The War on Frats

The New York Times | By Ezra Marcus

In the past month, hundreds of students have dropped out of their fraternities and sororities at Vanderbilt University. They have gathered, digitally, using group-run Instagram activist pages. They have written searing op-eds condemning their own organizations for the student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler.

And they have petitioned the administration to ban Greek organizations from campus.

The mass action, which has taken place while students have been away from the Nashville campus for the summer and isolated because of the pandemic, has been accelerated by a handful of racist incidents that have been surfaced in videos and on social media.

But students said their real reasons have deeper roots: that Greek life is exclusionary, racist and misogynist, as well as resistant to reform because of the hierarchical nature of the national Greek organizations, which control local chapters.

Similar “Abolish Greek Life” movements have sprung up at other universities around the country, including at the University of Richmond, Duke, Emory, American University, Northwestern and the University of North Carolina.

Emma Heck, 21, a senior at Emory who recently dropped out of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, said, “The national organizations are always going to prohibit any real change.” Max Ratelle, 21, a rising senior at Tufts, said he dropped out of his fraternity because reform felt futile. “We’re just going to see history repeat itself over and over again,” he said.

On Wednesday, the governing panel of sororities at Tufts announced in a statement that rush (when students become acquainted with the different fraternities or sororities on campus) would not take place in the fall as they “decide what the best course of action is for Greek Life at Tufts” and continue to examine “the structurally and situationally problematic nature of Greek Life.”

The movement at Vanderbilt has been the biggest so far, with many students leaving several prominent fraternity and sorority chapters there, including Delta Tau Delta and Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Both national organizations said that membership numbers remained healthy; Delta Tau Delta said that “approximately a third” of the Vanderbilt chapter had disaffiliated, and Kappa Kappa Gamma said “a majority of our women at Vanderbilt University remain members.” In both cases, formal disaffiliation requires that each student submit paperwork; at Kappa Kappa Gamma, there is a waiting period of several weeks.

Both organizations stated their commitment to supporting remaining members in efforts to address and reform issues within the Greek system and outside it.

Taylor Thompson, 21, a rising senior at Vanderbilt University, was one of the first to leave the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority in late May, after the death of George Floyd in police custody. As protests flared around the country, Ms. Thompson, who is Black, said there were no efforts from her sorority sisters to discuss anti-racist action.

“Nothing was being talked about in our group chat except for, like, a trip to Vegas,” Ms. Thompson said. She sent the chat a message expressing “disappointment that whenever something like this happens, I’m the first person to bring it up or another person of color is,” she said, and urged her sisters, most of whom are white, to share resources and make donations related to the protests.

At first, reception was positive. Lots of her sisters “liked” her comment, and the conversation flowed for an hour or so. But it soon fell off track.

She and four other women of color decided to quit. “I didn’t want to continue to have to spend all my time educating all the girls around me,” Ms. Thompson said. “We’ve had countless, you know, diversity inclusion sessions and workshops, and everybody is, quote unquote, trying. But the fruits of that labor don’t really show up when it means the most.”

Vanderbilt is an unlikely place for an anti-Greek life movement. John Hechinger, the author of “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” said Vanderbilt had been “a real stronghold” of Greek power in the country. The university has hosted fraternities since 1873, the year it was founded.

Today, according to Vanderbilt, more than 35 percent of the nearly 7,000 undergraduates there belong to a Greek life organization, which are housed in 25 on-campus buildings. But there is a historical precedent for students walking out of their fraternities and sororities. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, students rejected Greek life as a bastion of reactionary politics and racism, and dropped their affiliation en masse. Some local chapters disbanded.

In 1968, a group of student activists occupied a Columbia University administration building during a protest. According to the historian Paul Cronin, these students faced off in a violent clash with a counterrevolutionary group calling itself the Majority Coalition, which consisted mainly of conservative athletes and fraternity brothers. (“A row of clean-shaven white men, mostly wearing jackets and ties, punched away as students and outsiders tried to bash through what they called the Jock Line,” Mr. Cronin wrote in Politico.)

One of those in the Majority Coalition is the current attorney general, William P. Barr, who belonged to the Sigma Nu fraternity.

Attorney General Barr is far from the only powerful government figure with Greek ties. Eighteen United States presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have belonged to fraternities, along with scores of other politicians and titans of industry. Vanderbilt fraternity alumni include William Bain, the co-founder of the consultancy giant Bain & Company, the Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and the Democratic governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear.

The promise of networking connections and camaraderie is a large part of the draw. At many schools, fraternities and sororities run the social scene and throw the biggest parties. Since 1984, when the drinking age rose to 21 nationwide, fraternities became the “unofficial bartenders” of many campuses, Mr. Hechinger said.

But with the pandemic preventing many students from going back to campus in the fall, Greek organizations have less to offer in a social sense. Fraternity and sorority dues, about 50 percent of which often go to the national organizations, are harder to justify.

Ms. Thompson helps run the Instagram account @abolishvandyifcandpanhellenic, which urges students to drop their Greek affiliation and publishes anonymous and signed submissions from students about their negative experiences with Greek life. In early July someone sent her a video in which a white frat brother from Delta Kappa Epsilon yelled a racist slur at several white Kappa Alpha Theta sisters, one of whom was wearing what appeared to be a mock durag. Ms. Thompson published it on her own Instagram on July 3.

Within hours, dozens of members of Kappa Alpha Theta began dropping their affiliation; some began calling for a vote to remove the organization’s charter so that it could no longer operate on campus. The sorority soon received an email from the advisory board chair for its chapter, Mary Lee Bartlett, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 1985 and works as a liaison between the current students and the national organization.

“PLEASE! Zip your lips on these topics!” Ms. Bartlett wrote in the email, the phrase highlighted in gold for emphasis. She urged the current sorority sisters not to speak to friends or family about either the video or “the interest members have expressed in either surrendering the Charter and/or individually resigning.”

Someone leaked Ms. Bartlett’s email to Emma Pinto, a Vanderbilt senior who left Zeta Tau Alpha, and she posted that on Instagram as well. For many angry students, it was a clear-cut example of the way the national organizations put their reputations ahead of accountability. (Neither Kappa Alpha Theta or Ms. Bartlett responded to requests for comment from The New York Times.)

The email, Ms. Thompson said, made her and others “critically examine” why the organization would want to “put a gag order on the girls in that sorority.”

“What values,” she said, “do these organizations hold?”

In the past, the national organizations have been a moderating force on Greek life, stepping in to limit hazing or try to prevent racist party themes, Mr. Hechinger said. Now, though, many students think the nationals are a barrier to reform.

A rising senior at Vanderbilt, who was allowed to speak anonymously for privacy reasons, was, until late June, in a high-ranking leadership position in the fraternity Delta Tau Delta. He said that a push for outright abolishment could have been avoided if the administration and national organizations had been more flexible about student concerns.

He said that initially he felt it was his responsibility as a leader in his organization and “someone with bargaining chips with the administration” to push for reforms to Greek life on campus, rather than walking away completely.

He and several other fraternity members wrote up a policy memo and arranged a meeting with Vanderbilt administrators, calling for reforms that included a ban on Greek social dues and for redistribution of campus resources. “I was asking them to sign off on a housing application that would allow Greek houses to be applied for by any campus organization,” he said, in order to “redistribute some of the social capital on campus.”

The meeting, which happened on June 29 with Kristin Torrey, the director of Greek life at Vanderbilt, left several of the brothers feeling dismissed. “She just showed, like, total animosity and unwillingness to change,” the senior recalled.

Ms. Torrey did not respond to a request for comment from The Times. A spokeswoman for Vanderbilt said the school was “available to work with students as they navigate reforms, while respecting students’ autonomy to create, sustain and lead various organizations as a part of the college experience.”

A week later, a group of students from Delta Tau Delta had a call with a representative from the national chapter, in which they expressed concerns about fraternity conduct and felt similarly dismissed. After that, many of the brothers, including all of its senior leadership, decided to quit the fraternity. Twenty-seven of them signed a letter in The Vanderbilt Hustler, calling for the end of Greek life on campus.

“Our genuine efforts towards meaningful reform have been met with systemic apathy and animosity,” they wrote. “Because of our failed attempt at reform, those of us who have disaffiliated are adamant in our call for the abolition of historically white Greek Life. To all those harmed by Delta Tau Delta, we extend a sincere apology — there is no reversing the damage we have caused.”

Jack Kreman, the chief executive officer of Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity, wrote in a statement that the national organization “believes calls to abolish fraternities fall short of truly dealing with campus-wide cultural challenges,” and reiterated its commitment “to working with the remaining members to address matters of concern.”

Hundreds of Vanderbilt students began talking in lengthy group chats and collaborating in Google Docs; according to Ms. Pinto, there is no designated leader among them. “This was collective organizing and collective action,” she said.

On July 7, three of the highest ranking fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt — Callen DiGiovanni, who was the student president of the Interfraternity Council; Joshua Allen, who was the student attorney general; and Alex Snape, who was student vice president of housing — wrote a Medium post resigning from their positions.

“To the students and alumni who have been harmed by our organization, we sincerely apologize,” they wrote. “We know that words don’t erase the past, but hope that our action today will help this University move beyond this toxic culture.”

The Vanderbilt administration has promised to conduct an internal review of Greek life next semester.

The university said in a statement: “We respect the right of students to join or disaffiliate with any registered student organization.” The statement reiterated that all members of student organizations are expected to “adhere to high standards of conduct aligned with our commitment to a safe, welcoming and inclusive campus for everyone” and that “when student conduct violations occur, we take action, investigate and hold perpetrators accountable — both individuals and organizations.”

But just because pressure is building on students to walk away from the Greek system does not mean that the majority of those in fraternities or sororities want to leave them.

In college student newspapers, some have criticized the Abolish Greek Life movement for painting fraternities and sororities with too broad a brush. “AGL is wrong to characterize every Greek chapter as irredeemable,” wrote Jared Bauman, a Vanderbilt student, in a Vanderbilt Hustler op-ed, referring to the Abolish Greek Life movement. “My fraternity might not be perfect, but it’s a far cry from the image of abject depravity that AGL projects.”

Similar debates are taking place at other schools. “The current movement to abolish the Greek life system at Duke fails to consider people like me,” wrote a senior named AJ Whitney in a letter to The Duke Chronicle. Mr. Whitney belongs to the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and wrote that he is openly gay. “I have never felt more accepted, valued and respected by any other community, both at Duke and throughout my life, than by my Taus,” he wrote.

Most students who are members of historically Black fraternities and sororities have no plans to drop; at Vanderbilt and other schools, the Abolish Greek Life movement is targeted at historically white Greek life organizations, which fall into either the Interfraternity Council or the National Panhellenic Conference. (Most historically Black Greek organizations belong to the National Pan-Hellenic Council.)

For much of their history, fraternities and sororities were segregated; the charters of many organizations explicitly prohibited nonwhite non-Christians from joining.

Though white fraternities and sororities were officially desegregated by the end of the 1960s, many local chapters continued to informally prioritize new white members.

In an interview, Shelby Hart, a Vanderbilt junior who belongs to the Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, said that Black Greek life can provide a separation from the prejudice of white Greek life. “I have heard of many occurrences where even people of color within these organizations faced racism through other members using racial slurs,” she said. “I know people who’ve been called the N-word on campus by other students.”

“The university is doing a very strategic higher-ed method that a lot of universities apply when there is some type of prejudice scandal that occurs on campus,’ she said. “They say that this ‘does not align with our values.’”

This, she believes, is an attempt to dodge accountability and avoid substantive changes. “The rhetoric the university has used makes it seem as if these events are isolated, and that these events do not reflect Vanderbilt’s culture,” she said. “However, they do.”

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