Emma Lane and Emily Elkas
*This article discusses sensitive topics such as sexual assault.
Fraternities and sororities have had a strong presence on college campuses since the early 1800s and currently exist at over 630 universities in the United States. Dating back to 1851, Greek Life at UNC now comprises 61 organizations and almost 4,000 members, which is about 20% of the undergraduate student body. Despite the long history and popularity of Greek life both at UNC and across the country, many students are calling for the abolition of Greek life in its entirety due to exclusion, sexual assault, and community safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving rise to the “Abolish Greek Life” movement.
Greek life is deeply embedded in college culture, but students at UNC, Duke, Vanderbilt, and numerous other universities are advocating for the abolition of Greek life, specifically historically white social fraternities and sororities (Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic), on their campuses. Many students in Greek life have left their organizations in order to show support for the Abolish Greek Life movement. In an interview conducted by the authors, Henry Haney, a senior at UNC who disafilliated from his fraternity, said, “While I made a lot of great relationships and memories in my organization—and felt that mine held itself to a higher standard than other organizations—ultimately I decided I had wedged myself into an organization that is toxically cis/heteronormative and not representative of the UNC community.”
Greek life is inherently exclusive; the dues alone prevent many students from even considering joining a Greek organization. Paying to join an IFC fraternity or Panhellenic sorority gives members access to an exclusive social scene, alumni connections, and more. Such exclusive access contributes to social stratification on college campuses and beyond. While only 8.5 percent of American male college students are fraternity members, 85 percent of Supreme Court justices since 1910, and, historically, 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives and 76 percent of U.S. senators are affiliated with fraternities. According to Abolish Greek Life, the economic exclusivity of Greek life perpetuates elitism by providing wealthy white college students a pathway to opportunity.
While there is generally not public information on the national demographics of the Interfraternity or Panhellenic Councils, these organizations have a reputation of being predominantly white. At the University of Alabama in 2015, less than one percent of both IFC and Panhellenic members were black, while black students made up almost 11 percent of the student body. Although many schools do not publish information on the demographics of their Greek organizations, this is far from unique to the University of Alabama. The financial and racial exclusivity of Greek life is a serious concern for many, especially as discussions and protests surrounding racial inequities sweep the country. If universities claim to reject racism and classism, can they allow these segregated institutions to remain on their campuses?
Another glaring issue associated with Greek life is its large role in perpetuating sexual assault on campus. Fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than their non-Greek peers. On average, one in five women will experience sexual assault in their four years at college, and at UNC this number is even higher; one in three female undergraduate students at UNC has been a victim of sexual assault. Likely due to their proximity to fraternity men, women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than women unaffiliated with sororities.
The COVID-19 pandemic adds another important element to the discussion about the role of Greek life on campus, as chapters across the country have contributed to outbreaks on college campuses. According to Haney (the UNC senior who disaffiliated from his fraternity), “Greek life members have endangered the campus and Chapel Hill communities at UNC by continuing to operate rush, by throwing parties and other social events and by altogether embracing their privilege to attempt to imitate the party culture of the pre-COVID era.” At UNC, at least three COVID-19 clusters were linked to Greek houses, and members of one sorority were caught holding a party in violation of UNC’s Community Standards as well as North Carolina’s Phase 2 guidelines.
Many members of Greek organizations have recognized that there are structural issues within IFC and Panhellenic but argue that reform is a better, more feasible option because of the positives that Greek life has to offer, such as leadership development, community, and philanthropy. Some sororities have taken action in response to criticism. For example, the UNC Panhellenic Council created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council and donated several thousand dollars to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that pays bail for low-income individuals. Certain individual sorority chapters at UNC have stopped considering recommendation letters from former members during the recruitment process, donated to local organizations that combat inequality, and promised to hold bias trainings within their chapters.
However, even when individual chapters or Panhellenic Councils within universities attempt to make meaningful changes, they are often blocked by their National councils. Two Duke sororities voted to decharter after discussions surrounding the role of Greek life in perpetuating racism and classism on campus, but the votes were rejected by their National councils.
The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FSPAC) serves as another barrier to reforming Greek life. FSPAC works to elect legislators with Greek ties to Congress and attempts to influence national policies surrounding hazing, survivor’s rights, and universities’ ability to make decisions regarding fraternities and sororities on campus. According to the Abolish Greek Life Instagram page, “[t]he largest individual donors to FSPAC are lawyers who defend fraternities and sororities in negligence and wrongful-death lawsuits and insurers who sell liability policies to Greek institutions.”
Some people have expressed other concerns about abolishing Greek life completely; they agree with the issues raised but think that abolition would leave holes in the college social sphere for even more exclusive and secretive groups to appear. Spencer Ganus, a student at Duke, where Abolish Greek Life has gained quite a bit of traction, stated, “I think all of the same people would continue to associate with one another. The social circles would be equally as exclusive and homogenous because we wouldn’t be starting from scratch and creating organic friendships; we are just stripping the structure from the system that created these social circles without replacing it with something better.” She continued, explaining, “I think these issues are so deeply ingrained in American society that Greek life is only a small facet of how they manifest in our culture.”
Dismantling the Greek system is likely not feasible, as fraternity and sorority alumni make up the largest sector of university donors, contributing four times as much as their non-Greek counterparts, and therefore have a strong hold on university politics. However, According to the Abolish UNC IFC & Panhel Instagram page, “IFC and Panhel perpetuate cultures of violence and elitism, and contribute to a racially and socioeconomically segregated campus culture,” which seems to be in direct contradiction with UNC’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. In order to better align the presence of these organizations with the university’s mission, some practical steps can be taken. Creating a task force made up of students and the Department of Fraternity & Sorority Life, restructuring recruitment processes to place less emphasis on connections, and increasing accountability for hazing, sexual assault, and discrimination within IFC and Panhellenic would be a strong starting point for improving the safety and integrity of UNC’s campus.