The referendum on Greek life is still on hold, but discussions on its future are already moving forward.
Joyce Wu ‘15, who started the petition for a referendum, organized the first of a series of campus-wide discussions aimed at addressing issues raised in the past couple of days both with the Greek organizations and with the referendum itself.
Wu, fraternity and sorority members, and unaffiliated individuals met on Thursday evening, launching into a discussion exploring three major themes: a perceived unsafe environment associated with Greek life, administration involvement, and the use of spaces.
The Presidents of both fraternities and leaders of Kappa Alpha Theta also voiced concerns about the referendum, explaining the hostile attack they believed it represented. Wu in turn apologized for the abruptness of the petition and recognized the tension created the lack of discussions leading up to the petition’s creation.
Despite moving rooms twice beforehand, the classroom in Kohlberg still seemed too small for the vast turn-out, with students crowded at desks, grouped together on the floor, and spilling out into the hallway.
Wu said she had intended for this to be a planning meeting for future discussions and was not expecting over twenty people. With such a large group in attendance she said she decided to use the first meeting to get a feel for the topics that future discussions should focus on.
“I was really glad that so many people showed up. I think it bodes well for the future,” Wu said.
Delta Upsilon President Rory McTear ’13, Vice President Zach Nacev ’13, and Phi Psi President Zach Schaffer ’14 also shared similar sentiments and said they are looking forward to working with non-affiliated students who have been passionate and vocal in the past two weeks.
In reference to allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse, students cited a need for stronger repercussions for fraternity members who behave inappropriately and irresponsibly. Many also voiced disappointment with the administration’s lack of timely and appropriate response to such events in previous years.
As students continue to grow more vocal in their demands for change, these concerns have travelled quickly throughout campus, sparking responses from students and faculty alike. In a campus-wide email sent Monday morning, Dean Liz Braun asserted that the Dean’s Office is committed to improving the way in which such issues are approached.
“I want to state very clearly that in the Dean’s office we have and will continue to address any issues of sexual assault, physical assault, homophobia, racism and other serious issues that are brought to our attention,” Braun wrote.
A KAT sister and several Phi Psi brothers proposed the establishment of a Greek Life Advisory Council. Student Council would regulate the committee, which would be comprised of members of the fraternities, sorority, and administration, as well as students representing other campus organizations, such as members of the SMART and DART teams.
McTear thought the committee was a step forward in the right direction, as it would create an additional venue for open dialogue between students, members of Greek organizations, and the administration.
While many attendees approved of the committee in theory, some held serious doubts about how effectively and for how long it would function in practice.
“It’s difficult momentum to sustain when the committee is no longer shining new … it’s not a great structural change,” Wu said.
Noah Weinthal ’15, who is unaffiliated with any Greek organization, fears that the committee will be a detriment, exacerbating the isolated nature of Greek life on campus that many members of the community oppose. The fraternity brothers are classmates, peers, and friends, and they should be just as approachable as any other individual or group on campus, without the need for a third party to facilitate, he said.
“I think the onus is on the fraternities to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out how they can integrate better with the community … how can they not make this an ‘us versus them,’” Weinthal said.
The fraternity houses were another focal point of the discussion. The organizations’ entitlement to a private space was characterized as unacceptable by several students, especially those concerned about the lack of private spaces for other student organizations on campus.
“Being exclusionary is inherently contrary to Quaker culture,” Wu said.
McTear and Nacev both described the founding of the Delta Upsilon house, citing how 100 percent of the funding for its construction came from the fraternity and its alumnus. Many physical aspects of the house, such as the fireplace and plaques hanging on the walls, carry not only sentimental value but also historical weight, they said.
“The house is really just another brother to us … it’s a space that we cherish and treat as another brother,” McTear said.
Very few attendees suggested abolishing the houses completely. Instead, many students called for a redefining of the houses, in order to open them further to other student organizations as well as the rest of the student body.
“I really understand the house’s sense of history, but I don’t think that sense of history has to be destroyed,” Wu said.
“It would be best for everyone, including the frat brothers, if the spaces were … re-purposed to allow the college community to have some of the positive experiences that frat brothers enjoy everyday, and to allow control of the spaces not reside with a few male students,” Weinthal said.
Within the next week, Wu hopes to hold another open discussion, and invites even more members of the community to join. She also plans on meeting with Assistant Dean Karlene Burrell-McRae and Student Council Co-President Victor Brady ’13 in order to discuss plans for future discussions, as well as a possible collection this Friday.
Despite the number of issues brought up on Thursday evening, Wu hopes to tackle some pressing questions that were not addressed during the first meeting – namely, why she and others want to get rid of Greek organizations on campus, and why members of the fraternities and sororities support Greek life.
As prevalent as Wu’s questions may be, Weinthal holds strong doubts about their legitimacy.
“I don’t think it’s within the jurisdiction of the student body to completely abolish Greek life,” he said. “It is never fair for the discomfort of a large group of people to dictate what a smaller group of people can do.”
The brothers of DU and Phi Psi as well as the sisters of KAT are prepared to uphold their loyalty to their organizations.
“The type of community built on this brotherhood, the type of support group – academics, relationships, athletics – that support the great diversity of minds, of people that are in Delta Upsilon, have really allowed me to expand my horizons,” McTear said.
Nacev expanded further, adding, “In terms of our community service commitment, it’s helped me get in touch with not only the Swarthmore College community, but also the neighborhoods and communities outside of Swarthmore.”
At the same time, members of Greek organizations are looking forward to moving ahead and beginning the process of reorganizing Greek life on campus for the future.
“At this point, we’re very open to doing what we can … to improve the general safety and general happiness of others,” Nacev said.
Looking back, Wu said that she was not only surprised by the sheer number of people who attended Thursday’s discussion but also by the civility with which everyone conducted themselves. “I was really pleasantly surprised … I was expecting to be attacked by all sides,” she said.
Wu was not the only person who expected hostility; Weinthal was also prepared for fierce debate to ensue.
“I assumed it was probably going to dissolve into some form of horrific squabbling,” he said.
Wu hopes that the productive nature of Thursday’s discussion will act as an even greater incentive for students to join the conversation on Greek life. “These are issues that involve the entire campus … members of the Greek organizations are also members of Swarthmore,” she said.
“If we’re going to institute effective policy changes, that’s not going to come from personal attacks,” Weinthal added. “Our model for Greek life, and the one that works for us, is going to be something designed by the campus community and made appropriate for the school.”
Wu, who has already collected enough signatures for a referendum, said she has not yet decided to officially submit her petition to StuCo. If she were to follow through with the referendum, it alone would not be able to ban Greek life on campus. The referendum would be presented to the administration and the Board of Managers, who would take it into consideration but ultimately have the final word, Wu said.
In a phone interview with The Daily Gazette on Saturday, Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp ‘72 said the Board did not discuss Greek life extensively at their meeting last weekend, but he did say he believes students should be able to pursue a variety of different interests.
“I like to generally [keep] my views of particular groups at Swarthmore to live and let live,” Kemp said.
He said he finds the campus-wide conversations surrounding Greek life an important step forward.
“I think the very positive thing that’s coming out of the petition is heightening the discussion of the issues that really are on people’s minds about the fraternities and impending sorority,” Kemp said.
While The Daily Gazette’s reporter, Jenni Lu, attended Thursday’s open meeting, all direct quotes that appear in this article were recorded during later interviews.
Andrew Karas contributed reporting.