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'It’s bigger than us': Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel fights to get rid of two dozen Greek organizations

Shreyas Gupta had just started to doze off at 2:45 a.m when a glass bottle smashed through his bedroom window. 

His first thought was that there had been an explosion. Glass littered his windowsill; shards scattered across his carpet, reflecting moonlight. A bottle of Hell’s Belle beer rolled across the floor, still intact. He heard tires screeching on the street.

It was the night of Sept. 4, a Friday. Five days earlier, Gupta, a senior, had appeared on local TV news station WRAL to represent Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel, the group he helped start that’s advocating for the abolition of 24 Duke fraternities and sororities. It was the first time he had spoken publicly about his involvement.

“I just never thought something like that could happen while I was at Duke,” he said of the act of vandalism.

Gupta can’t prove the incident was related to his role in Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel. Still, he and other members of the team have received some backlash since the group’s creation, but most antagonizers choose to wage their battles online, in Instagram DMs or on Facebook Messenger. After WRAL interviewed him, Gupta received a Facebook message from an older man he didn’t recognize. “Troublemaker!” the message read. “Why don’t you leave Duke!”

A few minutes after his window shattered, Gupta went outside to see egg yolks dripping down the wood panelling of the house. More broken beer bottles and egg shells littered the front lawn. He’ll probably never know who vandalized his home or if they were retaliating against his calls for abolition, he said, but being physically threatened in his home “made everything feel a lot more real.”

An Instagram page starts a movement

Although the idea of abolishing Greek life isn’t new, this iteration of the movement started with the creation of an Instagram page in mid-July, when criticisms fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement came to a head. The account, which was created before the Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel group, offers a space for students and alumni to share anonymous stories about their experiences in Duke Greek life. It now boasts more than 2,300 followers. 

The students who began the Instagram page, who haven’t publicly revealed their identities, also started a petition calling for the formal abolition of all Duke chapters of the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association—historically white Greek organizations The petition has garnered more than 400 signatures.

Conversations sparked from the Instagram prompted Gupta and four other students to launch the Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel website about a month later. The same day, Aug. 12, their open letter was published in The Chronicle. The group has since amassed more than 40 members, Gupta said, and the open letter has more than 350 signatories.

The movement has prompted campus sororities and fraternities to internally evaluate their organizations. Panhellenic Association members Zeta Tau Alpha and Alpha Delta Pi have since voted to relinquish their charters. The attempts were rejected by the organizations’ national councils, according to the chapters.

But although calls for abolition began two months ago, for the five student leaders of Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel, the movement has been a long time coming.

Four of the five members of the leadership team chose to speak with The Chronicle: Gupta, Christine Bergamini, Elena Gray and Carmela Guaglianone. Gupta said vandalization of his house dissuaded the fifth member from publicly attaching their name to the group.

Bergamini, a senior and former member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said she decided to disaffiliate when the Duke chapter was prevented from signing the list of demands issued by the Black Coalition Against Policing, which outlined a number of steps including the eventual abolition of the Duke University Police Department. To Bergamini, this proved the organization was only willing to engage in performative activism.

Senior Victoria Sorhegui, president of Duke’s Theta chapter, confirmed in an email to The Chronicle that Theta’s national policy prevents the chapter from attaching the sorority’s name to the list of demands because of its “political undertones.” Representatives of the national organization did not respond to an email or phone call seeking comment in time for publication.

Gray, a senior previously in Kappa Kappa Gamma, said she had “overall positive experiences” in her sorority, but as a white woman, “eventually, I had to ask myself why I was able to benefit from it, what factors of my identity allowed me to be welcomed.”

“Once I started asking myself those questions, I couldn’t run from the problems of Greek life anymore,” she said.

Guaglianone, a senior, accepted a snap bid from Gamma Phi Beta her freshman year but dropped a few months later. Greek life controls much of Duke’s social culture, she said, and she has watched the “archaic” system place the burden of reform onto the members it disadvantages, often forcing victims of racism and sexual assault to advocate for necessary changes to their organizations.

Gupta had planned to drop his fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said allowed him to reflect on his own identity as an Indian man. He and his friends wrote an open letter to the fraternity detailing racism within the Greek system. A mass exodus of the junior and senior classes followed. 

In total, 31 members reported disaffiliating, according to Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel’s disaffiliation tracker, a number confirmed by Gupta. Pikapp President Brian Hu, a senior, told The Chronicle that the number has risen to 35.

Other than providing the number of members who have disaffiliated, Hu did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Gupta clarified that the call for abolition does not apply to the Multicultural Greek Council or the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which, as Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel wrote in their open letter, “provide community to BIPOC students on Duke’s campus.”

A power imbalance

Gray and Bergamini said they recognize that their privilege as white women allowed them to benefit from and enjoy many aspects of their affiliations. Yet all three female leaders cited sexual assault by fraternity members, which Bergamini labeled “innate to the Greek system,” as a central motivation for their calls for abolition.

“Pretty much every single one of my friends, including myself, has experienced sexual assault to some degree by fraternity members,” Bergamini said. “It’s normalized. Why is that something we’re allowing?”

In a 2018 survey, 48% of female students reported having experienced sexual assault at Duke. But from May 2018 to May 2019, only 169 cases were reported to the Office of Student Conduct.

Gray said misogyny in the Greek system stems from the binary and heteronormative nature of Greek life, which creates a power imbalance between fraternities and sororities.

“If you break down a single fraternity party—they have the alcohol. They control the venue. They choose the clothes the mostly female participants are wearing, the theme, and how you get there and back,” she said. “You want to feel empowered as a woman, but that isn’t an option.”

Senior Rohan Singh, president of the Duke Interfraternity Council, wrote in an email that the members of the IFC executive board “absolutely condemn acts of sexual assault and are aware that it is an issue that plagues our community.”

“We are taking measures to be proactive about eliminating sexual assault within the IFC, and encourage students to report acts of assault to Duke Student Conduct,” he wrote.

No reform from the inside

Those opposed to abolition have argued that reforming the Greek system at Duke is a more feasible and desirable response to the criticisms lodged against Greek life. But Gupta, Bergamini and Gray said they’ve tried to reform their organizations from the inside. They said it can’t be done.

Bystander intervention trainings, a common reform strategy within fraternities and sororities to address the incidence of sexual assault, can only be so effective, said Gupta. He recalls one session hosted by his fraternity, led by a brother “who is by no means an expert,” and while attendance was mandatory, he said many members never showed up. 

For trainings designed to combat implicit bias, “the session takes two hours max, one day a year” even when most members are in attendance, Bergamini said. “Those reforms can be implemented, but they don’t change the makeup of the organization.”

Reforming the rush process has its limits, too, she said. Although dues can be lowered and sororities can make efforts to increase diversity, “dues are never going to cost zero dollars, and being in a sorority has other associated costs, like formal dresses and costumes,” she said. “You can never eliminate the selectivity issue of who’s allowed entrance into these organizations to begin with.”

The burden of reform

Bergamini also said Duke employs experts to tackle university reform while relying on unpaid student labor to address issues in Greek life like rampant racism without institutional support. 

Gupta remembers feeling the burden of justifying the actions of members of his fraternity against students of color. But “it’s not the responsibility of people of color to teach you how to not be racist,” he said.

Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, highlighted several structures at Duke that serve to address misogyny and racism in Greek life, including the Office of Student Conduct, the bias response group and University Center Activities and Events staff, but she acknowledged that student training also plays a role.

“It’s definitely my goal to not burden students who are most impacted to have to do the training and the work,” she said. “There’s plenty of work that we have to do to become a more inclusive and truly equitable campus.”

Yet the central issue with attempts at reform, said Gupta, is that the Greek system isn’t broken. The group wrote in their open letter that fraternities were created after the Civil War to separate wealthy white male college students from the rest of the increasingly diverse student body. Therefore, Gupta said, Greek life is functioning exactly as it was intended, to uphold power structures and reinforce white privilege.

“To make this system equitable and safe,” Bergamini said, “it would have to turn into something that it’s not.”

Panhel and IFC: Rebuilding Greek life

Formal abolition would require that the Duke administration terminate their contracts with each of the national Greek organizations, as outlined in the Panhellenic executive board’s abolition clarification statement.

McMahon noted that she hasn’t yet heard from the national councils of ADPi or Zeta, the two Duke Panhel chapters that voted to relinquish their charters.

“What our students are seeking is going to be the priority for how we think about going forward,” she said. 

Senior Kate Chen, president of the Duke Panhellenic Association, responded in an email to Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel’s statements. Reform within Duke Panhellenic is “integral,” she wrote.

“Panhellenic members have the power to change how we support our members, include potential members, and treat other members of the Duke community,” she wrote. “These changes are much needed, regardless of whether Panhellenic as a greater community exists.” 

She also stated that the board seeks to lessen the association between IFC and Panhel and plans to indefinitely end all “mixers” with all-male organizations.

Singh said he felt obligated as a person of color to seek a leadership role in his fraternity. But he agreed that people of color should not be forced to educate white fraternity members on issues of racism, and said the IFC executive board is considering working with “external consultants and Duke programs” to design an anti-hate-and-bias curriculum. 

The board also set up a task force to address campus sexual assault and is working with Duke Panhel and the Office of Student Conduct to promote better reporting practices, Singh said.

“As a council, we are hoping to transform, rather than reform, our fraternities,” he said.

Why abolition?

Abolishing Greek life feels radical because Duke has never dared imagine what the university’s social culture would look like without it, Gupta said. 

“There’s no consideration of what the best option might be,” he said. “It’s like, we have Greek life, and we will continue to have Greek life, so let’s just tweak it so people are okay with it.” 

Although dissolving on-campus Greek housing would be a step in the right direction, it can’t solve the major inequities inherent to Greek life, he said. In place of Greek organizations, Gray suggested a residential college system similar to those at universities like Yale and Princeton, which would address many concerns of advocates for Duke housing reform and change the face of Duke’s social scene.

Asked if the administration is considering housing reform in response to racism and misogyny in Greek life, “the short answer is yes,” McMahon said. “This is the time to ask the question, because everything is in its own funky spot right now.” 

“This is going to be a year where we think a lot about the larger systemic connections around housing, student organizations, selectivity, and structures that are inherently racist or sexist, or in which students assume a certain identity or status,” McMahon said.

Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel also wants Duke to halt the rush process for the spring semester to allow for continued discussion about the future of the Greek system. 

Chen confirmed in an email that the Panhel executive board will have a vote Sept. 25 to determine what sorority rush will look like in the spring semester, including the possibility of postponing or canceling rush altogether, and that they plan to release a final decision Oct. 1. Senior Adam Krekorian, IFC recruitment director, wrote in an email that IFC plans to hold virtual recruitment in January.

Rallying the administration

Before the abolition of campus fraternities and sororities is possible, Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel wants the Duke administration to publicly recognize them. 

“If we can be brought in to have these conversations with administrators, at least they know what the students want,” Bergamini said. “That way, the administrators aren’t just relaying messages by themselves.”

The group began exchanging emails with McMahon on Tuesday, which Gupta said is the first time they have formally reached out to set up a meeting with Duke administrators, having recently broken their anonymity. They plan to meet with Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, and John Blackshear, dean of students, along with McMahon.

Gupta did meet individually with Duke administrators after his house was vandalized—“getting a bottle thrown through your window is a quick way to get an administrator to listen to you,” he said. 

Still, he said many students involved with Abolish Duke IFC & Panhel now feel afraid to speak out. The leadership team discussed releasing their names many times, and until recently wanted to remain anonymous, fearing potential repercussions. 

But, Gupta said, “It’s bigger than us.”

Editor’s note: The author of this article was briefly a member of a Panhellenic Association sorority during her first year at Duke but disaffiliated because of the cost. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the open letter that Shreyas Gupta and his friends wrote to his fraternity. It detailed racism in the Greek system generally, not just instances they had experienced, and not all the authors were people of color, as was originally stated. This article has also been updated to reflect that Panhel will hold a vote on spring rush Sept. 25, not a town hall to discuss it. The Chronicle regrets the errors. 

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