Greek life in review: Students, administration evaluate the system

Ben Kesslen (center) protests against sorority recruitment events on March 30. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily

The past academic year has been a turbulent one for the fate of Greek life on campus. Amidst reports of hazing and discrimination, many have called for the Greek life system to be disbanded, while others have defended its presence on campus and suggested internal reform.

In November 2016, rising senior Ben Kesslen detailed his experience with hazing and sexual assault at a fraternity in an article in the Tufts Observer. This article sparked a wide-ranging debate over whether Greek life should have a place on campus.

Members of TuftsPanhellenic Council (Panhel), which oversees the four Panhellenic sororities on campus, released a statement condemning toxic hyper-masculinity in fraternities, and the Interfraternity Council (IFC) issued a formal apology, placing a voluntary hold on all social events.

Additionally, in October 2016, half of the members of Tufts’ Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII) sorority chapter dropped to protest the national organization’s hesitancy to extend a bid to a transgender woman. Later that semester, several Chi Omega sisters also dropped out of their sorority, alleging in a Dec. 15, 2016 statement that they experienced varied forms of discrimination from the national organization and were administered unfair punishment for an alcohol infraction, among other complaints.

Investigations and Judicial Processes

In response to concerns about the Greek system, spring recruitment was suspended for fraternities and Panhellenic sororities, but not for organizations in the Multicultural Greek Council. The university also issued cease-and-desist orders for nine Greek organizations, according to a Feb. 2 email to the Tufts community. These orders were due to allegations of hazing, sexual misconduct and alcohol policy violations, and they barred the organizations from holding social events through the spring semester.

According to Kevin Kraft, director of community standards, three investigations have concluded and have been brought to the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs. Kraft said that one of these three cases resulted in the dissolution of one Greek life organization on Feb. 3.

“In the other two cases, the chapter has accepted responsibility for violating Tufts’ policies, and we have had candid conversations with the leadership of each organization about what reforms are needed,” Kraft told the Daily in an email. “I expect final decisions in those cases will be made shortly. All other cases remain under investigation by the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) or the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD).”

According to the Feb. 2 email, two organizations were suspended for the spring semester and will be on probation in the fall because they are thought to have violated the cease-and-desist order. One of those organizations chose to bring its case before the Committee on Student Life (CSL), a faculty-and-student committee. 

Tafari Duncan, a graduating senior and one of four students on the CSL, explained that the CSL acts as a final arbiter of punishment for an organization. According to Duncan, the Inter-Greek Council (IGC) hears low-level cases, such as having a keg at a party. However, IFC President Jack Friend said such cases related to fraternities will be heard by the IFC instead of the IGC starting next semester. The Office of the Dean of Student Affairs hears more serious cases and administers punishment, which an organization can accept, or it can bring its case to the CSL.

“If the fraternity or sorority decides they don’t want to go with those rules and they would rather go to a hearing where they have students and a panel to listen to what they said and hear the case, then it comes to the CSL,” Duncan said.

He added that the CSL has been relatively inactive in these cases this year, because many organizations are actively working with the Dean of Student Affairs Office to bring their cases to resolutions.

“We wait to receive those reports [from OEO and TUPD] and then work with organizations. We are actively working with three or four organizations right now,” Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon said.

McMahon said they are trying to finish these cases before the end of the semester, as the CSL does not meet during the summer.

According to Kraft, if a case comes to a resolution over the summer, the fraternity or sorority may be allowed to recruit new members in the fall, depending on the outcome of the case.

McMahon said that communicating with the Tufts community about next steps was essential. She clarified, however, that she is not willing to sacrifice a thorough investigation in order to get to a fall recruitment deadline.

“I’m mindful of the fact that people are waiting for these outcomes,” she said. “But … I’m not going to move things forward at the expense of a sound investigation or a full follow-up.”

Student Life Review Committee

In a Dec. 22, 2016 email to the Tufts community, University President Anthony Monaco announced the creation of the Student Life Review Committee to assess all aspects of student life on campus. The committee is chaired by Susan Murphy, former vice president of student and academic services at Cornell University. Its membership includes Tufts Community Union senators, Medford and Somerville city officials, professors, administrators and alumni.

Anna Rodriguez, a committee member and a Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) scholar affiliated with the multicultural Lambda Pi Chi sorority, said that an important facet of the committee is that it includes a representative from as many campus offices as possible.

“Everyone on the committee had equal opportunity, or what felt like equal opportunity … to speak, to make decisions [and] to challenge,” Rodriguez, a rising senior, said.

Rodriguez said that her association with multicultural Greek life meant that she did not serve on the committee as a representative of campus Greek life, since multicultural Greek sororities do not fit under the Panhellenic umbrella. She added that, despite their distance from the controversy, campus discussion has affected how all sororities are viewed.

According to McMahon, since its formation at the beginning of the spring semester, the committee has accepted input from hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. Monaco told the Daily that the committee’s report will be issued in the fall, but a summary of the report’s main themes will be released soon.

Kesslen, the writer of the November 2016 Observer article, expressed frustration with Tufts officials’ lack of announcements surrounding Greek-life investigations.

“You would imagine there’d be a school-wide email at least … discussing and addressing the events that have been happening, considering it’s been so central to campus discussion this year. And the silence is pretty remarkable and telling,” he said.

McMahon noted that, regardless of when the report is finally released to the campus community, her office will give the community an update.

“We’ll do what we can to let people know about where organizations are between now and the end of the semester,” she said.

Reforming Panhel and IFC

According to Panhel President Meaghan Annett, a graduating senior, and IFC President Jack Friend, a rising senior, sororities and fraternities have worked hard this semester to make their organizations more inclusive. A newsletter that Panhel released publicly describes the various changes sororities have made, including strengthening sexual assault awareness programming and creating a financial aid fund.

According to Annett, Panhel has also worked to reform the recruitment structure for the two sororities — Kappa Alpha Theta and AOII — that recruited new members in the spring. It allowed potential new members to move more freely from house to house and eliminated a recruitment dress code.

The newsletter also states that all sororities were required to instate a Diversity and Inclusion Chair position. These chairs sit in Anti-Racism Task Force meetings with the IGC’s Community Outreach Chair.

Annett said that Panhel believes it is important to have transgender inclusion policies. She added that she would like Tufts to serve as a model for other schools in that regard.

“All of the organizations have had conversations with their nationals about extending membership to transgender women, and they’ve all been very positive conversations,” she said.

According to Friend, the IFC has enacted comprehensive changes this semester, including drafting and implementing a new constitution. This constitution puts forth specific guidelines for leadership and creates a new Vice President of Judicial Affairs position, which will chair a judicial committee that will hear cases regarding alcohol infractions, a responsibility previously held by the IGC.

“Many of the chapter presidents, in addition to myself, thought that it would make more sense for the IFC to preside over these cases as they are fraternity-related incidents,” he said. “But if it was only fraternities that were determining the consequences for other fraternities, that wouldn’t really be true peer governance.”

To diversify the committee, Friend would like to include representatives who are not involved in Greek life to participate in these judicial processes. He said a goal was to have a non-Greek-affiliated representative serve as a voting member in these judicial hearings.

Another new executive position will be responsible for chairing a Perspectives Committee that will evaluate Greek life’s inclusivity and implement changes.

“This position is key because it can’t be … looked upon as tokenizing but rather [be] a position that really makes a genuine impact,” Friend said.

He added that he hopes individuals who are involved in diversity and inclusion efforts, whether they are affiliated with Greek life or not, will aid in formulating the position and determining its responsibilities.

Friend also said that the IFC is continuing to work towards reducing risks at parties.

“I think that we can be doing a much better job of overseeing our parties in a safer and more professional way,” he said.

Opponents of Greek Life

While these investigations continue towards their conclusions and fraternity and sorority leaders push for reform within the system, many individuals have rallied against Greek life on this campus, attending protests and communicating their feelings through publications and posts. Kesslen expressed frustration with the Greek system and the difficulty of speaking out as an opponent of Greek life. He said that framing the conflict as bilateral is problematic because the two sides are not on equal footing.

Greek life has institutional support. It has full-time employees. It has money. It has social capital. It has physical space. It has power. And to say that that’s on equal footing as those who oppose Greek life is just false,” he said. “Sitting down with the two sides doesn’t mean that they’re both equal, and one side can speak out without, from what I know, fearing physical or verbal harassment.”

Kesslen also referenced the instances of homophobic and transphobic violence and hate speech that were condemned in an April 24 email to the Tufts community. He said that those incidents were directed against individuals who oppose Greek life.

“People now are feeling even more reluctant to speak out because they fear for their safety on this campus,” he said.

He added that individuals who are involved in Greek life already hold power on campus due to the privileges that allow them to participate in Greek life in the first place.

Belinda Xian, a former AOII sorority sister, dropped out of AOII in the fall when the national organization held off on extending a bid to a transgender woman despite a unanimous vote to extend the bid within the Tufts chapter. Xian, a rising senior, also expressed discomfort with racist and classist treatment of sisters by the organization.

She said she was present at a protest of recruitment in March, but she concealed her identity for fear that her former sisters would target her for speaking out.

“I think purely by the fact that they are choosing to remain in an institution that is against people like me, they are invalidating my identity. They see me as less of a person,” she said.

Xian was also distrustful of the national organization.

“I think any national institution will never be 100-percent safe, because it’s a huge institution that has no empathy for you as a human being,” she said.

Elise Sommers, a rising junior, is also resisting Greek life. The sign “Abolish Greek Life” is pasted over the windows of their room in Crafts House.

“That felt like a pretty useful tool as all the tours walked by, so the tour guides [would] have to talk to [prospective students] about what’s going on in Greek life,” they said.

Sommers said that, though the individuals who live in Crafts House all interpret the “Abolish Greek Life” ethos differently, the community as a whole does not support Greek life and is looking into co-ops and communal living as alternatives. According to Sommers, residents of Crafts House recently had the opportunity to visit a full income-sharing co-op in VirginiaSommers hopes this can serve as a model for the Tufts community.

“There are so many people doing so much amazing community building work, building communities that center marginalized groups,” Sommers said.

Making Change, Moving Forward

CSL member Tafari Duncan stressed that though there are many loud voices speaking on various campus issues, he faces difficulty in garnering student interest in the judicial policy that would have an effect on those issues. He said that last year, when he helped conduct a revision of the charters for IFC, IGC and Panhel, he asked for student input and received very little feedback.

Duncan emphasized that students who want to make change should know that the CSL has jurisdiction over much of campus life. He added that getting angry over CSL’s decisions was unproductive.

“Get involved, understand that it’s the conversation that both sides need to have,” he said. “Because we’re all here together. No one’s going anywhere. And we can’t just keep yelling at each other.”

Friend also stressed that true change comes from interpersonal conversation.

“In actually sitting down with people that disagree with you, especially on this polarizing topic, you start to realize the humanity in the other side of the argument,” Friend said. “While protests and pushback are essential to change, I think where the real change is going to come is having face-to-face conversations.”

Su McGlone, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, also emphasized the importance of dialogue between those involved in Greek life and those who oppose it.

“I … look forward to this continuing to be an opportunity for us to address the issues that exist in Fraternity and Sorority Life and to truly make this a safe and inclusive community,” McGlone said.

Kesslen dismissed calls for unity and conversation, calling them “a neoliberal tactic that ultimately obfuscates the problems that exist.”

“I can’t really envision what a conversation on campus looks like that doesn’t turn into a screaming match,” Kesslen said.