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