be until you see a dramatic shift in Greek membership of paying alumni. I don’t particularly like the Greek system myself which is why I chose to stay out of it but I’m not naive enough to share your opinion.

  5. When I attended Sewanee, I expected to join a fraternity. My family fathers had all been members of ATO. When I got there in 1976, ATO was mostly jocks, too conservative for me. They offer me a legacy bid which I passed on. My older sister was first lady of Sigma Nu (GF of the president!) so they rushed me hard, we being McCradys, Sewanee royalty and all that. During my year and a half as a member, my experience was dismal. The highlight was standing with my pledge class upon the wall of the Kirby Smith Monument and being made to learn and sing a song at the tops of our lungs about what huge “Fags” the SAEs across the street were. In one particularly awful weekly hazing incident, I was aggressively bullied by an upperclassman, who insisted I was not to be allowed to leave the meeting to return to my dorm to study, but instead would be required to stay at the fraternity house that night and drop acid. My grades had already begun to collapse by that time and I ended the incident, walking the streets weeping, and enraged, filled with impotent, abject, shame. They had to send my fraternity big brother after me to try and talk me off the ledge, as it were. By the time I had to drop out of college and regroup, perhaps my first act of reformation was to ditch that stupid fraternity. I simply couldn’t see even one reason why I needed to pay dues to have friends, when every fraternity party was open to me in the first place, member or not, and the club I’d joined really turned out to not be my friends at all.

    About 8 years ago I visited the campus during the summer, and did a lot of walking. I took the old Abbo’s path and approached the ATO house from the back. As I walked around to the front, I found the front door standing open to the summer elements. For anyone who doesn’t know, the ATO house may have been the most beautiful and central to the campus. As I toured it, I explored a victorian garbage dump. The filth of an end of year party no one had cleaned up from was bad enough, but the rape and pillage, over decades, to the quarter sawn oak moldings and paneling, all of which had been kicked in, put a final coda on the whole of Greek Sewanee for me.
    At our sweet old school, fraternities aren’t dorms. All they ever offered were beautiful houses in which to hold drunken parties. If the other houses have been treated like that ATO house, then I say the University must end this tradition, repossess the houses as they did with the Phi house, and make many sorts of much better use of these very special architectural assets. Most of what has gone on in those houses shouldn’t be formalized any longer as sacred Sewanee tradition.

  6. I’m glad to see this topic being discussed. As a current student (and Greek life member) I can safely say that the Greek scene dominates life on campus. I’m beginning to question whether I want to be part of such a culture…

    Greek organizations are defined by their borders; defining themselves by who is and isn’t in their organization. Exclusion becomes necessary. Sewanee preaches it’s “open doors” policy but in reality, you are judged by which group you are a part of. Like it or not, it is classist. The irony is that frats routinely sh*t talk other frats yet hypocritically say “You can’t judge us – you’re not a part of our organization – you just don’t understand” when someone calls out Greek life as a whole.

    In a sense, Greek life is institutionalized privilege. It harbors which connections are accessible to students. As a small school, connections are valuable and useful in the working world. Hence, Greek life is reinforced as a framework for making these connections. Organizations then often claim it as a benefit of joining. Yet, it plays into the historically classist roots of Sewanee. The question is: is it ethical.

    You often hear, “Well, if Sewanee offered more social outlets other than Greek life maybe we wouldn’t need it as much.” The truth is when you are a part of a fraternity or sorority, your energy is sucked. Your attention turns towards how I can make the organization better, recruit new members, and plan new events. Each week, you go to chapter, eat with your group, and show face at parties. Students have less time to check out or focus on other clubs. And most of the time other clubs are just side gigs with Greek students to say they have “leadership positions.”

    The worst part is watching incoming freshmen get roped into Greek culture. Their naivety and eagerness to make new friends makes them willing to do “whatever it takes.” Greek life preys on this. I can’t tell you how many freshmen pledges I talk to a year later with lower GPA’s, new substance-use problems, mental health issues, and a considerable amount of weight gain. But they’ve made new “friends.” They’ve “sacrificed” to be in a group. And much like an abusive relationship, they can’t leave because of the (social) consequences. They’ve taken what they can get and look to recruiting the new wave of incoming students. It becomes a cycle.

    Sure, Greek life was important and prospering back in its heyday. It was a useful way to connect with others and push for causes. But, with today’s internet and social media, it is no longer necessary.

    Sewanee knows Greek life isn’t the best. However, the push back it would receive from alumni scares administration from making any real change. They stick to making small policy tweaks and safety lectures. Sewanee is overwhelmed by the thought of how much change there would be without Greek life. I wish we were braver.

  7. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone who does not want to join a fraternity or sorority, feels compelled to advocate for the abolition of the fraternity system. No one will force you to rush the Greek system. If you join a Greek organization and do not enjoy it, you can simply leave. Nobody is forcing you to be a part of the Greek system.

    Perhaps, the author could use a lesson in tolerance.

    However, there is probably more to this gratuitous hit piece than meets the eye. The New York Times ran a piece yesterday, titled – “The War on Frats”. Check out the opening paragraph from an anti-fraternity piece in The Daily Pennsylvanian – “As ongoing calls to ban historically white Greek organizations sweep universities across the nation, some Penn students are calling for the abolition of campus greek organizations and advocating for the re-designation of on-campus fraternity houses as cultural spaces.”

    Can you sense the anti-fraternity narrative that is coming! More cancel culture! Just what we needed!

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