Amid the cries for racial justice spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in June 2020, an adjacent struggle was breaking through the surface of public concern.
Instagram accounts dedicated to disclosing the rampant misconduct of American fraternities and sororities began appearing in droves, anonymously representing chapters of a movement to Abolish Greek Life (AGL) at a vast and growing number of college institutions.
Just as it has become clear that the American criminal justice system is a structure rooted in inequality, prejudicial at its very marrow and agelessly unchanged by mere reform, advocates for AGL argue that the institution of Greek life is correspondingly beyond repair. Fraternities were initially formed back when admission to universities was only open for white men, and have represented the same ethos ever since. How do you repair a system that is only functioning exactly as it was created to function?
On the condition of anonymity, a leading representative behind the primary AGL Instagram account explains to me that the movement has actually existed since the creation of fraternities back in the 18th century. Since then, the fight for heightened restrictions and even for total abolition of Greek life institutions has been happening, more or less, in waves.
Fraternities were initially formed back when admission to universities was only open for white men, and have represented the same ethos ever since
“During the Civil Rights Movement, a second resurgence to abolish fraternities swept the country,” says the representative. “Today, in the aftermath of the BLM protests, students are once again calling for the abolition of institutions that reify and uphold racism, sexism, homophobia, class exclusion, interpersonal violence, alcoholism, hazing, discrimination, violence, and exclusion.”
The source explains that there are now official AGL Instagram pages representing over 45 campuses across the country, and organising efforts are actively expanding. The accounts act as a platform for students and alumni to share their experiences within Greek life, and the effect of their openness has proved paramount.
In one testimonial from an account organised by students at Duke University, an anonymous previous fraternity member shares his experience of pledging as the only black man and being singled out to eat an entire watermelon, by himself, while the rest of the pledges watched. Scrolling through other testimonials on this page, there are countless more stories of discrimination, classism, and sexual violence. It is the same with other AGL pages on Instagram – no matter the university, no matter the Greek life chapter, each individual account serves to corroborate an unavoidable truth.
“After reading the stories on Instagram and doing some personal reflection, I realised how deeply problematic and flawed beyond repair the system is”, Kendall Crispin says. Crispin is a politics and philosophy student in her final year at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
She was the vice president of recruitment at her sorority when, last summer, she decided to disaffiliate from Greek life entirely.
In the aftermath of the BLM protests, students are once again calling for the abolition of institutions that reify and uphold racism, sexism, homophobia, class exclusion, interpersonal violence, alcoholism, hazing, discrimination, violence, and exclusion
“I was nervous, but I remember the day after that the pit in my stomach was gone, and I felt like a completely new person. That’s how I knew I made the right choice.”
Like most eager college freshmen, Crispin arrived at Richmond with a blank slate, knowing no one, intentionally looking to carve out her own path and start fresh. After all, this is largely what college is for: breaking from the bubble of your childhood and establishing yourself in the world as an individual for the first time. But Crispin learned early on that Greek life institutions hold firm to a collective memory, and inclusion is based less upon who you are and more upon who you know.
Of the six sororities on her campus, Crispin says two are invariably known to occupy the “top”, practising the most exclusive measures of recruitment. Every year, these sororities carry out “dirty rush”, which Crispin explains means that they choose their incoming pledges long before official recruitment actually begins. Recruits are often preselected based on connections to board members, relations to alumni, or just sheer wealth. This is, of course, against regulations, but that should tell you how effectively these institutions are being regulated in the first place.
As for the other Greek life chapters at Crispin’s university, “our school claims that they have a values-based recruitment, and that you find the people you have the same values with, but essentially it’s just … you have five minute conversations and then you judge the person based on different categories. And none of them are outwardly based on appearance, but when you’re talking to someone for five minutes how do you really know what they value and judge them based on what they’re saying?”
Recruits are often preselected based on connections to board members, relations to alumni, or just sheer wealth
And then there are the financial bars to entry. At the University of Alabama, fees for membership to a fraternity cost $3,500 per semester – excluding the price to live in the fraternity house. Prices for a single semester of membership to an American Greek life chapter range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, roughly half of which goes towards subsidising costs for the national chapters. These fees cover, rather vaguely, “operational costs”.
The expense of membership to fraternities and sororities is enough to eliminate a vast number of potential recruits based on their socio-economic status alone. Not to mention the fact that, even if a student can afford the dues, they can still be subject to discrimination on the basis of their family’s wealth or lack thereof. Despite growing up in a fairly affluent suburb, Crispin tells me she had never seen such a flagrant display of wealth – and shaming of those who do not similarly possess it – as she saw in the “top” sororities at her university.
Erica Warren joined her sorority at Northeastern University in Boston with the belief that it would be an exception to the overwhelmingly prejudicial rule.
“For me, as a black woman from the South, I had certainly always had reservations about being a part of Greek life,” says Warren. “But I found a way to rationalise my concerns by saying, ‘well, Northeastern’s Greek life is different’, ‘Northern Greek life is different from Southern Greek life’, ‘My sorority is extremely diverse’.”
Despite growing up in a fairly affluent suburb, Crispin says she had never seen such a flagrant display of wealth – and shaming of those who do not similarly possess it – as she saw in the “top” sororities at her university
Though Warren, who graduated prior to the emergence of AGL Instagram accounts in 2020, tells me her sorority experience was generally positive, the revitalisation of BLM last June compelled her to look at the wider influence of Greek life with a more critical eye.
“I think Greek Life is the epitome of micro-aggressions”, Warren says. “You can’t mask racism, fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, or sexism in a dark basement where it’s usually white cisgender men who control who can get into the party, what music is playing, and what people they deem worthy enough to get special perks. There is no amount of diversity and inclusivity training that can get rid of this.”
Greek life acts as a microcosm of its nation’s culture: a parallel community which has thrived on its ability to exclude, belittle, and discriminate, ultimately clearing the path for the same stock of individuals to rise year after year.
In the Greek life section of Cornell University’s website, you will find the 2014 heading “The Power of 2%”. The following passage provides statistics which proudly state that “80% of the top executives of Fortune 500 companies are fraternity men” and “76% of current United States Senators and Congressmen are fraternity men.”
There is no amount of diversity and inclusivity training that can get rid of this
It is difficult to see such statistics and not immediately conclude that they are the result of exclusion and elitism. The institution has been upheld by class homogeneity, historically favouring the white students of upper echelons whose parents or grandparents were once members of the society, which grants easy access to some and altogether bars access to others.
“I think Greek life makes people feel comfortable being with people similar to them,” says Crispin. “It takes away the opportunity to expand your friend group into meeting people with different backgrounds and different experiences or who may not look like you.”
Segregation is an ongoing issue associated with Greek life, and Crispin says her campus is particularly divided by both race and class. There are two historically black sororities on campus, understandably arising out of exclusion from the existing chapters which have operated on discriminatory foundations.
Such an inequitable substratum is arguably the reason for a movement to abolish Greek life, not to reform it. In other words, even if a fraternity has somehow managed to avoid relying on time-worn practices of discriminatory behaviour, it remains a singular, dispensable limb of a racist, classist, sexist body.
The institution has been upheld by class homogeneity, historically favouring the white students of upper echelons whose parents or grandparents were once members of the society
Crispin disaffiliated from her sorority last summer, suddenly all too aware that she and a few well-intended friends could not affect real, lasting change from within: “There’s too much oversight.”
“Our administrators are doing very little and that is the most frustrating part of it to me. Donor funds are extremely important to [the University of Richmond], so the administration is at their beck and call”, says Crispin. “They did an ‘internal review’ that essentially meant, ‘we will pretend like we are doing something, but we aren’t.’ They proceeded to do recruitment as normal as possible during a pandemic, and no one was ever punished for sexual assualt stories [or] discrimination.”
Crispin’s university is not the only one beholden to donations. Even so, Greek life chapters don’t necessarily need recognition from their university to continue existing: they’ll become independent, operating more covertly. Warren worries that in colleges whose primary social networks are rooted in Greek life, the response from students will be to make social groups increasingly secretive and exclusive, an effect which is worth considering in the push for total abolition.
“This just means we may have to rethink how to continue with this movement in the coming years,” Warren says.
As well, because Greek life profits as a national organisation, the impact of individual chapters in individual schools is significantly diluted: “Even if the entire chapter disbands, nationals will come in and use students from other colleges to recruit so the chapter can rebuild. Because of this, it needs to be a very widespread movement to be effective”, Crispin says.
Warren worries that in colleges whose primary social networks are rooted in Greek life, the response from students will be to make social groups increasingly secretive and exclusive
And widespread it is becoming. The AGL representative tells me that although there has been a lot of backlash from students, primarily from fraternity men, there has also been a flood of positive feedback from current students, alumni, community members, and parents. They are hopeful that college administrations will eventually be brought onboard by building pressure and increasing education about the detriments of Greek life.
And abolition is not an improbable pipe dream. As the AGL representative explains, “At other schools, like Swarthmore, scandals are substantial enough to lead to abolition because it’s so egregious.”
Indeed, several universities have demonstrated that they don’t need Greek life on their campuses, and are better off for it, too. Amherst, Williams, and Swarthmore are three examples. At Swarthmore, Greek life was banned in 2019 after leaked documents from one fraternity revealed it had a “rape attic” in its house, among a slew of homophobic remarks. The president of the university, Valerie Smith, took swift action and called for all chapters at Swarthmore to disband, proving that it is in fact possible to take a stand against the behemoth of American Greek life.
So, what will American universities be without fraternities and sororities? “We think colleges will build community outside the racist, hypermasculine, exclusive, and violent spaces of Greek Life,” says the AGL representative. “When we break down systems that have unjust power on campus, we will create a campus that is more reflective of our values.”