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With increased calls to abolish Greek life, the road is far from easy

A woman crosses Columbia St in front of Fraternity Court on March 28, 2021.

When Shreyas Gupta, a senior computer science and psychology student at Duke University, joined a group of students working to abolish Greek life, he quickly realized there was no clear path to dismantling a core aspect of a university’s social scene.

UNC and Duke are just two of many college campuses where students have called for the abolition of Greek life due to issues of exclusivity and historic ties to white supremacy. 

Through the past year, there have been mass deactivations, student meetings with administrators, evaluations of Greek life by leadership and individual chapters voting to de-charter themselves. But students have faced roadblocks at almost every turn.

A history of controversy

Greek life at UNC has a long history of controversy.

This fall, some fraternities and sororities came under fire for alleged violations of community standards related to COVID-19. In December, a group of fraternities was found to have ties to a drug ring.

These issues, among others, led students to call for reforms of the Greek system. And it’s not the first time Greek culture has been called into question.

In 2010, the Board of Trustees considered moving fall rush to the spring semester. It investigated the impact fall rush has on first-year students’ acclimation to campus. Many believed moving rush would give first-year students time to immerse themselves in other aspects of campus life.

The board received opposition from fraternity leaders, and after a five-month investigation, it ultimately made less sweeping reforms. Instead, it created a set of standards that chapters had to follow in order to conduct fall rush. Members of the Board of Trustees contacted about this story either did not respond or declined to comment. 

A decade later, conversation sparked last summer with the creation of @abolishuncifcandpanhel. The Instagram account documents negative experiences within Greek life and calls for an end to the system.

Ion Outterbridge, director of fraternity and sorority life, said the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has not heard directly from representatives of the movement to abolish Greek life. But, he said they are familiar with the movement and its concerns.

“We have had ongoing conversations with our members about those concerns, and, most recently, we hosted a session at our January 2021 Fraternity and Sorority Presidents Leadership Academy to discuss how Greek organizations can continue to address the issues that are being raised,” Outterbridge said in an email.

Representatives from UNC Panhellenic and UNC Interfraternity Council did not respond to requests for interview. 

Student-led abolition

Some fraternities and sororities have led successful efforts to abolish. Others have struggled to work around barriers like their chapter’s national organization or resistance from other students.

Epsilon Eta, UNC’s environmental fraternity that abolished itself in September, is one that found success with student-initiated efforts.

Gabriela Duncan, a junior environmental justice major, is a former member of Epsilon Eta who called for its abolition. Duncan said the fraternity was a primarily white organization, and much of its funding went toward social events rather than environmental causes.

After contemplating these aspects of the organization, she and two other members drafted a letter detailing reasons for abolition and sent it to the fraternity’s group chat. After internal discussion among members, the leaders made an executive decision to abolish.

“You know, now that it's happened back in September — the abolition, I mean — our lives have not changed,” Duncan said.

But Duncan said Epsilon Eta stood in a unique position because it was not associated with the Interfraternity Council or Panhellenic Council. The environmental fraternity was also not held back by its national organization.

Outterbridge said he is not aware of any campus policies that would prevent a fraternity or sorority from disbanding. But he also said he cannot speak to barriers that might exist among other constituencies — like a chapter’s members, alumni or national organization.

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The experience of Duke students who tried to self-abolish provides insight to these barriers.

Béatrice Rose, a senior at Duke and previous president of Duke’s Zeta Tau Alpha chapter, said her chapter held a vote to abolish earlier this school year. She organized a special meeting to hold the vote, and representatives of the national organization attended and read letters from alumni asking for the chapter not to disband. 

Ultimately, the motion to abolish passed with a high margin. 

“But a few weeks later, nationals rejected our vote,” Rose said. “So, all of the women who voted to abolish the chapter automatically gave up their membership rights, so none of us are in the chapter anymore.”

Though the national organization rejected the decision, Rose said her chapter’s vote was still impactful. Another sorority on campus voted to abolish, and she says their action encouraged other members of Greek life to rethink their commitment to their organizations.

Rose said that in her attempts to work with nationals to amend the sorority’s policies or practices, such as aspects of the recruitment process or dues, she found that she had little power within the national organization.

“I wish that there was more power given to the women who were current members, because what sororities and fraternities are meant to be about is college students,” she said.

At the time of publication, the national office of Zeta Tau Alpha did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

University-led changes to campus culture

Outterbridge said he could not speak to the hypothetical scenario of abolition at UNC and the logistics of how it would play out. 

At Duke, the student-led abolition has been coupled with meetings with administrators and attempts to put Greek life on the Board of Trustees' agenda.

Gupta said students at Duke met with the vice provost of student affairs, the head of undergraduate education, the dean of students and the head of student activities about the state of Greek life at the university. He said they also worked with the Board of Trustees, and especially former student members of the board.

The board ended up holding a meeting in the fall where the only agenda item for the undergraduate education portion was exclusivity and selectivity at Duke.

“But it was a really interesting thing to see like, wow, like the entire meeting was focused on that,” he said.

While the UNC Board of Trustees did not succeed in passing sweeping reforms to Greek culture on campus back in 2010, Duke found success. By working with administrators, Duke students worked to push recruitment back to sophomore year and disconnect residential life from Greek organizations. Gupta says these efforts will hopefully decentralize Greek life from social life.

Still, students who oppose the changes have found a way to sidestep them. 

“We were like, 'We don't really like those rules and we feel like you guys are purposely edging us out,'” Durham IFC President Will Santee said. “So, we're gonna do this on our own. We established the Durham IFC, which is its own IFC.”

He said Durham IFC is not affiliated in any way with Duke University, but each fraternity is still affiliated with its national organization. The community currently has nine chapters and approximately 700 members.

Santee said Durham IFC hopes to address many of the same problems that initially led Duke students to call for abolition. He said members will undergo sexual assault training, work with campus organizations to increase diversity and eliminate excess costs to make Greek life a more affordable experience.

But recently, Duke University linked a COVID-19 outbreak to rush events held by Durham IFC chapters.

While the mass disaffiliation of Greek chapters from Duke University separates campus culture from fraternities, Gupta said activists at Duke worried an organization like Durham IFC — which is not under the jurisdiction of the University — could bring harm to the surrounding community. 

“What we are saying is that I think this is truly an example, and a visual representation of the privilege, the culture and kind of what fraternities truly stand for,” Gupta said.

Duncan said Epsilon Eta’s situation was very different from a fraternity or sorority associated with IFC or the Panhellenic Council. But she said that if any students were considering abolition, they would need a strong and organized strategy.

“I think for organizations as powerful as that, there's going to need to be a lot more discussion, there needs to be a lot more time, a lot more people and power focused on developing a plan to abolish,” she said.