Why Nebraska Students Won’t Stop Protesting

Every night outside an embattled frat house, they are demanding an end to sexual assault.

Students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln aren’t content with expressing outrage about an alleged sexual assault in a fraternity house this week. They’ve made it clear they won’t stop protesting until the fraternity is kicked off campus for good.

In the three nights since a Nebraska student reported a sexual assault at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house, hundreds of students have shown up at 10 p.m. outside or near the fraternity, known as Fiji. Another demonstration is planned for Friday night. Students are demanding that the fraternity be permanently barred as a student organization, calling for cultural change at the flagship university, and sharing stories of surviving sexual assault.

The fraternity has been temporarily suspended, the chancellor, Ronnie D. Green, announced on Wednesday.

The intense, immediate display of activism began within hours after the Nebraska student reported the alleged assault. The protesters’ tactics echo those used by students at Swarthmore College, who occupied a fraternity house for four days in 2019 over concerns about sexist, racist, and homophobic documents that appeared to have been written by fraternity members. Swarthmore’s two fraternities voluntarily disbanded after the protests.

What’s happened at Nebraska is a grim reminder of the longstanding campus problems that were less prevalent when colleges were mostly shut down due to the pandemic. With many campuses reopened at full capacity, students no longer must abide by the strict rules that sought to discourage parties and other gatherings last academic year. Sexual assaults are statistically most likely to take place from the start of the fall semester to Thanksgiving break.

But as students restart their social lives, many are also demanding better, safer campuses than the ones they left behind nearly 18 months ago.

In an email to students on Thursday afternoon, the chancellor acknowledged their frustrations. “I know that the end of that legal process sometimes just doesn’t feel like justice,” Green wrote. “I get that. I understand many of you are angry. I’m angry too.”

In 2018, Green was part of a national effort, organized by college presidents, to reform Greek life and promote transparency about fraternity misconduct after a series of student deaths at fraternity parties.

Green was not available for an interview on Friday, a university spokesperson, Leslie Reed, said.

A Change.org petition to the Nebraska administration and Phi Gamma Delta, titled “Ban Fiji Forever,” has received more than 315,000 signatures. An Instagram account with the handle @shutdownfiji has racked up more than 27,000 followers.

The accuser in the alleged assault is a 17-year-old female student who went to the fraternity house with an 18-year-old female friend on Monday evening, according to Hassan Ramzah, the campus police chief. The friend left the house before the 17-year-old, who later called for her friend to pick her up.

The friend picked up the 17-year-old several blocks from the Fiji house and took her to a hospital’s emergency room, where the staff reported a sexual assault to the Lincoln Police Department. The department turned the case over to the university police, which is handling it independently.

The suspect, a 19-year-old male, is a member of the fraternity but is not being identified, Ramzah said. Reed said the suspect is no longer enrolled. He “is believed to have left campus and is communicating with UNLPD through legal representation,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. The accuser remains enrolled.

Phi Gamma Delta has been mired in controversy before. At the time of the suspension, Fiji was already on probation for prior violations of university policy. In 2015 the fraternity was put on probation for reports of alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct; it was later suspended, from 2017 to 2020.

In a statement to The Chronicle, the fraternity’s national chapter said it was cooperating with the university and would take “appropriate action” pending the results of a university investigation.

The protests at Nebraska continue a swell of student activism aimed at shaping healthier, more equitable social environments that’s grown even as campuses have been less open during the pandemic.

In the summer of 2020, the Abolish Greek Life movement gained traction at many colleges, as students called out the racist and sexist legacies of fraternities and sororities. Other students, including many from within Greek life, have sought a middle road, calling for reform instead of abolition.

“It reflects — and it’s about time — students having a better understanding of how dangerous fraternities can be,” said Douglas E. Fierberg, a lawyer who often sues fraternities on behalf of sexual-assault and hazing victims. Since colleges aren’t doing enough to hold fraternities accountable on their own, Fierberg said, “students are taking justice into their own hands.”

Pat Tetreault, director of Nebraska’s Women’s and LGBTQA+ Centers, was heartened to see the “groundswell” of support for sexual-assault survivors from the student body this week.

“It’s also a reflection of the amount of time and effort that has gone into raising awareness about sexual assault and interpersonal violence as a public-health issue, over time, and that people’s attitudes have been changing,” Tetreault said, tearing up, “because this particular person’s peers automatically believed and spoke up to that person against this type of violence.”

Tetreault said that although she understands students want to see immediate change, the university has to work within a legal system that has a strict set of procedures for handling cases like this.

“Everybody deserves to be psychologically and physically safe,” Tetreault said. “We just don’t really live in a world where that’s a reality yet. But I think that we can do things as individuals and as members of groups within our institutions to advocate for those things.”

Batool Ibrahim, president of Nebraska’s student government, said that while tensions have been high this week, watching her fellow students organize was a “powerful” experience. That the fraternity was suspended within 36 hours of the police report came as a relief to Ibrahim, who said it had made her feel safer as a woman on campus.

But Meyri Ibrahim, president of the Black Student Union and co-chair of the student government’s committee on campus life and safety, said there’s a larger cultural issue, in which students tell one another to avoid certain fraternities. “If students don’t feel safe on campus,” Ibrahim said, “then that means that there’s a deep problem.” (Batool and Meyri aren’t related.)

Some students, Batool Ibrahim said, have asked why the university hasn’t acted more quickly to shut down fraternities after past sexual-assault incidents. The students’ response this week, she hopes, will ensure that serious punishments are considered more quickly in the future. The student government is in the process of creating an emergency fund for survivors of sexual assault, she added.

What happened on Monday night was not an isolated incident but indicative of “a national epidemic surrounding sexual assault on campus,” the student-body president said. “How do we create an American college system where girls are not going in with the knowledge of, I could be raped in the four years that I’m at this university?”



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