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The rise, fall and rise of the abolish Greek life movement

Underclassmen who arrived after summer 2020 are hoping to flip the script on Greek life

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here

As Greek organizations resume their in-person operations this semester with familiar traditions like tabling on the quad and organizing fundraisers, the movement to abolish Greek life has also made a comeback.

A spring 2022 student government referendum found that 46 percent of voting students do not support the presence of social Greek life on campus — 41 percent do — the conversation about the future of Greek organizations is back in the forefront. It’s a sight that might not be familiar for underclassmen students who were not yet part of American University community when controversy about the institution’s place on campus peaked over the summer of 2020. 

The revived movement to abolish social Greek life on campus

In February, a new account called @abolishgreeklifeatau began posting anonymous accounts of discrimination and violence in Greek life. Its leadership is composed entirely of sophomores, including Abby Sharkis of the School of Public Affairs, Isabella Paracca of the College of Arts and Sciences, Parthav Easwar of SPA and CAS and Olivia O’Connor of CAS.

Sharkis said she thinks members of the Class of 2024 are in a “unique” position as far as the Greek life debate because their entry into the University coincided with the isolating nature of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. 

“You have people who are really adamant about wanting to have this normal college experience — that’s really what people are seeking out here … a lot of people are turning to Greek life for that, and I think what a lot of people don’t realize about that is Greek life is really tied into institutional racism,” Sharkis said. “And a lot of people on this campus claim to care about Black Lives Matter and care about ending racism and AU does pride itself on being a so-called anti-racist community.”

According to Sharkis, the coronavirus pandemic also presented barriers to impactful in-person activism surrounding the issue of Greek life, which she feels might have hindered underclassmen’s ability to even recognize the Abolish movement at all.

“From any activism mobilization perspective, like in-person protest, we weren’t on campus at the height of Abolish Greek life, so it really wasn’t able to come to its fullest point had it been two years ago when the conversation started happening and people could have done demonstrations on the quad,” Sharkis said. “It was really just like a lot of people posting on their Instagram stories because that was all there was to do.” 

The group advocates for the replacement of Greek organizations with community-based housing programs, similar to ones that already exist at universities like Harvard and Yale, to give students more opportunities to establish friendships within their residence halls.

“A lot of the feedback that I’d heard from people was that people tend to turn to Greek life because American University is severely lacking in community building, and people come here and they don’t feel like they found their people and so they turn to Greek life as a result,” Easwar said.

Sharkis said although the group does not want to demonize students who are affiliated with Greek organizations, it is focused on informing the University community on what Sharkis called “a lack of education surrounding Greek life origins and the ways in which Greek life perpetuates racism, among other things.”

“We don’t fault individuals seeking [community through Greek life],” Sharkis said. “It’s more the way that AU and Greek life as a national institution capitalizes off people’s need for community and want for a social circle and does some really gross and oppressive things around it.”

Sharkis noted 2020 was the first year that no hazing-related deaths were reported in the U.S. since 1959, a statistic attributed to the lack of in-person Greek life presence as a result of the pandemic. Two deaths tied to hazing-related alcohol intoxication were reported in 2021 as more campuses resumed in-person operations in 2021: 19-year-old Adam Oakes of Virginia Commonwealth University and 20-year-old Stone Foltz of Bowling Green University.

In 2018, AU’s chapter of sorority Chi Omega was suspended from recruiting for the spring and fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019 after being found responsible for “conduct which threatens or endangers the health or safety of any person” and hazing. 

The same year, fraternity Beta Theta Pi was found responsible for the same violation and additional alcohol violations and was suspended and prohibited from recruiting for the remainder of 2018. 

“Maybe we’re not having crazy hazing deaths or, like, people choking on their own vomit and dying, but that’s just like the way we don’t have a traditional Greek life setting here,” O’Connor said. “But it’s still a part of an actual racist institution.”

The group of Abolish Greek Life activists specified that they are only seeking to eliminate historically white social fraternities and sororities, not affinity or professional Greek organizations.

“All of, like, frats for Latinx people, frats for Black people, those were created in response to how racist Greek life was, so those are removed from the actual institution [of social Greek life],” O’Connor said. 

History of Greek life controversy at AU

The rise of a social media movement calling for the abolition of non-affinity fraternities and sororities at the University led to mass member disaffiliations and ultimately chapter disbandments in summer 2020. 

Instagram accounts featuring anonymous submissions about experiences with racism, sexual abuse, hazing and other forms of discrimination and violence in Greek life gained traction, including @blackatamericanuniversity, @exposingauabusers and @exposingaufratsandsrats. The Instagram accounts that prompted the backlash of summer 2020 and subsequent reform efforts ceased activity shortly before the beginning of the fall 2020 semester, when fully remote operations were initially announced. 

According to the Center for Student Involvement’s spring 2020 academic report, there were a total of 1,519 students enrolled in Fraternity and Sorority Life at the University. This figure dropped by more than 40 percent in fall 2020, following the rise of the Abolish Greek Life movement on social media as well as the University’s announcement of fully remote operations for the semester. In spring 2021, enrollment crept up to 714 and then declined again in fall 2021, when it dipped to 582 students.

According to Interfraternity Council President and CAS junior Ryan Brewer, Greek life enrollment “dropped off very heavily” in the wake of this backlash. As a result, IFC has struggled to fill leadership positions, with only two elected members — including Brewer — currently serving on the council at the time of print publication. 

“I think there were some concerns over publicity,” Brewer said. “Some people wanted to be a part of IFC but did not want to broadcast that they were part of a Greek organization if that makes sense, or really be under the spotlight.”

Brewer also said he believes that the pandemic has played a role in declining IFC enrollment as Greek organizations, like the rest of clubs at AU, resorted to engaging members virtually.

Nadir McCoy, the University’s FSL coordinator, believes that a number of current events have posed challenges for students involved with Greek life.

“In 2020, we experienced the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Abolish Greek Life, Exposing AU Abusers, US Elections and all of this together was taxing,” McCoy wrote in an email to The Eagle. “Chapters and their leaders had more than the average student to navigate because so much had been compounded on them at the same time.”

In response to these circumstances, McCoy said that Greek organizations have made a conscious effort to reduce the impact of their activities at the University. 

“Overall, the community has been more reserved in both their programming and presence on AU’s campus,” McCoy wrote.

In January 2021, IFC released an immediate reform plan “to assist in increasing accountability and promote safe practices within the IFC.” The plan included new guidelines for handling alleged conduct violations, the creation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee and a new member development position. 

The immediate reform plan indicated that IFC members were actively working on a long-term reform plan to outline more comprehensive steps for improving its internal operations, which was officially released that April. 

The long-term reform plan established more specific processes for reform to mitigate discrimination and sexual misconduct violations, including social event risk management programs, mandatory Title IX and bystander intervention trainings and an accountability policy that would refer chapters to a judicial board if they failed to meet the new requirements outlined.

At the time of its release, the plan faced criticism from some students, who expressed concern over the logistics of its enforcement and its ability to comprehensively address sensitive issues like sexual assault and discrimination.

Brewer said that difficulties with filling leadership roles have contributed to the fact that implementation of the plan “largely has not happened over the past semester.”

“That’s something that I think anybody on IFC, including our leadership, will admit — it just has not happened, but that’s not a product of us not wanting to,” Brewer said. “It’s been a product of us just not being able to.”

The plan detailed specific responsibilities for each leadership position, with members serving in those roles having designated schedules for meeting with various campus stakeholders like representatives from the Health Promotion and Advocacy Center, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Equity and Title IX Office. 

According to Brewer, IFC’s limited number of members has rendered these plans virtually impossible to implement, as many of these roles are not filled currently.

“There’s specific things implemented for each role and they are all kind of interlocking so … it’s really, really tough to get working on those,” Brewer said. 

The future of Greek life

Brewer said that, while he participates in Greek life, he does not think that the goals of the Abolish Greek Life movement and reformers within Greek organizations “are necessarily unaligned.”

“No one’s trying to sweep these issues under the rug,” Brewer said. “I think they’ve been attacked head-on, I think a lot of people are trying to make the right changes, I think a lot of people are pushing for higher amounts of accountability, better programming and just a better all-around approach to Greek life to make it a better part of the AU community and eliminate those dark sides of it.”

The group of Abolish Greek Life activists said that they do not believe support for Greek life can coexist with their movement.

“We’re not interested in reform,” Sharkis said. “We’re interested in abolition.”

Members of Abolish Greek Life worked with the Student Government Undergraduate Senate to put two referendums gauging student opinion on Greek life at the University on the ballot during the spring 2022 SG executive board election. 

One referendum asked students whether they support the presence of social Greek life on campus, to which 46 percent of voting students answered “no.” The second referendum asked whether students want alternative means of community-building outside of social Greek life, to which 73 percent of voters answered “yes.”

According to previous reporting conducted by The Eagle on the spring 2022 Greek life referendums, members of Abolish Greek Life decided to work with the Undergraduate Senate to put these questions on the ballot as a means of connecting with the student body because they have been unable to gain official club status from the University.

In a statement to The Eagle after the referendum results were announced, CSI Director Ayana Wilson wrote that Abolish Greek Life members were told that CSI “would not recognize any club whose goal was to abolish another student involvement opportunity on campus (ex. abolish AUSG, abolish Student Media).”

McCoy also suggested that students seeking community who are not interested in participating in Greek life explore other avenues for campus involvement.

“There are over 200 clubs and organizations on American’s campus representing all sorts of organizations social and non-social for students to get involved in,” McCoy wrote. “In addition, each semester any student can submit for new clubs/organizations to be recognized via Engage by following the proper process.”

Acknowledging the controversy surrounding Greek life, Brewer said that one of his goals as IFC president is “to push for more open communication with the community.”

“I would really advocate for… anyone involved in the community, really, if they had anything they want to talk about, any ideas, anything under that umbrella whether they wanted to lodge a complaint, wanted to tell us where we could do better, where we maybe are doing better, anything like that,” Brewer said. “Reach out to whoever is on the board at that time. That is the only way we can grow as a community.”

kcorliss@theeagleonline.com


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