As Americans started a new reckoning with systemic racism this summer. Some college students who were being kept out of school due to COVID-19 began looking at life on campus through a new lens. They questioned whether Greek life – particularly the chapters within the Inter-Brotherhood Council and the Panhellenic Council that govern fraternities and sororities – were troubling manifestations of marginalization and privilege at their colleges.
In a new video for TIME, students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, one of the first schools to see the Abolish Greek Life movement, comment on whether or not abolishing longstanding fraternities and sororities would be an important step towards equality.
Vanderbilt’s Greek life was historically popular – nearly a third of the students participated in the Greek system – but that popularity was threatened when the students left the organizations to which they had signed up after the murder of George Floyd. “After the murder of George Floyd, no one in my sisterhood had spoken of it. And in a room where I had once thought about fellowship and called these girls my sisters, I couldn’t justify continuing to do so. I said, “I’m done,” says Taylor Thompson, a Vanderbilt senior.
Thompson and a number of other disaffected students, both ex-Greeks and not, began to organize. They created an Instagram account that shared people’s negative experiences with the Greek system, from racism to sexual assault to sexism to homophobia. Students from other colleges, such as Northwestern University, Duke University, and the University of Richmond, created accounts on the same model and sparked a nationwide debate about the place of Greek life on campus.
In recent years, a number of high profile incidents related to Greek life have occurred at colleges across the country, including a racist chant at the University of Oklahoma and a video of Brotherhood members making fun of slavery at the University of Georgia do. While some argue that these problems are systemic and inherent in the Greek system, others counter that the Greek system’s abolition is too hasty – advocating reform of the system to address its problems instead.
In many ways, it’s a conflict that mirrors the policing debate in the United States. Jared Bauman, a senior and fraternity member of Vanderbilt, spoke out against the abolition of the Greek system in a July published for the student newspaper. “They actually have chapters on campus that have done wonderful things, more than other parts of the non-Greek campus, when it comes to combating sexual assault and racism,” he tells TIME.
After a tense summer, Vanderbilt resumed some personal classes for the fall semester, with student gatherings being strictly limited. It was a lesson that may have been learned last spring when the school was dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. Many cases were traced back to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, commonly referred to as “St. Fratty’s. ”
Since the pandemic began, a number of other colleges have traced outbreaks to Greek life. John Hechinger, author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities, says this is not surprising. “Greek life has been a public health issue for generations and I think this is coming to fruition in the era of COVID-19. At one point, an organization of insurers rated brotherhoods as just above toxic landfills. ”
Despite these concerns and liabilities, experts say college administrators have an incentive to keep Greek life going. “Many administrations are really reluctant to confront fraternity and sororities in a direct way because they worry about alumni who tend to support the organizations and give or withhold their money when universities criticize the organizations,” says Nicholas Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of the White College Fraternities.
Even if universities are reluctant to abolish the Greek system, chapters may in the future struggle with hurt images as students view fraternities and sororities with new control. Vanderbilt’s Greek urgent process, in which potential new members are divided into fraternities and sororities, will be completed at the beginning of the coming spring semester. It will be a test for Greek life and the Abolish Greek Life movement. Regardless of how many students reject or join the system, the conversation on campus is an indicator of how a new generation is looking to bring about change.
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