GREY CITY

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January 26, 2021

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4:43 p.m.

“Founded to Exclude”: Greek Life, UChicago Theta, and the Push for Abolition


UChicago Kappa Alpha Theta's Facebook banner advertises formal recruitment from 2016, edited here and overlaid with cutouts of signs taken from other images promoting sorority recruitment.

Courtesy of Kappa Alpha Theta University of Chicago Facebook Banner

During the 2019-20 school year, UChicago’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta (better known as simply Theta) had more than 180 members. Now, in January of 2021, it has just over 30. 

UChicago is one of many universities across the country to see a mass exodus from Greek life in recent months. Hundreds of students reportedly disaffiliated from Vanderbilt Greek life institutions in July, the University of Richmond’s entire Panhellenic Council resigned over the summer, and “Abolish Greek life” Instagram accounts sprung up at campuses nationwide. The catalysts for these movements have varied from school to school, but one common thread runs through them all: the belief that Greek institutions are rooted in classism, racism, and exclusivity. 

UChicago Theta 

According to an op-ed penned by five former members of Theta’s leadership—all of whom have since disaffiliated from the sorority—UChicago Theta’s most recent reckoning began with an incident in the fall 2019 recruitment cycle. 

In the fall of 2019, during the tenure of previous leadership, “women of color, and dark-skinned women specifically, were excluded from the process of meeting new members from day one and told explicitly to go home throughout the process,” the op-ed read. This prevented several women of color, who had signed up to participate in recruitment, from interacting with new members. 

These women “looked around the room, and they were like, ‘wait a minute, everyone who wasn’t assigned was Black or Asian,’” said M., a former Theta member familiar with the matter who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation or harassment. “There were other people getting multiple assignments, whereas they were not [getting assigned to speak with prospective members].” 

Speaking to new members is the main way in which current sorority members participate in recruitment and, according to the op-ed, “the selection of specific members over others” sidelined many women of color in this process. 

A heated argument ensued when they raised this concern with a member involved in planning the recruitment process. Subsequently, “the Monday following recruitment, multiple members recounted a collective experience of exclusion and belittlement at the hands of fellow chapter members to our advisors​ ​and present chapter leadership at a Membership Development Committee (MDC) meeting, but no action was taken,” the op-ed read. MDC performs a disciplinary function within Theta, adjudicating disputes among members. 

“It is problematic to not recognize that exclusion from sororities, and feelings of exclusion among Black women, is an issue,” M. said. 

Members of Theta leadership during fall 2019 did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

But according to former Theta leadership, the failure was as much in the aftermath of the recruitment debacle as in the moment. Knowledge of what happened became public in the summer of 2020, amid the racial justice protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. The leadership posted a letter on Instagram—which has since been deleted—apologizing for the incident on behalf of the chapter, prompting widespread concern and interest in the issue from alumni and other observers. 

So, in the summer of 2020, Theta's MDC embarked on a fact-finding investigation, holding near-daily interviews with alumni and current members in an attempt to pursue disciplinary measures against those responsible for the incident. “We, as new leadership, had to go back through and figure out what happened,” said Ella Parker, Theta’s former Chief External Affairs Officer. 

But they quickly found themselves restricted by certain aspects of Theta’s standard disciplinary procedures, which are set by the national organization. The main one, they said, was the wealth of confidentiality policies within the organization, which prevent individual grievances from being shared with the group unless members do so without naming anyone involved. Rather than discuss specific instances of racism within the sorority, the group was only permitted to discuss “racism” broadly. 

As the investigation hobbled along, the leadership’s faith in the disciplinary system quickly eroded. 

“It’s like a black hole. You just scream into it,” B., a former Theta member, said in an interview with The Maroon. (Some former members of Theta leadership spoke to The Maroon anonymously, as they received threats of legal action for pursuing disciplinary action against certain members.) “We have this system that’s supposed to adjudicate these different issues and disputes, but it doesn’t actually do its job whatsoever. Nothing actually comes out of it in a productive way, in a way that is transparent or addressable, because the word ‘confidentiality’ gets flung in your face every time.” 

The fact that the chapter even has a disciplinary committee, B. said, is primarily “for show.” 

Parker said that the members who came forward with the allegations of racial bias and exclusion also lost faith in the disciplinary process. 

When women come forward with allegations, "they are told, ‘we will handle this; you’ve been heard; we’ll take care of this,’” Parker said. “And that was the problem, because then when nothing happened, the time had already passed, and the people who originally brought something up felt disrespected, and didn’t want to have anything to do with it anymore.” 

At the conclusion of the investigation, the leadership singled out one member who had been involved in organizing recruitment and was deemed primarily responsible for the initial incident. The sorority initiated a “membership termination vote” in an attempt to kick the member out of the chapter. The vote passed almost unanimously. 

Several weeks later, however, the leadership learned that this vote was overturned by the chapter’s panel of advisors, a volunteer group of Theta alumni appointed by the national organization to advise and oversee the chapter. As the basis for this decision, the advisors cited procedural shortcomings—  “they told us we didn’t take good enough notes,” B. said. The advisors also claimed that bias against the wrongdoer may have clouded voting members’ judgment, as the events from fall recruitment were at that point general knowledge within Theta. 

This decision incensed many members of Theta, including Parker, who told The Maroon that the advisors had never voiced these procedural concerns throughout the disciplinary process, and that the identity of the person under investigation was kept confidential. But beyond this, Parker said that the advisors’ decision undermined the will of the group. 

“It just says a lot that we voted near-unanimously for this, and our advisors still chose to overturn it,” Parker said. “They don’t think that we know what’s best for our chapter.” 

Several weeks after this controversial decision, a rift formed within the group between those who wanted the chapter to dissolve entirely and those who wanted to remain in Theta. Per the chapter’s bylaws, dissolving would require a unanimous vote, which was clearly unattainable. The advisors’ decision was a pivotal moment, signaling to many members the national organization’s opposition to real change. 

“We realized that any change that we would want to make would be met with the same resistance by, quite frankly, old white women who don’t understand why racism is that big of a problem in its manifestations here on this campus,” said Allie Salazar, a former Class Representative for Theta’s MDC. “That was, I think, the moment at which leadership realized anything we do is going to be in vain.” 

Theta is not the only sorority whose efforts at reform have been stymied by an intransigent national organization: a nearly  identical incident played out at Northwestern’s chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha

“The thing that was really damning was the system’s inability to deal with [the initial incident],” Salazar said. “Being members who were on the administrative side of it, we found that the system was unable to rectify the wrongs that had happened, insofar as it wasn’t as explicit as a hate crime.” 

For former Theta member A., who identifies as a woman of color (and asked to remain anonymous for fear of harassment), it was the response from Theta’s national leadership and one of its chapter advisors in particular that erased her faith in the sorority’s ability to change. 

“There were a lot of girls who came to Nationals expressing their concerns,” A. said. “It was very obvious to not only the girls [whom Theta’s advisor] talked to but [to] pretty much everyone in the chapter that she did not care about our chapter’s women of color, and she did not care how they felt about it. She far more cared about protecting the people who were responsible for the incident rather than the people who were affected themselves.” 

That was when A. and the majority of Theta’s members started disaffiliating in droves. In August of 2020, fewer than 30 members remained. 

A Nationwide Trend 

The public disintegration of UChicago’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta was far from an isolated incident. Following the summer’s mass mobilization against structural racism, sororities and fraternities on campuses nationwide found their checkered pasts and present discriminatory practices suddenly subjected to the harsh spotlight of media scrutiny.

Several past presidents of UChicago’s Panhellenic Council (Panhel) have come out in favor of abolition, and student-led movements to abolish Greek life emerged at colleges across the country, decimating many chapters’ membership in a matter of months, just as one did for Theta. 

Social media has played a large role in this wave of activism. There are over 50 Instagram accounts advocating Greek life abolition at different universities, many with hundreds or even thousands of followers. 

Months later, however, the question remains whether that movement will keep its initial momentum. What’s more, not everyone who sees a need for change to the Greek system agrees on what form it should take. 

In June 2020, Hannah Pittock, a former member of the sorority Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII), penned an open letter to AOII headquarters, arguing that Greek life should be abolished, rather than reformed. While her article received support from many like-minded activists, it was also met with “valid resistance” from women of color who, she said, had been working towards reform for years. 

“One of the inherent problems with the letter, and with my participation in this piece, is that it engages in the same problematic dynamic I’m trying to dismantle, of white women speaking over or for women of color on issues of racial justice,” Pittock wrote in a statement to The Maroon. “The reform ideas outlined are not new, nor did I come up with them, they’re reforms women in Greek life, and especially women of color, have been working tirelessly toward for years…. This letter failed miserably in acknowledging that, it spoke over them and for them in a really problematic way, and it didn’t give credit where it was due.” 

UChicago Theta did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and AOII representatives declined to be interviewed. 

While the momentum to reform or abolish Greek life is currently driven by the internal pressure of members disaffiliating en masse, observers outside the system have long exerted pressure on Greek organizations to dissolve or reform, especially in the wake of racist incidents and in conversations surrounding sexual assaults. UChicago’s Phoenix Survivors Alliance (PSA) has been critical of the role Greek life has played in campus sexual assault for years, and the close ties between fraternity social life and sexual assault took center stage in a public art installation the group put on last spring. 

Since the racial justice protests reached a peak in the summer of 2020, sororities at UChicago have begun attempting to address racial injustice in their pasts. In a statement issued in November, UChicago AOII said that it had created two new leadership positions responsible for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the chapter. It is also implementing regular educational chapter meetings on racial justice and allyship, including curriculum aimed specifically at recruitment, and it has announced a “zero tolerance” policy for discrimination and harassment. 

Similarly, UChicago Theta announced in October that it was eliminating preferential treatment for applicants who are related to Theta alumnae, known as “legacies,” among other reforms. Delta Gamma (DG) said in a statement on Instagram that it is also abolishing legacy admissions and implementing regular workshops on diversity and inclusion for its members. 

Charting a Path Forward 

In spite of sororities’ problems, the women who do join their ranks say that they play an important role, serving as a social network, a support system, and more. But the feasibility of a community that preserves the benefits of Greek life without its baggage remains an open question for many.  

Parker, for one, is optimistic about the possibilities of a non-Greek space for female-identifying students. “I firmly don’t believe that the only way to mobilize a group of women is through Greek life,” Parker said. “I don’t think it has to be this problematic to get a group of women together and get them to do really amazing things.” 

Although she chose to disaffiliate, A. still appreciates some aspects of her time in Theta and wishes that more marginalized students would be able to experience the sense of community she found there. 

“I wish there were other people coming from backgrounds like me that could have experienced that—that could have gotten to know so many different kinds of people, from so many places all over the world, and have fun with them and feel like they belonged,” she said. 

Parker, too, noted that there were aspects of belonging to Theta that she still found appealing, particularly the opportunity to work on philanthropic projects and build a close working relationship with Theta’s philanthropic partner, CASA of Cook County. 

“We don’t just do philanthropy because we have to. We actually have an insane[ly positive] relationship with the organization that we do philanthropy for,” Parker said. “I understand the reason why Greek life philanthropy is problematic, I’ve read the abolish Greek life posts on it, but I do think joining Theta that was a really cool thing that I was excited to be a part of.” 

One former sorority member, who spoke with The Maroon anonymously for fear of harassment, now runs the Instagram account @abolishgreeklifeuchicago. She said that even on a campus without Greek life, there may still be a need for sorority-like organizations. While several RSOs do cater specifically to women on campus, they are generally oriented toward students interested in particular fields of study, career paths, or political concerns rather than the general interest social structure that sororities provide. 

“I think it would be great to have environments on campus for female-identifying students. That’s one of the main reasons I joined Greek life in the first place,” she said. “A lot of the same infrastructure could be transferred over to some sort of all-female space on campus that’s more inclusive, that doesn’t turn people away based on their personality, based on how they look, or if they can pay their dues.” 

But under these circumstances, such an organization may not be recognizable as Greek life, another moderator of the Instagram account said. 

“Greek life was founded to exclude,” she said. “When you start to make a list of all the things that would need to happen for Greek life to be reformed—how do we include people who don’t identify within the gender binary? Or people who can’t afford to pay dues? How can we make this place more accessible?—it starts to unravel all of the things that make Greek life what it is.”  

This conversation has already begun playing out on UChicago’s campus since the wave of disaffiliations this summer. Some former sorority members have formed a new group for female-identifying students, referred to as the “Oak Society,” which held recruitment information sessions during the first week of winter quarter and quickly came under fire on social media for its resemblance to the sorority many of its members had just left. 

Still, some see Greek life’s problems as symptomatic of a deeper issue. A. said she believed that despite the efforts of those running recruitment to bring in primarily “rich, straight white women,” many of the members of Greek organizations do want to see more students from different backgrounds join. The problem, A. said, was an environment that has long permitted racism to go unquestioned—a problem that isn’t unique to Greek life. 

“I think it happens at a lot of RSOs and other organizations on campus, but because it’s more characteristic of the stereotype of Greek life, we’re willing to point the finger and say ‘well I’m not racist; I’m at XXX group organization' instead of Kappa Alpha Theta or instead of Sig[ma]Chi,” A. said. “I think solving this problem doesn’t necessarily lie in abolishing Greek life. It lies in abolishing an environment that allows these things to happen, which is harder work.”  

A. said she thinks that increased representation from people of color within Greek organizations could lead to a culture shift that makes sororities and fraternities more welcoming places for marginalized students. 

“I think on a Panhel-wide level there needs to be some checks and balances that place an emphasis on diversity and inclusion across all leadership positions,” she said. 

Greek Life’s Other Half 

During the months when Theta’s public reckoning played out, members of UChicago sororities openly discussed the viability and varied historical legacies of Greek life on social media. One AOII Instagram post claimed that Greek life institutions’ “elitist practices” serve to “preserve white supremacy within the Greek system.”  

But UChicago’s fraternities largely escaped censure, despite the fact that conversations about University oversight of the Greek system have long centered on fraternities, fueled by a long list of incidents that drew public outcry.  

Included in those incidents were examples of overt racism, allegations of hazing, and sexual assault at fraternity parties. The University of Chicago, however, refuses to engage questions of regulating Greek organizations because of a long-standing policy of not recognizing Greek organizations. As such, former Theta leadership said that the responsibility for checking fraternity misconduct has commonly fallen to UChicago’s Panhellenic Council, to which the sororities Kappa Alpha Theta, Alpha Omicron Pi, Delta Gamma, and Pi Beta Phi all belong. Just as a lack of real self-governing power withheld by the national organization prevented the women of Theta from enacting reforms in their own chapter, sororities’ lack of power over fraternities can restrict their ability to reform the practices of campus Greek life more broadly. 

This arrangement puts sorority women in the position of policing the behavior of fraternity men, with little leverage other than the ability to issue public statements and refuse to participate in social events with fraternities, as the Panhellenic Council  did with the fraternity Sigma Chi following allegations that it had failed to prevent date-rape drugs from being given to female students at a number of its O-Week parties. This dynamic becomes especially fraught in cases of sexual misconduct, sometimes involving members of the same sororities who are called upon to discipline fraternities for their negligence. 

“There’s a history at UChicago of [sexual misconduct] not being addressed adequately by fraternities, and I think Panhel has fallen into this role and feels a responsibility,” Parker said. “Panhel knows better than anyone because it’s so often women in sororities who are the victims of these types of things because they spend the most time at frats and at parties where sexual assault instances occur.” 

While declining to say whether this was an accurate characterization of the dynamics between sororities and fraternities on campus, Panhel wrote in a comment to The Maroon that “our chapters want to provide safe spaces for women to support and empower one another.” Members of Fraternities Committed to Safety (FCS) declined to comment. 

Looking back on her time in Theta’s leadership, Salazar said that she was bothered by how much of sorority social life depended on the cooperation of fraternities, particularly given that UChicago sororities have no houses and are technically prohibited from serving alcohol. 

“Because we weren’t supposed to do anything related to alcohol at all and college kids, for better or for worse, bond over alcohol, we became socially dependent on fraternities for that bonding, for this experience of going out, this experience of partying,” Salazar said. “They became the holders of the social capital.” 

That dependence, B. added, limited the ability of sorority leadership to sanction fraternities for bad behavior and to a certain extent ensure the safety of their own sisters. 

“The fact that we have to use parties as a bargaining chip to say ‘hey, you’ve done something wrong’ is absurd,” she said. “It’s all- around bad that women are being put in this weird position where we have to interact with them, but also police them, but also ask them for money for the philanthropy event.” 

The situation is made worse, A. said, by the fact that fraternities have no governing body equivalent to the sororities’ Panhellenic Council empowered to issue regulations across campus. While 10 campus fraternities (one of which, Sigma Phi Epsilon, is now defunct), signed a pledge in 2016, forming FCS and agreeing to abide by certain sexual assault prevention and response protocols, the pact contained no real enforcement mechanism for violators, and FCS’s website was inactive as of January 2021. 

“If one fraternity says something [about reform], another fraternity can say ‘fuck off, I’m doing this instead,’” A. said. “It’s definitely a lower level of accountability for fraternities.” 

Greek Institutions’ Deep Roots 

The durability of Greek institutions is a result of not only the ready-made social scene they provide to members, but also of the financial, social, and cultural capital invested in the institutions. Those seeking to topple the centuries-old institution face significant obstacles in the deep pockets and broad alumni networks that fraternities and sororities command. 

On the national level, sororities and fraternities cycle through many millions of dollars yearly. For the 2017-18 fiscal year, Kappa Alpha Theta’s national organization reported $58 million in revenue, and spent close to that amount. The funds are channeled into a number of areas: chapter programming, philanthropic fundraising, scholarships, and costs of housing, along with maintaining the national leadership apparatus. 

The incentives for joining Greek life also render abolition an uphill battle. At UChicago, fraternity housing is one potentially significant perk of joining Greek life, and housing corporations control a flow of cash through both membership dues and alumni donations. The Chi Upsilon Alumni Association, which manages housing for UChicago’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji), reported revenue in the hundreds of thousands in 2017, as did the Midway Educational Foundation, a separate organization that funded improvements to Fiji’s house. 

Fraternities and sororities’ loyal alumni networks are powerful incentives for a prospective member, posing an additional challenge to Greek life abolitionists. The names of UChicago Greek life’s most prominent donors are familiar to any student from the names of houses and University programs: billionaire trustee Byron Trott (Fiji), wealth manager Bernard DelGiorno (Fiji), Jeff Metcalf of the Metcalf Internship Program (Fiji), trustee Gregory Wendt (Alpha Delta Phi), and hedge fund manager John Thaler (Psi Upsilon). Greek life alumni are expected to leverage their career success in order to give students and recent graduates from their fraternity a leg up—Psi Upsilon’s 2013 Member Education Guide, for example, encourages alumni to offer mentorship and summer internships to current brothers. 

The national network of Greek life also has a political arm. The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, also known as FratPAC, funds election campaigns of Greek life alumni and lobbies members of Congress to support the interests of Greek life (including, notably, their opposition to a 2013 anti-hazing bill).  

FratPAC donates to candidates across the political spectrum, ranging from Vice President Kamala Harris to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. While most of FratPAC’s donors are individuals or individual fraternity and sorority chapters, some subsidiaries of national Greek organizations contribute as well, such as the Pi Beta Phi (Pi Phi) sorority and Delta Gamma’s Fraternity Housing Corporation. While the legal restrictions and cash flows are complicated—Pi Beta Phi, for instance, states on its website that it draws its donations from alumnae dues rather than collegiate ones and doesn’t contribute directly to campaigns—the financial links between Greek organizations and FratPAC’s lobbying activities on Capitol Hill have raised a chorus of objections from students to the political uses of their dues. These political commitments of Greek organizations have galvanized campus activists calling for abolition. 

In addition to economic and political influence, however, Greek organizations rely on a particular kind of cultural power for their enduring place in campus life. According to Tulane University professor Lisa Wade, who studies sexual culture on college campuses and has called for the abolition of fraternities and sororities, the centrality of Greek life to narratives of the college experience in itself helps perpetuate the Greek system.  

“You have these two prongs of power, [one being]  economic power, which is the resources that many of these historically white fraternities and sororities have to make themselves seem indispensable to a college,” Wade said. “But they also have this cultural power, where this state of affairs that advantages this particular group seems normal. It just seems normal and right.” 

According to Wade, the concentration of social power in fraternities originally founded as exclusively white, wealthy, and male organizations is somewhat paradoxically responsible for the expansion of the Greek system to women and students of color. Given that history, Wade questions whether the boundaries of that system can be further expanded and made truly inclusive without overhauling Greek life’s defining features. 

“The fraternities became the model for what it looks like to organize around an identity and lift each other up. It was because fraternities had so much power that we saw women forming their own fraternities, that we see students of color forming their own fraternities and sororities, that we see Jewish fraternities and sororities,” Wade said. “It’s not because there’s anything special about this word or these organizations. The copycatting was because of the power that these white men held.” 

According to Wade, dismantling Greek institutions starts with acknowledging that maintaining them is a choice, rather than an inevitable outcome or a necessary part of college life. 

“We need to start asking: Fraternities offer us a lot, they bring in money and other things, but what is the cost?” Wade said. “Part of the way we do that is [by] exposing this cultural lie we’ve been told [about the necessity of fraternities].” 

The groundswell of student activism that rippled across college campuses in recent months encouraged Wade, who saw both abolitionist activists outside and students inside Greek life working to reform their organizations or leaving them as signs of the potential for change. 

“I think students are deciding for themselves whether or not they want these institutions, and I see a lot of potential there for what might happen,” Wade said. “People in Greek life responding by disaffiliating is such an incredibly powerful thing to do. It gives other people a permission structure, the permission to say, ‘Hey, actually, I don’t love this either.’” 

Despite the frustrations Salazar encountered and her own choice to leave Theta, she said that many women who chose to remain sorority members are working to accomplish the changes she found impossible to make. 

“There are a lot of women, and women of color especially, who really want to make change and feel some level of institutional support for that. Whether that’s support for pure P.R. purposes or [if] that’s genuine support, I don’t know,” Salazar said. “There’s this belief that ‘we can make the change’; the question is whether or not they can. Will this work? I don’t know.”