Registering for classes, moving into a new dorm room, attending the first club meeting—the start of the school year naturally features certain social cues that roust students from their summer stupors and refresh them on the realities of Back To School. Among these cues, the latest spasm of student activism always sets the moral tenor on campus.
During my short three years at Duke the resident radicals have gotten hot and bothered about President Price, about various speakers on campus, about “fascism” in the Duke administration, about Duke’s failure to censor its own students, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. Student activism is a fitful, excitable affair and there is always a new flavor of the month. This time the spotlight is on Greek life and its discontents.
In early July, an instagram page entitled “Abolish Duke IFC and Panhellenic” was created for the purpose of “[providing] an anonymous platform for Duke students to share how Greek life has perpetuated a culture of oppression and discrimination on campus.”
As the abolition effort gained steam over the latter half of the summer, an open letter, a website and a petition popped up in concert with the original Instagram page. The laundry list of accusations against Greek organizations ranges, as the open letter states, from “white supremacy, misogyny, classism, homophobia, and transphobia” to whatever else will stick against the wall, but the gist, clearly, is that more than one-third of Duke undergraduates have joined social organizations that are Terrible, Horrible, No Good and Very Bad.
They are not totally wrong. Admittedly, Greek life often falls short in areas such as sexual assault and racial and socioeconomic diversity. Even one instance of sexual misconduct or racial insensitivity within an organization is too many, and such problems should be handled with moral clarity and a proportional response. Which is to say that, while we likely disagree on the extent of the problems with Greek life, the activists behind the abolition movement and I do fundamentally agree that there is a problem and that those responsible must be held accountable.
Nonetheless, I find the calls for abolition confusing. In the open letter, the activists implicitly paint themselves as uncompromising arbiters of ethics and truth, and they take great pains to explain why Greek life is guilty of a litany of mortal sins, therefore making complete abolition the only recourse. Yet consider this: Maybe they aren’t as righteous or as pure as they may seem. Maybe they are but dull, sober incrementalists, slowly tinkering away and marginally improving a greater system that they can’t afford to dispense with. Maybe, based on their own stated principles and objections to Greek life, they made a fairly fundamental ethical compromise on a higher level before the abolition movement even began. This is no longer about Greek life—it’s about Duke.
If you assume they mean what they say, that they truly believe Greek organizations are irredeemably racist, sexist, classist and elitist by dint of their historical legacies and their modern structures and consequently must be abolished, then what element of that argument doesn’t apply to Duke itself?
Duke has a racist legacy: The campus was segregated within living memory, Duke was one of the last major universities to desegregate and some of the biggest names in university history, such as Julian Carr, held evil views about black people. Duke’s past and present is rife with classism: the institution was founded by the patronage of a southern aristocrat and today roughly 70% of the student body comes from an income bracket in the top 20%.
If you take these facts and consider them in light of the logic used to justify the abolition of Greek life, then it becomes clear that Duke is guilty of all the same wrongs as Greek life to an even greater degree. So, using the activist’s own standards and principles, the question isn’t whether Duke should be abolished because it clearly should be. On Duke’s abolition, the question is why are they silent? After all, silence is violence.
There are a few plausible reasons why the activists have drawn an ethically inexplicable line in the sand. First, because even if it follows from their own convictions, the abolition of Duke would have a drastically negative effect on their lives and career outcomes, whereas the abolition of Greek life would not.
After scrutinizing the names on the open letter, I realized that roughly two-thirds of the signatures (217 of the total 337) came from people who were either graduating this year, had already graduated or had never attended Duke as an undergraduate at all. Only 5 signatures came from the class of 2024, who presumably have the most at stake. Of course, that does not strictly disqualify the overall argument, but these facts do reveal that a supermajority of abolitionists won’t have to confront the fallout of their advocacy and they also explain why seemingly little time or effort has been invested in describing an alternative social system. Talk is cheap.
Another potential explanation for this conspicuous lapse in moral reasoning is that they ultimately know that abolition simply isn’t the only option. If it's possible to see the good and the bad in Duke, to acknowledge the university’s failings while appreciating its many incredible virtues and accomplishments, then it is possible to do the same for Greek life. Although they have made a strong effort to portray Greek organizations as campus klaverns, the truth is that they are just social organizations which offer friendship, community, personal development and maybe even some Budweiser.
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These organizations are not perfect, and their failings must be dealt with urgently and deliberately. But both Duke and Greek life have a historical track record of reform and self-improvement that is both admirable and undeniable. On all fronts, it is impossible to seriously argue that both institutions are not better today than 20 years ago, much less 50 years ago. Certainly, reform can be frustrating and exhausting. But Duke and its Greek organizations have successfully reformed before, and I am confident they will again.
Reiss Becker is a Trinity senior. His column “roused rabble” usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.