Drops of black paint rolled down the technicolor wall under the East Campus bridge. The stretch of concrete was already crowded with art, but that night a message written in fresh paint stood out from them all.
“F*ck IFC!” read wet graffiti.
The phrase, scribbled at least three times on the night of Mar. 14 by a quartet of first-year students, stood plastered next to another painting—one as long and tall as a bus that shared the same message, but with the word “Frats” in place of “IFC.”
Both expressions appeared in the final hours before Duke implemented a stay-in-place order as COVID-19 cases among undergraduates soared. University administrators have repeatedly blamed the outbreak on recruitment events held by members of disaffiliated fraternities.
That distinction was not missed by Duke students, many of whom were barred for a week from leaving their dorms except for essential activities. In graffiti and group messages, social media and online petitions, many students have expressed anger with fraternities and their members.
First-year Elyana Riddick, who said she had been put off by fraternities when they disaffiliated, was among those students.
“This weekend, when we had the spike in COVID cases, it just kind of pushed me over into a lot of anger and a lot of resentment,” said Riddick.
Admin callout prompts student action
Duke didn’t single out members of the Durham Interfraternity Council until March 10, a few days before instituting the stay-in-place order. Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president of student affairs, said she realized the need to identify the Durham IFC’s responsibility for the increase in cases after having conversations with multiple students who expressed frustration that Duke hadn’t publicly connected the surge to fraternities.
“We had this idea that people would draw their own conclusions from the information,” she said. “But we made the decision that we needed to name it more clearly so students could make their own decisions from there.”
Durham IFC released a statement March 15 that said the organization was “disappointed that some individuals within fraternities violated the expectations we established for virtual recruitment which may have contributed to an increase in cases of COVID-19 within the Duke student population.”
The statement promised new accountability measures to prevent future COVID-19 violations, including a reporting hotline and judicial board.
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Fraternities have faced increased pressure over the last year. Last summer, a group of students called for the abolition of Duke Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic sororities, alleging the groups harbored a culture of racism and sexism. The movement saw approximately 400 students disaffiliate from such organizations, the vast majority of whom were women leaving sororities, according to self-reported data.
In August, Duke’s Panhellenic Council voted to no longer allow sorority chapters to host parties with all-male organizations. Last month, nine Duke IFC fraternities disaffiliated from the University and formed the Durham IFC to avoid rules regulating housing and preventing spring rush.
Although Duke’s acknowledgement of the Durham IFC as a major driver of positive cases sparked resentment towards fraternities, it wasn’t until the University announced the stay-in-place order that some students rallied around their mutual indignation.
Senior Anya Parks started an online petition March 13 calling for Duke to sue the Durham IFC for “reckless endangerment” of the Duke and Durham communities. In the first few hours after its creation, hundreds of people signed the petition. As of Saturday night, the petition has over 1,500 signatures.
Senior Madeleine “Mac” Gagné, who has been collaborating with Parks on the project, said this immediate outpouring of support felt validating.
“The rate that it grew just reflects that the anger we found comfort in knowing we were both experiencing was something that so many other members of the community were experiencing as well,” Gagné said.
Parks said she initially advocated for suing the Durham IFC to target the privilege of many fraternity members, which she thinks promotes a reckless mentality that resulted in more positive COVID cases.
“Money protects you,” Parks said. “It’s no longer a matter of, ‘What can I get away with?’ It’s, ‘How much do I have to pay to do this action?’”
Parks said she has since learned that, after the fraternities disaffiliated, Duke lost the power to hold the chapters accountable. She said Duke could sue the national organizations, which seemed complicated and unlikely, or sue the members of each chapter.
“We’re not out here trying to sue individual brothers—it’s a systemic issue,” she added.
In a Sunday interview, Durham IFC President Will Santee, a junior, also said it would be unfeasible for Duke to sue Durham IFC, and disagreed that the organization recklessly endangered the community.
“I wouldn’t say there was a single person who was like, ‘I know these parties are happening and I’m not stopping them, I know these people have COVID and I’m not stopping them,’” he said.
Parks and Gagné now hope to host a town hall with representatives from the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, Duke Student Government, and the Durham IFC. The two created a poll for those who signed the petition to suggest mechanisms of accountability, such as requiring the Durham IFC to consent to random event inspection by Duke.
Asked if he would participate in the town hall, Santee said he hadn’t yet heard about it but supported the idea and plans to reach out to the petition’s creators. He said that such different sides—people in Greek life and people who want to abolish it—might not change one another’s minds, “but at least we'll come to some common ground on ways to, in the short term at least, fix some problems that are pervasive especially within the Greek life system.”
Searching for accountability
Durham IFC’s statement said the organization had created an email for people to report violations of the Duke Compact by fraternity members. Santee told the Chronicle in a previous interview that he will contact Duke student conduct, contact tracers, and fraternity presidents if a fraternity member is reported to be in violation of the coronavirus protocol. Santee also said that the newly-formed Durham IFC judicial board, composed of one volunteer from each fraternity, could be called upon when greater restrictions are necessary.
The statement also said the Durham IFC had a “productive conversation about our plans” with Duke administrators.
McMahon said she hopes the Durham IFC will continue to communicate about these issues.
“I’d much rather have the students checking in with us than operating without consultation at all,” McMahon said.
She declined to comment when asked if she’s concerned about Durham IFC’s ability to hold their members accountable.
Parks, however, said she is “uncomfortable with the idea that an institution can regulate itself.”
“If an organization hasn’t really done a good job of holding itself accountable in the past, how can you realistically expect them to do that now?” she said.
Gagné said she thinks the Durham IFC needs to provide more information about their plans to regain the community’s trust, such as outlining what exactly the judicial board would do if a fraternity member is found to be in violation of the coronavirus protocol.
Asked Sunday about specific plans, Santee clarified that the judicial board will not try individuals, who will be referred to Duke’s contract tracing and student conduct protocol. Instead, the judicial board will address situations in which there are “a lot of people, 10 guys in one chapter or more.”
Gagné said she hopes the town hall will provide an opportunity for members of the Duke community to give constructive feedback to the Durham IFC.
“If you really do care about how the rest of the community is being influenced by your actions, then you need to say that you’ve put concrete thoughts and concrete plans into making sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
A cultural shift
A similar frustration, molded by loss, spilled into a 1,300-person first-year student GroupMe chat. Riddick was among those who entered the mix of students denouncing and defending Greek groups and students that traveled.
In the group chat, Riddick criticized the rush events and travel. Other students fired back.
“wait why are u mad bro,” one wrote.
"Because I could die of COVID so some white boy can drink a stale ass white claw,” Riddick replied, referring to fraternity members who broke COVID-19 rules.
She said she doesn’t think all fraternity members are bad—they’re in her classes, and she gets meals with some. Riddick also doesn’t blame the outbreak solely on them: She pins it on student travel too. (Duke chief spokesperson Michael Schoenfeld wrote in an email that large gatherings and rush parties were the “predominant cause” of the recent outbreak, and that travel was not a major factor.)
Still, Riddick said it only makes sense to her that the groups face public criticism. She said that the actions of fraternity members are public and affect people outside their organizations.
“If that’s the face you put out in public, I get to comment on that in public, and I get to criticize that,” Riddick said.
She said there’s a push in her circle to not join selective groups and to instead “just exist at Duke.”
“I know the culture has definitely shifted,” she said. “I know people aren’t really looking to join frats and sororities… they feel it’s too exclusionary or they just can’t afford it, or they just don’t like the culture.”
When she spoke with The Chronicle, Riddick was quarantined in a room at the JB Duke Hotel. Duke contact traced her after a friend she saw tested positive for COVID-19 during the spike. As she studied for a midterm, Riddick said a parking garage blocked the sun from her hotel room.
“Sometimes it’ll be three o’clock in the afternoon, and sometimes it’ll be two in the morning, and I wouldn’t know the difference,” she said.
Like the other students, Santee said he had seen comments critical of both him and fraternities on social media. He said he doesn’t pay them much attention.
“If people say more substantive things, then I’m happy to talk,” Santee said Sunday. “The stuff on Facebook, the writing on the wall, that’s not really gonna make a lot of positive change.”
At the East Campus bridge a week earlier, at the start of a painful, isolating seven-day lockdown, the words on the wall seemed to stand for more to the painters.
“When I screw up, when I hurt somebody, I hope they’re not scared to call me out,” said one painter, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of public bullying. “If I could safely party, I’d do it," the painter added.
A 9 p.m. curfew imposed by the stay-in-place order abruptly ended the interview at the bridge. The four painters didn’t have enough time to finish outlining each of their white anti-Greek life jabs in black paint, either. They had five minutes to make it back to their dorms.
Matthew Griffin contributed reporting.