Margaret Butler & Jack Larish
When students arrived on campus this August, they walked right into a battle. During the past several months, Sewanee discourse has been dominated by one topic: The investigation and punitive action taken against Theta Kappa Phi by the University for alleged hazing violations. The sanctions initially imposed on the sorority were swift and harsh, and the larger Sewanee community’s reaction was instantaneous. It is no secret that Sewanee students and alumni alike hold their experiences in Greek organizations close to their hearts. The resulting conflict between administration and the community was not lacking in passion or resentment. For most, it wasn’t the fact of TKP’s punishment that fueled their anger, rather, it was the initial severity of the punishment that shocked the community. Many believe that a 4 year suspension was a gross overstep on the part of the administration. Recently, in a move that appeared aimed at responding to the sorority’s lengthy appeal, the university rolled back the 4 year suspension to a 1 year probationary period.
So, a question arises: Is the current administration anti-Greek life? It’s hard to say for sure. Let’s say hypothetically that one day, large numbers of students accused the administration of being anti-athletics. Surely, by sundown, we’d all receive an official email refuting that claim. In other words, if the administration is not anti-Greek-life, one would imagine that they would make that position clear. Whether or not the administration is anti-Greek, that is the message they are sending to the community.
When the administration has made statements or taken action regarding Greek life, they illustrate their position well. Dean of Students Erica Howard told a Purple writer in an interview last spring that she would prefer that Sewanee have national Greek chapters in lieu of local Greek organizations on campus because of the additional oversight that national organizations provide. Sororities in particular would face far more restrictions if they were affiliated with national organizations; national sororities ban alcohol at their houses, at official chapter parties or functions, and even among individual members wearing sorority insignia. When ATO was disbanded in the fall of 2021, for example, the national organization conducted their own investigation alongside the University’s. Dean Howard’s statement last spring, of course, was mainly directed at sororities, as only two out of the ten fraternities are local, while eight out of Sewanee’s ten sororities are local.
A shift to national organizations would not spell the end of all Greek activities. However, the Sewanee community would see this as the destruction of a unique and integral part of campus life. This position, more specifically, is anti Sewanee-Greek life, which Sewanee students and alumni consider an entirely unique and distinct culture. Indeed, local Greek sororities are a large part of what makes Sewanee Greek culture so unique. Dean Howard also said last spring that she would like to see Sewanee drinking culture suppressed. Many Sewanee students would argue that our drinking culture is not up to the administration to change if the students, within reason, want to maintain our agency and autonomy as young adults. Judging from the administration’s recent crackdowns and investigations targeting not only the TKPs but a number of other Greek groups on the Mountain, it appears that Dean Howard and her subordinates are attempting to impose a top-down culture change.
And changing Greek life on the Mountain could be a long and complicated fight, particularly if the administration keeps trying to do it by edict and without student buy-in. Sewanee has one of the highest rates of greek life participation in the United States. According to usnews.com and other databases, 57 percent of men on campus are members of a fraternity– the fifth highest participation rate per capita among U.S. colleges and Universities. Seventy-two percent of women on campus are in a sorority, so Sewanee ranks No. 1 nationally per capita for sorority membership among U.S. Colleges and Universities. With such ubiquitous participation across campus, there is simply no equivalent social or cultural alternative to the Greek system that students now enjoy.
An additional example of Sewanee’s Greek life crack-down can be found in the University’s restrictions issued during COVID aimed at keeping students safe from viral transmissions. Many of these restrictions have become status quo restrictions over Greek houses, despite COVID measures being phased out in other areas of campus life.
The University also added new regulations pertaining to organizations on the Domain in the newly revised EQB guide. According to the 2022-23 EQB guide, on page seven, “The following guidelines will be used to determine if an alleged violation is associated with a Student Organization:
“Conduct is endorsed by the organization or any of its leaders. Endorsement includes, but is not limited to, active or passive consent or support, having prior knowledge the activity was likely to occur, or helping to plan, promote, or advertise the activity.
“Conduct is committed during the course of an activity paid for by the organization or paid for by one or more members contributing personal funds.
“Conduct occurred on property owned, controlled, rented, leased, or used by the organization or its members for organizational activities.
“Purpose of the activity was related to joining, initiating, or continuing membership/affiliation with the organization.
“Non-members of the organization learned about the activity from advertisements or communications associated with the organization.
“Members of the organization attempted to conceal the activity or protect members who were involved.
“One or more leaders of the organization had prior knowledge or reasonably should have known that the conduct would take place.”
The most severe additions are bullet point two, three, and seven. According to bullet point two, a Greek organization could be held accountable for any violation of the EQB guide that takes place at an event they sponsored, even if the conduct is committed by a non-affiliated student. Therefore, every Greek organization is not only responsible for their members but every single student who attends any single event the organization hosts or sponsors. This language is absent in the 2021-2022 EQB guide.
Additionally, according to bullet point three, a Greek organization can be held accountable for any violation of the EQB guide that takes place on land owned or rented by that Greek organization. For example, what if a drunk underaged student stumbles onto the lawn of a quiet, dormant Greek organization on a Friday night, and decides to drink a beer? According to bullet point 3, no matter how unaware and uninvolved the Greek organization owning that lawn was, the University would still find them liable for that violation of the EQB guide.
And lastly, according to bullet point seven, the University expects all Greek life leadership to be able to “reasonably” predict the future, lest the University provide each of them with a crystal ball.
At best, the previously mentioned additions to the EQB guide (bullet points two, three, and seven) are poorly thought-out. At worst, they are designed to shirk liability upon student organizations.
Sewanee also boasts an abundance of student organizations outside of Greek such as the SOP, language houses, WICK, political organizations, community service groups, and club athletics. Many Greek life members participate in multiple organizations and contribute to campus-life outside of their sorority or fraternity. While non-Greek student organizations are popular, none exist solely for the purpose of socializing with students across campus. The social life of the University remains dependent on Greek life— whose social events are required to be open to every student on-campus— belying the exclusivity often associated with Greek life at other colleges and Universities. Students who are not members of any Greek organizations still rely on going to a sorority or fraternity house for many social events. If Greek life were abolished on the Mountain, no other student organization could fill the social void. The popularity of both student organizations and Greek life proves that both are required for a well-rounded student experience. So for many students, whose buy-in is crucial to the University’s well-being, the administration’s apparent agenda to sequester Greek life is indicative of a lack of regard for their students’ welfare.
All this points to a more significant issue. Simply put, there is a disconnect between students, student culture, and the governing bodies of the University. The administration seems to labor under the delusion that they give us a say in the University’s decisions. Not only the Greek crackdown but other recent administration edicts confirm this is not true. For example, the SGA was recently informed of plans to close the Tiger Bay Pub at a meeting. A substitute is planned to open when the Biehl Commons is completed. The Biehl Commons will replace the recently destroyed Sewanee Union Theater. These examples may appear trivial, but thinking so would be a failure to see the point. The administration never asked students whether or not these things are aspects of campus that still matter to us. Some students tried to express their opinions about the demolition of the SUT through emails to the administration, petitions, and articles in the Purple. All were ignored. Will this be the narrative when the administration decides to close Pub’s doors?
Sewanee’s campus and culture should be dedicated, first and foremost, to its students, past and present. The administration seems to think differently. To all current students: If you have an aspect of campus life that you hold dear, no matter how simple, enjoy it while it lasts.