The Collegian
Monday, May 25, 2020

OPINION | We need to rethink campus Greek life

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Although the problems of racism and the positive promotion of rape culture are not new to the University of Richmond’s campus, they have certainly been amplified by the events that have recently taken place. 

About two weeks ago, three students encountered racist epithets written on their doors. And now, in the wake of this racism, the university community finds itself trying to make sense of investigations that call into question the practices, behaviors and activities of two Greek life organizations. 

Because of these actions, and future actions that I am fearful of, I am calling for the complete removal and cessation of Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council Greek life organizations. 

Although recent events may be shocking to some, these actions might be normal to some students here because of the problematic perpetuation of hypermasculinity and discrimination that is upheld by traditionally white Greek life organizations.  

The students involved in writing the racially charged sentiments, those who produced the video that now looms over Theta Chi, the allegations against members of Kappa Kappa Gamma and the aged investigation that led to Sigma Chi’s dismissal all contextualize the problem of UR’s social climate.  

Many articles, videos and experiences have been shared that contextualize this social issue — one of which I authored last year — but there seems to be little action taken to ultimately change the social environment. So here’s a not-so-radical idea: Get rid of the problem.

I recognize that Greek life, in the traditional sense, might not be the sole cause of the issue. However, it is hard to ignore it as a major contributor. The Collegian articles I linked above as well as the following exhibits from the Race and Racism at the University of Richmond Project highlight just how much Greek life has negatively influenced the campus climate. 

One exhibit showcases the racist foundation that many IFC fraternities were built on, and others call attention to how these organizations work against the university’s goal of increased social diversity.

What becomes clear from these accounts is that traditional Greek life organizations on this campus are embedded within problematic systems of oppression that promote sexual assault, racism and classism. And although many of these organizations publicly denounce the past actions of their brothers, sisters and fellow Spiders, I struggle to understand how they reconcile that past when we face similar issues today.

To that end, it is time for IFC and Panhellenic organizations to go. And yes, I am purposely excluding the National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations from this chopping block. For context, NPHC is the umbrella organization that houses the traditionally black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, commonly referred to as the “Divine Nine.”

Although UR’s three NPHC organizations operate as part of Greek life, they do so in ways that differ from both IFC and the Panhellenic Council organizations. When the idea of NPHC organizations first came to campus in the early-to-mid '80s, these organizations were specifically thought of as spaces that would grant communities of color a space of their own — a space where they are free to openly embrace their identities. 

And although these organizations are indeed a part of Greek life, they have no negative effects on the campus as a whole. I would also estimate that their current membership makes up less than 1% of the student body. 

Chopping the “white” Greek life organizations and keeping the “black” Greek life organizations might come off as a racial pitting of the NPHC organizations against those of IFC and the Panhellenic Council. But I implore readers to think beyond that petty argument to consider the benefits that come from sustaining NPHC organizations. 

Although NPHC organizations are known for their “traditionally black” membership, people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds can participate in the formal intake processes that govern these organizations. Given the ways in which students cower from conversations on cultural difference, I think expanded membership within NPHC organizations provides opportunities for many students to engage diverse perspectives.

NPHC organizations host and promote events that engage the entire campus community. Yoga with the Redz, the BRAvo fashion show and Study with the Alphas are all examples of programs that have taken place within the first few weeks of the current semester. Although IFC and Panhellenic Council organizations host exclusive “list-only” lodges, cottage parties and large off-campus events like Crawfish Boil, the NPHC organizations host events that support students in areas such as personal wellness, academic preparedness and creative expression. 

The one thing that all Greek life organizations have going for them is their philanthropy and service. On this campus, it is not unusual to see Greek life organizations supporting non-profit organizations or the greater Richmond community. 

Although the work that they are doing is great, I question the purpose of this work. Are these organizations completing this work because they want to or because they have to as part of some requirement? And if service and leadership are such monumental pillars of Greek life, why do the NPHC organizations volunteer more time than IFC or Panhellenic Council organizations? 

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If you’ve made it this far, you are likely considering the big objection to this idea: racial tension. Racial tension is a valid concern to raise, but it is also one that gets at the heart of an inclusive social climate. When people are tense, it creates opportunities for conversation and dialogue. It’s reasonable to assume that these interactions will be painful and terse, but at some point, they might become productive. 

I further believe that these conversations will become productive when the social norm of not caring fades away. If we remove the social apparatus that allows students to ignore or avoid the questions of race, diversity and inclusion, it forces those students to confront these important topics regardless of their feelings toward the topics.

This idea might seem unfair, but it would be antithetical to UR’s mission of diversity and inclusion to ask alumni and current students of color to sacrifice the hard work that it took to develop and sustain NPHC organizations at our predominantly white institution. Many of these organizations joined campus Greek life well after the establishment of the IFC and Panhellenic Council organizations. 

It might be sad for some to see their beloved chapters dissipate, but the NPHC organizations should be given every opportunity to thrive — the same opportunities that have been provided to IFC and Panhellenic Council organizations.

I am of the belief that all Greek life is somewhat problematic, but as it relates to our campus, the NPHC organizations are not plastered over campus media outlets for inappropriate actions or behaviors. That’s not to say that NPHC organizations don’t have their own issues. Rather, it shows that these organizations have strict sanctions and punishments for inappropriate behavior that they take seriously. It shows that NPHC organizations have the capacity to operate on our campus without negatively disrupting the social climate. The same can hardly be said for IFC and Panhellenic Council organizations. 

I understand that University President Ronald A. Crutcher and his administrative colleagues are passionate about making UR a more inclusive and diverse place, but that transition to inclusion and belonging has to start with social reform. If the negative acts explained above show nothing else, they show that this mission of a multicultural utopia is challenging, if it is even possible.

Given this challenge, I hope this piece stirs up provocative thoughts that begin to unpack the issues that many students before me have noted about the social culture here. It may be redundant to say that reform is needed, but a little repetition never hurts anyone: REFORM REALLY IS NEEDED.

UR, its administrators, President Crutcher, the board of trustees and any other stakeholders can talk or preach about diversity and inclusion as much as they want. But until there is action behind those words— and we’re clearly in need of action —nothing will ever change. 

Contact contributor Will Walker at will.walker@richmond.edu.

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