Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The referendum can happen.
With well over 150 student signatures, the student petition for a referendum on whether Greek life should continue to exist on campus is constitutionally allowed to proceed. While this referendum will not create the ideal circumstances for a campus-wide discussion on fraternities and sororities, it is an opportunity for Swarthmore to work through its Greek crisis.
We realize the referendum puts the sorority and the fraternities on the defensive. What began as a request for more dialogue around the creation of a sorority evolved into a campus-wide attack on Greek life. The stakes have been raised and, as a result, the fraternities and sorority must come to the table not to critically discuss their influence, but to defend their existence. Under these conditions, we at The Daily Gazette anticipate not greater dialogue, but deeper divides. The fraternities are unlikely to feel comfortable admitting any faults with Swarthmore’s Greek life for fear of tipping the scales against them. The sorority has not had time to back up its promises with action and can do little more than repeat what it’s been saying for the past year.
But the fraternities and sorority are not being unjustly singled out. Indeed, this referendum should not come as a surprise. Many students have been asking for a critical, campus-wide discussion of Greek life for over a year to no avail. Kappa Alpha Theta asserts that its informational meetings sufficed. However, who felt comfortable at these interest meetings except those looking to join? No one showed up to rush week at the frats looking for meaningful dialogue on gender identity or economic exclusivity either. You see our point.
We see this referendum as having emerged out of the desperation of students who felt blindsided by the creation of the sorority and powerless in the face of radical changes on their campus. While the conditions are not ideal, we encourage the fraternities and sorority to use this as an opportunity to acknowledge their influence on campus and take note of students’ concerns. If anything, the petition has shown that a significant portion of the student body is concerned with the role of Greek life on campus. How receptive the fraternities and sorority are will shape student social life for better or worse.
We would like to address a few illogical arguments we’ve noticed in the Greek life debates so far. Once we take a critical look at what Greek life is and the influence it has, we can begin shaping the future of Swarthmore’s social culture instead of remaining entrenched in our positions.
Some have likened Greek life to minority cultural, religious, and racial groups on campus, arguing that letting the majority decide their fate amounts to discrimination. Just because the majority of Swatties are not a part of Greek life does not mean that Greek organizations are an oppressed minority. The argument that queer, black, or Republican groups could just as easily share a similar fate of censorship and persecution is simply alarmist, a thought experiment. These groups are not in the same category as Greek organizations for a variety of reasons. Playing the diversity card is only a cheap way of firing back at students who raise concerns about exclusion to the fraternities and sorority based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
Sororities and fraternities are not simply student groups with Greek names. The fraternities and sorority do important community service work, but let’s not make them out to be volunteer clubs. Sports teams also have initiations. Peaslee has an alumni network. Students in groups like Mountain Justice are forming bonds that will last far beyond graduation, but the similarities end there. Delta Upsilon and Kappa Alpha Theta are national organizations. They incorporate rules and rituals beyond Swarthmore’s control. Evidence of diverging priorities is apparent with the questions of gender-identity requirements with Kappa Alpha Theta. In an email to The Daily Gazette this week, Kappa Alpha Theta Director of Communications Liz Rinck confirmed that a student who identifies as a woman must be recorded as female by the College in order to pledge. This stands in contradiction to Swarthmore’s chapter’s expectations. While The Daily Gazette is confident the Swarthmore chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta is committed to being gender-inclusive, we find this miscommunication troubling. We recommend that campus discussions be used as an opportunity to clear up diverging expectations between Swarthmore and national organizations.
To those hoping to keep their heads down and wait until it all blows over, we hope that you will participate in campus discussion on Greek life. The argument that participation in Greek life is optional, and that those opposed can simply choose not to go to the fraternities, denies the influence of these organizations. The fraternities host more weekend parties than other campus groups. With over 150 sisters and brothers on campus, Greek organizations are also one of the largest organizations on campus. Trivializing the effect Greek life has on campus life and the culture of Swarthmore not only diminishes the earnest concerns of those calling for open discussions, it endorses a fractured Swarthmore. If parties at the fraternities are open to the entire campus, and often receive school funding, let’s find out why a significant portion of Swatties don’t feel welcome or comfortable.
Given the current state of discussion, the decision of the fraternities to collectively decline to comment while a significant portion of the student body is calling for discussion is not productive, though it is understandable. The tone of this discussion needs to be shifted.
All this being said, Greek life gets a bad rap on campus. Discussions will provide an opportunity to address concerns that arise throughout Swarthmore’s social environment, such as sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and socioeconomic exclusion. They will also provide Greek organizations an opportunity to demonstrate their continued commitment to promoting a welcoming and healthy culture at Swarthmore. We should hope that an honest and thorough self-evaluation on the side of the fraternities and sorority would be met with open minds, knowing that brothers and sisters are Swatties too. We all share similar values of equality, diversity, individuality, connection, and respect for others. We need to help each other and ourselves to make these values a reality on our campus.
The Daily Gazette looks to StuCo to lead these discussions, but we have our doubts. A referendum was shot down last year on the sorority because reinstating the sorority was a Title IX issue. Unfortunately, campus-wide discussion was shut down with it. At their Sunday night meeting, StuCo said it would like to check with Dean of Students Liz Braun to find out if a student referendum on Greek life could actually ban fraternities and sororities on campus. While we appreciate StuCo’s desire to keep the channels of communication open between students and the administration, StuCo’s instinct to turn to the administration before facing the student body is unacceptable. We would like to remind StuCo that its constitution does not require a dean to cosign. With this in mind, the idea that the proposed referendum should simply be treated as an opinion poll is out of the question.
If the goal of the referendum is more discussion, this is not the right one.
The referendum has not yet been officially presented, meaning the student body can still affect the future of this referendum. Students could level the terms of the discussions through dropping the referendum, or putting forth a new one to call for reforms rather than abolishment. To have a truly open dialogue about Greek Life on campus, referendum or no, we need to put away the stereotypes, the excuses, and the aggressive tactics that have stymied any productive effort up to this point.