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The problem with abolishing Greek life

Over the past year the calls to abolish Greek life at Duke have grown louder. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, many students were left questioning their support for a system which, in their view, perpetuated misogyny, racism, classism, and a slew of other bigoted norms. An Instagram page emerged and detailed explicit accounts of sexual assault, exclusion, and other forms of misconduct among Duke’s Greek community. 152 posts and 2,296 followers later, the forum is firmly cemented as a mainstay in Duke’s discourse regarding the matter. More recently, calls to abolish have reached a deafening pitch as dramatic increases in COVID cases have been linked to in-person rush events. After a weeklong lockdown, the sentiments on and around campus seem to be unchanged: Greek life must go. Little will change, unfortunately, should Duke submit to this demand.

However, opponents of the status quo are not without reason, and they are right to be alarmed at studies which find that fraternity men are 300 percent more likely to commit rape than their non-Greek counterparts. They, like anyone should be, are appalled at the fact that 48 percent of female undergraduates experience sexual violence during their time at Duke. They feel sympathy for the racial, socioeconomic and sexual minorities who are often excluded or tokenized by Greek organizations, and as most reasonable people would, they are right to take issue with the students in Greek life who party during a pandemic. It is clear to them and most of us that we need desperate change at Duke—but taking aim at Greek life will do little to bring this change about. This becomes abundantly clear when we look at the institutions culturally and ideologically similar to Duke which have already taken steps to severely restrict or ‘abolish’ Greek life from their campuses. 

Perhaps this is most clear with rates of sexual assault. Harvard, for example, leveraged extreme sanctions on fraternities and sororities and greatly disincentivized membership within these organizations. Despite this, the university found that rates of sexual assault remained “largely unchanged” from 2015, when the policy had not yet been announced, and 2019, a full two years after it took effect. Similar results can be observed at Princeton. An internal survey from 2008 details that 28 percent of female undergraduate students at Princeton identified themselves as victims of sexual assault. Beginning in 2012, the university took action against Greek organizations and banned them from recruiting freshmen. Furthermore, when this policy was announced in 2011, the university stated that it “[did] not recognize fraternities and sororities.” However, four years after the university officially stopped recognizing Greek organizations, and three years after they severely restricted the presence of these entities on campus, a 2015 survey found that 27 percent of Princeton’s undergraduate women experienced some form of sexual assault while on campus [1]. This represents an insignificant change in the level of sexual violence women at Princeton suffered during the time before and during the time after the university formally abolished Greek life.

Opponents might claim that we’re not seeing reduced rates of sexual violence in these cases because Harvard and Princeton did not abolish fraternities to the fullest extent of what it means to abolish something. Let me remind you, however, that it is incredibly hard for universities to stop students from forming Greek-like organizations.

Though, even if we did find a way to fully abolish Greek life, it’s ambiguous as to whether rates of sexual violence would fall. For example, 30 years after officially abolishing Greek life, Amherst College announced, somehow, in 2014 that “students caught as members of underground fraternities, or in ‘fraternity-like organizations,’ could be suspended or expelled.” Years after this policy was enacted, however, the college still found that 29 percent of their female undergraduate population would suffer from sexual violence while enrolled.

How can we reconcile this with the previously reported statistic that fraternity men are three times as likely to commit rape? This phenomenon is a direct result of individuals predisposed to committing these offenses self-selecting into Greek organizations. In the absence of these organizations, these men do not simply disappear from campus. Rather, they form exclusive and unregulated clubs or friend groups to continue their abhorrent behavior. For example, Harvard recently found that 47 percent of female seniors who associate with Final Clubs—non-Greek, all-male organizations of Harvard undergrads—have experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.” This is the highest rate of sexual assault experienced amongst all student groups Harvard surveyed.

Like other institutions, Duke’s problem is not one of organizations but of individuals. If we want to see tangible progress—at least in the form of sexual assault prevention—we ought to call for the University to invest more resources in prosecuting individuals who break student codes of conduct. There are many areas in which admin can improve sexual assault education, prevention and consequences for misconduct.

For example, during the 2017-2018 academic school year, Duke’s Office of Student Conduct received 189 reports of sexual misconduct. Only ten of those reports were referred to investigation, and, among them, only five resulted in final decisions (which may or may not have brought justice to the victims). Two were dismissed due to lack of evidence, one trial extended beyond the academic year, and the “remaining 179 were closed or resulted in non-disciplinary action.” The truly terrifying thing about this is that these are the sexual misconduct complaints where women were brave enough and had enough evidence to bring them before the OSC, yet, despite this, the university still failed to hold the vast majority of their assailants accountable. Such figures make me ashamed to call myself a Blue Devil, and they clearly show how a greater commitment to holding individuals accountable (i.e., through ensuring that every sexual misconduct complaint is granted a trial) would help in reducing the level of sexual violence on campus.

Along with sexual assault, similar arguments can be made regarding another harmful aspect of Greek life at Duke: exclusivity. It is commonly known that Greek life disproportionately excludes people who are of color, queer, and/or of lower socioeconomic class. The Greek organizations which are formed, as a result, are largely made up of wealthy, cis-gender, white individuals. Critics say that this serves to “uphold and enforce white supremacy, classism, and heteropatriarchal norms.” They are right. 

However, we ought to understand that exclusion and the bigoted attitudes which flow from it is an issue endemic to all college campuses. Greek life is a non-factor at Brown, for example, but a survey of undergraduates found a striking lack of racial and socioeconomic mixing within the student body. This is because of a human tendency for people to more readily form groups among individuals who have some sense of shared identity. As such, abolishment of Greek life will not lead to utopian levels of identity mixing among Duke’s student population. Rather, social barriers will still be drawn across racial and socioeconomic boundaries and the bigotry which stems from this homogenization will be no less of a problem. 

Abolish proponents might point to a system of living-learning communities which could occupy the space once offered by Greek life and SLGs. Here I question how far our community and the university would be willing to go. Are we willing to deprive people of choosing who they get to live with? Do we want to do away with selective living groups? So long as we are willing to let student-run groups select their members, they will always exclude others. And so long as our society values whiteness and wealth, the ‘coolest’ groups will largely be made up of wealthy, white individuals who take comfort in being with people of similar backgrounds. Greek life may not always be around to keep Duke’s most privileged students at the top of the social hierarchy, but whatever system comes next will do no worse of a job than its predecessor. And if it does, it will not be because the system itself is inherently better but because the people who constitute it are inherently different.

The ugly truth about Greek life is that it is not what plagues Duke’s campus. We are. Greek life does not make sex-offenders out of good people, nor does it make us any more exclusive than we naturally are as humans. I’d honestly even say it isn’t the reason why some of us are partying during a pandemic (who would’ve thought that the people who like to party more than others would party more than others during a pandemic?). Conversations on campus should thus not focus on how to regulate organizations, but individuals within them. 

While I sympathize with their cause, abolitionists may end up doing more harm than good. Should they force the University’s hand, Duke will be able to claim for years to come that it has made sufficient progress on issues that will not be any more solved than they are today. This, of course, will allow admin to further avoid investing in a system which holds its highest paying customers accountable. And in this likely scenario, we all lose. 

[1] This statistic includes women who believed that they were the victims of sexual violence while incapacitated. The Princeton-reported figure of 22 percent does not include such women, and, as such, cannot be used as an accurate metric of sexual assault on campus.

Ivan Petropoulos is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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