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Long controversial, the Greek system on college campuses is under fire again. This time, the pressure is from within. Sparked by the national reckoning over racial injustice, calls to #AbolishGreekLife began sweeping American colleges and universities this year.

Charlotte Hogg is a professor of English at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She is working on a book on the rhetoric of historically white sororities

Students on various campuses, including Tufts, Penn, Duke and the University of Richmond, pledged to leave fraternities and sororities because of the Greek system's exclusive history and unwillingness at the national level to truly reform.

At Vanderbilt University, where racist incidents surfaced in videos and on social media in July amid continued national protests after the killing of George Floyd, 10 per cent of students disaffiliated from the Greek system, alleging racism.

Criticism of the Greek system has gone hand-in-hand with its development since its beginnings in the early to mid-19th century, with critics calling to oust fraternities and sororities from campuses. But until now, anti-Greek sentiment — at least publicly — has largely come from those outside the system, including college administrators, faculty and collegian non-members.

Today is different, with the spotlight on the Greek system during a national reckoning on racism, as members themselves lay bare on social media racist experiences and practices, often owning their complicity in a racist system. It is too soon to tell how much structural reform or even dissolution may occur, but a real shift could be under way as members assert their voices to challenge national organisations that hold tightly to their whitewashed histories. If members can reform the system from within, they would be carrying on an unsung legacy of these organisations sometimes being engines of inclusivity.

Ironically, the earliest sororities were also borne out of rebellion amid exclusivity. In the first half of the 19th century, only white men were deemed intellectually fit for college education. When white women were finally admitted, it was in the face of resistance such as "science" showing academics could impact women's fertility.

Female students were largely segregated on campuses, both intellectually and socially. Within this climate, where men outnumbered women 5:1, a few gutsy women on various campuses founded sororities to make a safe intellectual space to convene amid rampant sexism by male students and faculty members. Their mission in forming collectively, as historian Diana Turk notes, was to represent the strengths of their sex and show they could handle the rigours of college.

As the number of enrolled white women increased in the following decades, the mission of sororities morphed from a needed safe space to a more social one. With their growth in popularity, they became more conservative as they standardised their organisations across various regions and campuses. Instead of bold women defying norms, sororities became aligned with fraternities, and both were deemed frivolous by critics.

Founded 25 years before the first sorority, fraternities formed as clubs seeking autonomy within a college structure laden with strict rules from faculty. While they also initially had a literary purpose, their appeal was largely social bonding, and this, combined with secrecy that also allowed for rule-breaking, drew ire from faculty and administrators.

In a 1913 issue of the Adelphean, the quarterly magazine for members of sorority Alpha Delta Pi, a story on how outsiders perceived Greek life lamented, "The fraternity breeds snobbery, incubates hate, fosters foppery, reduces favouritism, and crushes individuality". Some viewed the sorority as "a tragedy ... To see young girls, with deep anxiety, trying to pledge a prospective candidate is a pitiable and vulgar spectacle".

But members of the Greek system responded to critics by emphasising how the organisations fostered personal and professional growth for members and their benevolent works for others via philanthropy. As the Adelphean put it in 1913, "It is no longer self, but service – broadening, inspiring, satisfying service for others. This is the keynote to which the sorority would attune itself in the future."

Their messaging more than a century later remains similar.

As colleges broadened their demographics, admitting more women and students of colour, the Greek system responded to charges that the groups were becoming cloistered by appealing to outsiders and becoming indispensable to campuses.

After a large ebb in membership during and after the Second World War, the Greek system grew again in the 1950s and even through the 1960s, drawing conservative students who eschewed counterculture. During desegregation, some national organisations, while legally removing discriminatory language, retained discriminatory practices, which at times prompted expulsion of some organisations by school administrators.

There were also internal battles between members and alums over accepting members of colour or students of different religions, but these remained hidden from the public. While Greeks were viewed – and largely were – more conformist, some disaffiliated in protest amid the civic unrest of the 1960s.

By the 1970s, growth of the system continued to slowly increase, although not proportionally to the increasing number of total college students. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Greek life soared again despite hazing, sexual assault and alcohol-related deaths, and increasing critique from outsiders. On top of historically white sororities, local and multicultural Greek systems burgeoned as well, including black Greek organisations that began at the turn of the 20th century.

In the social-media age, however, national organisations have struggled to manage the image of Greek life. Simmering tensions between national organisations and chapter members that have long existed are erupting as members leak communications and share stories of racism, homophobia and elitism via Instagram accounts and elsewhere.

Sparked by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, members of Greek organisations are now publicly asking the hard questions about issues that have long been appeased, glossed over or ignored about the role of Greek life on college campuses.

For their part, national organisations for chapters, the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Council have been responsive — to a degree. The NIC will review its documents, enhance resources and lead fireside conversations. The NPC site provides greater detail on listening sessions, an Access and Equality Committee, resource guides on inclusive recruitment and previous actions taken.

A few sororities, as part of broader, multifaceted plans for reform, have already begun this work. Delta Gamma's Anchora magazine and Alpha Delta Pi's Adelphean directly face and show their racist, exclusive past through archival photos and sharing an accurate history of their organisations. Recently, Delta Gamma displayed images from its past, which revealed the group's use of Confederate iconography and the group's constitutional exclusion of members who weren't white or Christian.

Racial reconciliation efforts are only one step in a much larger undertaking with multipronged approaches. But owning rather than glossing over the truth about these organisations is an important step. Ironically, the fearlessness shown by some of today's members of sororities and fraternities is similar to the earliest groups of the 19th century who demanded that they make spaces to thrive.

National Greek organisations can meet this moment by following their example and taking the lead. Whether it is enough for those who say dismantling the whole system is the only answer remains to be seen.

Charlotte Hogg is a professor of English at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She is working on a book on the rhetoric of historically white sororities

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Published October 22, 2020 at 1:00 pm (Updated October 22, 2020 at 1:40 am)

Tackling racist past of sororities and fraternities

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