Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify a student's class year at the University of Richmond.
On July 6, an Instagram page called Abolish Richmond Greek life began a movement to abolish Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic Council sororities at the University of Richmond. The page called for the complete removal of these organizations from campus because of their role in perpetuating white supremacy, classism, the patriarchy and sexual violence at UR, according to the Instagram account.
In light of these calls, some leaders and current members of Greek life are working to reform IFC and Panhellenic organizations and their role at the UR.
Choosing to Reform
"For anyone to think that there's no changes that need to be made [to Greek life at UR] is a really naive statement — clearly there's a surplus of things that need to be looked at," senior Lauren Halloran, president of Kappa Alpha Theta, said. "I guess why I'm so passionate about reform versus abolishment is I do think there's some aspects of the system that [are] beneficial."
Halloran said these positive aspects of Greek life, such as mental health resources, had historically benefited a small portion of the UR student body, but she believed it was possible to change the system and extend these benefits to more students.
This sentiment was echoed by senior Ethan Libo, president of Kappa Sigma. Libo joined his fraternity as a first-year because he felt it was inclusive and more diverse than other fraternities he had been to, he said. In joining Kap Sig, he saw an opportunity to make Greek life more inclusive, he said.
"Maybe people say, you know, 'You're just advocating for reform because you don't want to give up the friendships you made as a result of privilege,'" Libo said. "I get those points. But I think, at least in my case because of the way I viewed Greek life when I joined, I really did feel like I was joining already to kind of make a reform. And did I fully live up to that? Maybe not. But I'm going to keep trying."
The belief that Greek life can be reformed for the better was not held by all members of Libo and Halloran's chapters. Four members disaffiliated from Kap Sig in response to the Abolish Greek life movement, leaving 30 active members in the chapter, Libo said.
One woman disaffiliated from Theta in response to the Abolish Richmond Greek life movement, Halloran said.
"I was seeing the numbers for the other sororities -- that there was a lot more disaffiliation and stuff like that, or a lot more of their [executive board] members were stepping down," Halloran said. "So I was a little fearful, like, 'They're going combust and it's going be me trying to fix this with the school.'"
But Halloran said that the fact that members have decided to stay has been inspirational to her.
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"Even though we have 89 members and other chapters might have 60, the level of passion or the level of want to try to salvage the system is still there across the board no matter what the numbers look like."
Vice President of Student Development Steve Bisese said the students who wanted to improve Greek life organizations deserved the opportunity to try.
"A first step is to give people a chance, you know, to see what they can do to improve their organization and see if it's something that shows results," he said. "I just thought it was very positive that [a desire for change] happened when all of these horrible racial incidents happened -- that people looked at themselves and said they wanted to change things, like recruitment and those kinds of things.
"We can see if the reform makes a difference...and if not, then maybe we'll know what we have to do next."
The internal review of Greek life
On Aug. 10, a group of 113 disaffiliated and graduated Panhellenic members sent a statement in support of Greek life abolition to members of UR's administration. In response, Bisese and Alison Keller, director of the Center for Student Involvement, sent a reply announcing "a comprehensive, student-led, internal review of the University’s Greek Life program," to be held during the 2020-21 academic year, according to the Aug. 17 reply obtained by The Collegian.
"This review will focus on listening to student concerns of both the Greek and non-Greek student community, gathering best practices from similar institutions, soliciting cooperation from the national chapter headquarters, and improving practices affecting inclusivity," the reply stated.
The reply also announced that all sorority and fraternity recruitment efforts and in-person sponsored programs and events would be suspended through fall 2020.
"These dedicated efforts provide the important opportunity to pause and examine key elements of Greek life, including recruitment structures," the reply stated.
The internal review and suspension of Greek life activities for the fall semester were also announced in emails to the IFC and Panhellenic chapter presidents, advisers and members, Bisese wrote in an email to The Collegian.
The final number of students who will be involved in the review process is still unknown, Meg Pevarski, associate director of Greek life, wrote in an email to The Collegian on Sept. 25.
Further details and a timeline of the Greek life internal review process were announced in an Oct. 9 email to members of the UR Greek life community from Keller, which was obtained by The Collegian. The Collegian could not confirm whether all members of the Greek life community were sent this email.
The Oct. 9 email wrote that an outside agency would be used to conduct a community assessment and provide data analysis for the review. It also wrote that the review committee and facilitators would consult with UR personnel in areas that may include Title IX, risk management, chemical health, peer education, diversity and inclusion as well as people external to UR such as national headquarters staff and professionals at other institutions.
Bisese acknowledged that people might be concerned that administrative bias could affect the recommendations of the internal review committee. To address this concern, he decided that he and the CSI staff will remain as consultants to the review process and will not be involved in the day to day process, he wrote.
"I want the recommendations to be free of the perception that I/we are biasing the process or determining which areas to address with regard to reform," he wrote. "We will provide the outlines for the process and take a back seat."
As consultants to the review process, CSI staff will assist in establishing meeting times and preparing and/or providing requested documents, Bisese wrote in an email to The Collegian.
Two professionals external to the Division of Student Development and CSI will serve as facilitators to the review, according to the Oct. 9 email. Bisese hopes to find individuals who are unbiased and experienced in higher education and student affairs to fill these roles, he said.
Besides the facilitators, the internal review committee will be comprised of students.
There will be representation of all fraternity and sorority chapters as well as representation from non-fraternity and sorority affiliated students on the committee, Pevarski wrote. IFC and Panhellenic chapter representatives will be chosen through recommendations by their advisors or peers, she wrote.
Outside of IFC and Panhellenic chapter representatives, the review committee will include representatives from the National Pan-Hellenic Conference, recognized UR student organizations and unaffiliated students, the Oct. 9 email wrote.
Theta leadership has selected three members to represent Theta on the review committee, Halloran said. Kappa Delta has also chosen three members to sit on the review committee, said junior India Patel, incoming president of KD. Ellie Watson, president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, also sent names to CSI of several students from her chapter who are passionate about reform and would represent Kappa well in the review, she said.
Requests for nominations for committee members have also been sent to offices and student organizations outside of Greek life, Bisese said.
The review committee and facilitators will submit a detailed action plan to Bisese and Keller by Oct. 30 for review, the Oct. 9 email stated. Final draft recommendations will be due to Bisese and Keller by Apr. 1, with a possible extension until Apr. 15, the email stated. Following this process, CSI staff will review the feasibility of recommendations and define implementation strategies during the summer of 2021, the email stated.
Reactions to the Internal Review
Senior Maggie Castelli, former Panhellenic Council president and one of the writers of the Aug. 10 abolition statement to UR administration, was disappointed by Bisese and Keller's Aug. 17 reply to the statement, she said. Castelli criticized the decision to only send the reply to students in Greek life because it had left the non-Greek life-affiliated part of the UR community out of the conversation.
Castelli said she thought the original response from CSI was vague. After they received the reply, Castelli and the other writers of the statement replied to CSI on Aug. 18 with clarifying questions about the review process but received no response, she said.
On Sept. 24, junior Zena Abro, another writer of the Aug. 10 abolition statement, reached out to Keller again asking for a response to their questions, Castelli said. Keller responded on Sept. 28 and asked to meet with Abro in person, Castelli said.
On Oct. 6, Bisese met with Abro and Castelli to address their questions about the internal review. At this meeting, they discussed details of the process and Bisese's perspectives about why reform is a more logical first step than abolishment, Castelli said. Keller was not present at the meeting, she said.
"Since it was the first time that we had really gotten to meet with administration to discuss this, it was pretty intense, it was pretty tough," Castelli said. "But we were glad that we were at least getting conversation started.
"And we really tried to clarify to him that why we felt like this conversation was so frustrating and explosive is because we had been having these conversations since July and this was the first time we had had the chance to converse with him."
Castelli also said that she was frustrated that the internal review seemed to be aimed at improving Greek life and that abolishment did not seem to be in the question. She is also concerned that the voices of people who want to abolish Greek life will be excluded from the committee because those in favor of abolishment are not looking to improve Greek life, but instead get rid of it, she said.
"That was a little bit frustrating because all of these calls have not been for Greek life to improve itself, but for Greek life to cease to exist on our campus," she said.
Halloran thinks having voices from outside of the IFC and Panhellenic organizations in conversations about reform is valuable, she said.
"There's a lot of things that I didn't know people felt or were occurring [that] have been huge points on how we're looking at how to change," Halloran said. "If they have representation across the board, I think it's a super valuable space to have conversation."
Libo said he saw the review as a good first step, but he also thought the success of the review relied on the dedication of chapter members.
"The only way it will work is if all the individual chapter members decide this is something they're going to buy into," he said. "But I think what's been set up itself, like the review and the reforms that are gonna be proposed by the end of it, I think those are all things that can work to reform the system. But it's still predicated on everyone buying into it."
A Movement within a Pandemic
As the Abolish Richmond Greek Life movement took hold on Instagram over the summer, CSI was tagged in post after post as students asked for a response to the movement from UR administration. Many comments on such posts show student frustration and anger with CSI and other members of UR administration for failing to respond to the calls for abolition.
"I do think there was a delay [in response]," Watson said. "When the account was created, I think everyone kind of started these conversations, and I think [the administration] was kind of late to understanding the magnitude of it. But I will say that I think they are definitely trying to take a more active role in it now."
Bisese said he had been doing his best to respond to the movement while also responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bisese understands if people felt like UR administration's response was not fast enough, he said.
"During the time when this was going on, we were trying to still get people home to their countries," Bisese said. "We were going through the COVID, so I wanted to put it in its place in terms that we didn't even know if we were going to be able to open and how we were going to open."
Libo said the abolition movement starting through social media could have been a factor that affected the administration's response or people's perceptions of the administration's response.
"I feel like there was probably just, kind of, this sentiment that because it was online it hadn't really materialized, but I think it was quite the opposite," Libo said. "And I think they've realized that now, and that's why they've suspended all Greek life for the semester and are doing an internal review."
For Bisese, the social media element of the movement added challenges, but it did not stop him from responding, he said.
"You can't necessarily hold that everything that's posted on social media is true until you investigate it, as with any statement," he said. "But there was enough there for me to know that it's something that we need to respond to and need to act to, which we did. When it felt like it was the right time, when we had enough information, we did respond."
The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected Greek life-affiliated students' responses to the Abolish Richmond Greek Life movement. For senior Andrew McCollough, president of Lambda Chi Alpha, the pandemic has made it difficult to make progress in reform efforts.
"[Lambda Chi has] tried to have some actionable solutions, but given the circumstances of the pandemic, it's kind of hard to meet as a group in person," he said. "The good thing is we keep talking about it, you know, we're not letting it fall to the side."
Lambda Chi has also been trying to increase its philanthropy to be better community members, McCollough said. The chapter's current initiative is raising money for The Trevor Project, a non-profit focused on suicide prevention efforts aimed toward LGBTQ+ youth, according to Lambda Chi's Instagram account.
The Collegian only received acceptances of its requests for interviews with IFC fraternities from members of Lamba Chi and Kap Sig. The Collegian was also unable to get in contact with current members of Delta Gamma and Pi Beta Phi.
Although COVID-19 precautions and guidelines create some challenges for meetings, Watson thinks the pandemic also provides a unique opportunity, she said.
"Obviously, this whole semester is nothing like we thought it would be, so I'm disappointed that we can't do regular events in general," Watson said. "But I do think that it's kind of a good time to ... take advantage of the pause, and sit down and have these discussions that we really haven't had before."
Contact multimedia editor Nina Joss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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